Article by Edward Dodge, Merry Jane
The history of marijuana in America is also a history of American popular music.
Cannabis medicines and hashish were sold openly in the United States in the 1800s, though consuming them recreationally was a relatively obscure vice. The practice of smoking cannabis as marijuana in cigarette form came to the U.S. in the early 1900s when it was brought across the southern border by Mexican immigrants while also being imported from the Caribbean by ship. White culture did not embrace marijuana; its use was considered low-class and it was associated with blacks, Mexicans, and criminals. It was prohibited as soon as it became prominent.
While the name “marijuana” came from Mexico, it was in New Orleans, in the red light district of Storyville, where the connection between American popular music and cannabis got its start. Black musicians working in the brothels, aided by reefer and out of sight from white folks, began to experiment with rhythm, time, and improvisation, creating a new form of music called jazz.
Jazz music is known for its free-form improvisational style and loose comradery among the players who encourage one another to stretch and experiment. Marijuana contributed psychologically by its effect of shifting the perception of time and also by the warm, social, conviviality it encourages compared to the harshness so often brought out by alcohol.
Louis Armstrong, the father of jazz music, was born in Storyville in 1901 and was a lifelong user of marijuana. “We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor,” Armstrong said in his biography.
Armstrong also said, “it makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship. “