“Good blog today, Paul. I got the 1st book this morning. Thanks for all the good info!”
nora j mckiddie (@mckiddie_j), Michigan, USA, October 29, 2013.
many people, you probably thought mentioning drugs in songs started in the
sixties, but – no, no, no – drug references in songs started way earlier. One old
number you’re probably familiar with would be the Cole Porter classic, ‘I Get A
Kick Out Of You, written around 1932 and included in the Broadway show
‘Anything Goes’. Porter’s second verse, as many of you will know, was
|The lyricist’s lyricist, Cole Porter|
had to be changed in 1936 when the ‘Anything Goes’ stage show became a movie
and Hollywood’s 1934 Production Code banned all drug references in films. Cole Porter
effortlessly substituted the offending line with, ‘Some like the perfume in
Spain’. It fitted so perfectly, Porter had no need to rewrite the lines that
followed. Has there ever been a more elegant lyricist?
before that dopey phrase Wacky Backy came along, there was ‘Wacky Dust’ in 1938,
an ode to cocaine by Ella FitzGerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra. Here’s the
link, but you have to wait 72 seconds before Ella kicks in with the lyrics.
|A young Ella FitzGerald|
talking of so-called ‘Wacky Backy’: of a more bluesy feel is the magnificent
‘Reefer Head Woman’ also in 1938 by Bill ‘Jazz’ Gillum and his Jazz Boys. And
what a line up it is: Jazz G on vocals and blues harmonica, Big Bill Broonzy on
rhythm guitar, Washboard Sam on washboard (what else?), and the 16-year old white
guitar sensation, George Barnes, on electric lead. (See the white kid who wrote
the book on electric blues guitar – 12 June archive.) Recorded in March 1938, these
Chicago sessions included the second electric blues guitar recordings ever known
and were produced by the legendary Lester Melrose. Young George Barnes even got
a writing credit on Reefer Head Woman. Have a listen by clicking the link
as a matter of fact, did a great blues version of Reefer Head Woman back in 1979.
|Boy George. Young George Barnes in Chicago c 1938|
into classic blues rock, American-style, it’s well worth a listen on
the following link.
Gillum, incidentally, was the first to record ‘Key To The Highway’ in its now
classic eight bar arrangement, together with Big Bill Broonzy, in 1940. Charles
Seeger recorded it first, also in 1940, but in a 12-bar blues progression.
|Bandleader and harp player Jazz Gillum.|
let’s trawl back to earlier days. Old song lyrics are packed with drug
references that we don’t even realise are drug references today. Cab Calloway’s
famous ‘Minnie The Moocher’ started life as an elegy to smoking opium in 1931.
Minnie was “A red-hot Hoochie Coocher” and if you don’t know what that was, why
not check my 18 September archive. In the original song, cocaine-fiend Smokey
Joe takes Minnie to a Chinese opium den to “kick the gong around”, as they used
to say. (My mother once told me of seeing Chinese opium dens in Limehouse,
London, in the 1930s, so they weren’t confined to America.) In one version of
the song, Minnie dies in an insane asylum, just like real life blues legend
Buddy Bolden died in an insane asylum in 1931, in yet another example of art
|Cab Calloway in his zoot suit|
year earlier, the Memphis Jug Band recorded ‘Cocaine Habit Blues’ based on an
earlier blues about cocaine called “Take a Whiff On Me”, which I remember being
recorded by the raucously brilliant and much copied English jug band, Mungo
Jerry. Indeed, I saw Mungo Jerry make their debut at England’s Hollywood
Festival the previous year where they blew the roof off – or they would have blown
the roof off had the field boasted a roof.
was covering the festival as a young music journalist and Mungo Jerry stole the
show ahead of Black Sabbath (see Brummie Blues – 30 April archive); Traffic;
Ginger Baker’s Air Force; Grateful Dead on their UK debut; Jose Feliciano (see
the most surprisingly brilliant blues guitarist I ever saw – 24 June archive) and
many other big names.
a Whiff On Me was also the forerunner to Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Have a Drink On Me’,
which is, today, probably the better known
|Memphis Jug Band cut Cocaine Habit Blues in 1927|
song. Incidentally, Mungo Jerry’s
massive worldwide hit, ‘In The Summertime’, released during the Hollywood
Festival in May 1970, was the world’s first 33rpm maxi-single. Number one on
the charts in over 20 countries, In The Summertime sold over 30 million copies,
making it one of the best selling singles (even though it was a maxi-single) of
once again, I digress. Now, where was I. Oh yes, talking about Take a Whiff on
Me. Here are some of Lead Belly’s lyrics for the song, recorded in 1934.
|The legendary Lead Belly. His song is to the right|
‘horses’ verse above is also included in my favourite version of the song, Luke
Jordan’s ‘Cocaine Blues’ recorded in 1927 in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s
marketed as a guitar ragtime and is a great example of how Piedmont-style finger
picking from the eastern USA also influenced the blues. And what a voice Luke has. Here it is:
of favourites, whenever I get the chance I wax lyrical about the fantastic
Lonnie Johnson. To me, Lonnie is the most
influential blues guitarist who ever lived (see 17 June archive). Below is a link of Lonnie,
on acoustic guitar, with composer and vocalist, Victoria Spivey, on ‘Dope Head
Blues’ also recorded in 1927.
|Lonnie and Victoria in their later years|
Just give me one more sniffle
Another sniffle of that dope (sung twice)
I’ll catch a cow like a cowboy
And throw a bull without a rope
Doggone, I’ve got more money
Than Henry Ford or John D. ever had (sung twice)
I bit a dog last Monday
And forty doggone dogs went mad
Feel like a fightin’ rooster
Feel better than I ever felt (sung twice)
Got double pneumonia
And still I think I got the best health
Go get my airplane and drive it up to my door
|A younger Victoria Spivey|
Oh, Sam, go get my airplane
And drive it to my door
I think I’ll fly to London
These monkey men makes mama sore
The President sent for me
The Prince of Wales is on my trail (sung twice)
They worry me so much
I’ll take another sniff and put them both in jail.
is, I imagine, the American industrialist and billionaire John D. Rockefella;
the President in 1927 was Calvin Coolidge, and the Prince of Wales would later become
the English King Edward V111 who abdicated the British crown to marry American
divorcee, Mrs Wallace Simpson. Far be it for me to say I’ve read that Edward
and Mrs Simpson liked a snort or two of the marching powder themselves, as the
composer suggests, but who in high society didn’t in those days?
reference I’ve come across to Monkey Men/Man, nearly 40 years before either
the Rolling Stones and Toots and the Maytals mentioned the mythical half man/half beast in
separate songs in 1969.
In the USA, please follow this link: