‘That Funny, Funny Reefer Man:’ Reading Reefer Madness through Jazz Music during the 1930s

 

“Man whats the matter with that cat there?/ Must be full of reefer!/ Full of reefer?!” -Cab Calloway “The Reefer Man” (1932)

During the 1920s and 1930s young Americans of all stripes were mesmerized by a new kind of music: jazz. The jazz movement combined various musical styles like ragtime, blues, folk, and classical music with an improvisational, polyrhythmic flair. Its popularity among African-Americans and American youth raised red flags among the older generation. The music (much like it’s 1950s cousin, rock n’ roll) became a scapegoat for delinquency, sexual depravity, and of course, drug use.

Among these charges, jazz was closely associated with the rise of cannabis use in places like New Orleans, Harlem, and Chicago. Some scholarly arguments about the topic suggest that the emphasis on marijuana overlooked the prevalence of heroin and alcohol use within the jazz community. Others stress that the connection between marijuana and jazz is sound– its use is discussed explicitly in several jazz songs of the 1930s– and the jazz discourse was a direct challenge to the anti-drug contentions of Anslinger and others.

Read more