By Ken Magri
In past decades there have been many songs written about cannabis. But there have also been songs alleged to be about cannabis that were really about other things.
Peter, Paul and Mary’s classic “Puff the Magic Dragon” was simply about a boy and his imagination. Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” was really just about two women. But five other songs from the 1960s that actually sang about cannabis tell us so much more about how the illegal drug was viewed at the time.
So, to celebrate 4/20, we suggest you light up a bong, go over to YouTube and give these five numbers a listen.
1. “Wildwood Weed” by Don Bowman, 1964
Don Bowman wrote and recorded this country music parody in 1964 as a tribute to cannabis when most Americans didn’t know that much about the drug. Bowman doesn’t actually sing, but talks in rhythm about two farmer brothers who start chewing a “wildwood flower” that gets them high. They learn how to grow it, process it, smoke it in a corn cob pipe and share it with others who come around. In the end, federal agents arrive and haul it all away. The brothers wave goodbye to the feds while “sitting on that big old sack of seeds.”
“Wildwood Weed” didn’t take off in 1964. But in 1974, country singer Jim Stafford made it a crossover hit during a time when cannabis was gaining more social acceptance. Stafford reworked the lyrics a bit, removing lines about sharing the weed with friendly folks who could smell it from 50 miles away.
Stafford’s cover of “Wildwood Weed” made the US Top 40 list, peaked at #57 on country music charts and #2 on Canadian adult contemporary charts. Although it was banned from several AM radio stations for its vague reference to cannabis, Stafford’s affable song helped to soften up harsh attitudes about the drug.
2. “Mary Jane” by Janis Joplin, 1965
Before Janis Joplin became a rock icon in San Francisco, she was a young woman from Port Arthur, Texas, influenced by blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Lead Belly.
In 1964, a year after hitchhiking to San Francisco, Janis wrote a song about cannabis and employed an old slang term for the title, “Mary Jane.” The song was recorded only once at a live venue and never released during her lifetime, but can now be found on You Tube.
Janis sings “Mary Jane” in a distinctive blues style that reminds one of older black entertainers who sang about the drug in the 1930s, before it was made illegal. Some have even mistaken Janis’ voice on “Mary Jane” for Bessie Smith.
“Oh, when I’m feelin’ lonesome and I’m feelin’ blue,
There’s only one way to change.
Now I walk down the street now lookin’ for a man,
One that knows my Mary Jane,
Mary Jane, Mary Jane, lord my Mary Jane.”
3. “Got to Get You into My Life” by The Beatles, 1966
This perky song about a new love was released on the Beatles “Revolver” album. Paul McCartney admitted years later that it was really his cleverly disguised love song about cannabis.
Paul said that Bob Dylan and his roadie got the fab four stoned in New York in 1964. “We were introduced to it in the US, and it blew our tiny little minds,” said McCartney. “We thought ‘wow, this is pretty amazing, this stuff. It became part of our repertoire from then on.”
But Paul wanted the song’s true meaning to be his little secret. “Only I would know I was talking about pot…It was just ‘I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there.’”
When “Revolver” came out in the fall of 1966, the most drug-sounding song was John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which drew inspiration from LSD, Timothy Leary and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. After hearing “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, whose band had been experimenting with drugs for years, said, “That’s when we knew they were on our wavelength.” While Lesh was right about “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he and everyone else missed Paul’s up-tempo ode to his new girlfriend, cannabis.
4. “The Pot Smoker’s Song” by Neil Diamond, 1968
This very strange effort from the writer of Sweet Caroline, stands out primarily because it is an anti-cannabis propaganda song with real drug addict dialogue interspersed between the verses. Diamond starts out with a fun, bouncy melody to sarcastically sing with others:
“Pot, pot, gimme some pot
Forget what you are
You can be what you’re not
Do, do take a family cruise
You with your grass,
Mom and Dad with their booze.”
Between each verse, former teenage heroin addicts from Ney York City’s Phoenix House explained how cannabis was the gateway that led to more drug abuse and ruined their lives.
“I was at a party and I got very sick from speed, from meth. And I used to shoot it in my spine, and I used to shoot acid in my spine. I had too much,” says one.
“I have two older sisters, they’re twins, and the three of us used to compete for my father’s love. And I always felt like he loved them more than – like, he used to tell me this, you know. Like, he used to say all the time, ‘you’re not worthy, you’re not as good-looking as your sisters,’ you know? ‘You’re never gonna be anything, no one’s ever gonna love you.'” says a girl.
Another man says, “Now you can walk up the street here about a block and see these same people, as intellectual as I thought they were, using heroin. I can’t see myself ever using it again.”
About this time, here comes Diamond with that refrain again:
“Hip, hip, you wanna be hip
You’re no one at all
If you don’t take a trip”
Is there some side-splitting irony to this odd and unconvincing anti-pot song? Yes. While Diamond was performing in Las Vegas in 1976, the Los Angeles police raided his Bel Air home and confiscated less than a half ounce of cannabis. But Diamond was allowed to attend a drug-diversion program that expunged the possession of marijuana conviction.
It is not surprising, however, that Diamond would come to regret releasing “The Pot Smoker’s Song.” Years later he told Rolling Stone, “Part of me is rebellious, and part of me will do something like that just to say, ‘Hey, fuck you.’ That’s all it is. Fortunately, that side of me doesn’t come out too often.”
Diamond also admitted that the whole episode “confirmed a lot of people’s feelings that I wasn’t hip.”
5. “Don’t Bogart Me” by Fraternity of Man, 1968
The Los Angeles based Fraternity of Man evolved from a folk rock group called The Factory and featured musicians who earned later fame with other bands; Lowell George with the Mothers of Invention, Richard Hayward with Little Feat, Warren Klien with Iggy Pop and Elliott Ingber with Captain Beefheart.
Released in 1968, “Don’t Bogart Me” had a distinct Bakersfield sound, with a steel guitar and a honky-tonk piano. In its scant lyrics, a friend implores another friend to stop hogging a preroll (“Don’t bogart that joint”) and pass it over. As the joint becomes a roach in the next verse, “That one’s just about burned to the end,” he asks his friend to “roll another one, just like the other one.”
“Don’t Bogart Me” was included on the soundtrack for Dennis Hopper’s 1969 biker film “Easy Rider.” The exposure did nothing for the band, which broke up after only two albums. But the song’s slow tempo and lyrics were so universally understood by cannabis smokers, that “Don’t Bogart Me” became an instant pot anthem for the 1970s.
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