Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson: Dope Head Blues (1927)

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Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson: Dope Head Blues (1927)

When Lou Reed took a bit of flak for writing about street life (drugs, hookers, transvestites) he just picked the wrong idiom. These topics were common enough in literature and pulp fiction, but new to rock music. Dope songs were certainly common in jazz and the blues -- in fact there has been a long tradition of singing about marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

These drugs were familiar in the jazz world and Louis Armstrong (a moderate drinker) was a daily smoker of marijuana right to the end of his life. He even wrote to President Eisenhower saying it should be legalised. In 1932 he recorded Kickin' the Gong Around, laughing throughout.

The history of jazz and blues is littered with songs about marijuana and cocaine: Herbert Payne's Smoke Clouds of 1917; Dick Justice's Cocaine ('28), the Memphis Jug Band's Cocaine Habit Blues ('30), Baron Lee and the Blue Rhythm Band's Reefer Man ('32), Stuff Smith's You'se a Viper of '43 ("I dreamed of a reefer five feet long") . . .

Spivey and Johnson's Dope Head Blues is just part of a long, and often funny, tradition: "Just give me one more sniffle, another sniffle of that dope, I'll catch a cow like a cowboy and throw a bull without a rope . . ."

Can't see Lou Reed as a bull wrangler though. (Cow tippin' maybe though, see here)

For more one-off or unusual songs with an interesting backstory see From the Vaults

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