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Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana

Martin A. Lee

Award-winning investigative journalist Martin A. Lee takes us on an entertaining and informative ride through the complex landscape of the Great American Pot story.

Excerpted from Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana - Medical, Recreational and Scientific by © Martin A. Lee (footnotes omitted). Published by Scribner. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.


Black and Blue

Every Sunday in early nineteenth-century New Orleans, slaves gathered by the hundreds at Congo Square for an afternoon of song and dance. Uncoupled, limbs akimbo, some naked but for a sash around the torso, they gyrated to the beat of the bamboulas, the yowl of the banzas, shuffling, gliding, trance-stepping, crouching (a position that signifies vitality in Congolese culture), and mimicking the cries of animals. Some wore garments ornamented with ribbons, feathers, little bells, and shells. The dark-complexioned dancers were surrounded by men, women, and children “patting Juba,” an African-derived technique for tapping rhythmically against parts of the body—striking their thighs, their chests, chanting, clapping their hands while others played drums, gourds, tambourines, makeshift marimbas, and banjo-like instruments.

The Sunday swoon in Congo Square, or Place des Nègres, as it was also called, provided a much-needed respite from the dehumanizing grind of plantation capitalism. This rite was reenacted on a regular basis until slave-owners began to suspect that the complex percussive beats were sending secret, subversive messages to restive blacks. Several years before the civil War, African drumming was prohibited throughout the South. But music persisted as an indelible aspect of the dynamic cultural legacy transmitted across the ocean and passed along to generations of slaves and their descendants. From the African dances of the old days would come the driving energy of modern jazz.

Today Congo Square is an open area within Armstrong Park, so named in honor of the jazz marvel, born and bred in New Orleans, who gained fame initially as a horn player and later as a vocalist, a musical ambassador, and a character of epic proportions. Although he lacked formal musical training, Armstrong rearranged the sonic terms of American popular culture and his innovations reverberated far and wide. More than anyone else, he taught the world to swing. Known affectionately as “Satchmo” and “Pops” to millions of adoring fans, he was a huge international celebrity. Before Bob Marley, before Muhammad Ali, Louis Armstrong was the original black superstar.

Armstrong grew up dirt poor, a shy, fatherless child who picked food out of garbage cans and ran errands for pimps and whores. Initially, he was raised by his grandmother, a former slave, in a country where black people were still considered less than fully human. American apartheid was imposed by vigilante terrorism and Jim Crow legislation that codified racial inequality. Armstrong not only had to ride at the back of the trolley like all African Americans in pigment-conscious New Orleans, he bore the brunt of additional prejudice because his skin was very dark.

For Armstrong, music was a siren call leading him out of misery. As a young man, he joined the great exodus of African Americans from the South who migrated to Chicago and other northern industrial cities in the 1920s, seeking jobs and a better life. Some bands in Chicago rejected Armstrong because his skin was so dark. But he was readily welcomed into the fraternity of marijuana-smoking musicians—the vipers—who gigged in the Windy city. During a break between sets at the Savoy Ballroom, the trumpet maestro inhaled his first stick of “gage,” one of the preferred nicknames for cannabis in jazz circles. He liked the sweet smell and taste. It calmed his nerves and lifted his spirits. “I had myself a ball,” he effused, adding: “it’s a thousand times better than whisky.”

Thus began Armstrong’s enduring romance with “Mary Warner.” From then on, he smoked reefer daily, and it didn’t appear to compromise his musical dexterity or work ethic (three hundred concerts a year—no slacker was he). Pops swore by cannabis and often touted the benefits of the herb, telling jokes, jiving, proselytizing, and kidding endlessly with his cohorts. “We all used to smoke marijuana,” a wistful Armstrong recounted years later. “Yeah, it’s a thrill to think back to those beautiful times and wonderful cats who congregated to light up some of that good shuzzit, meaning, good shit.”

Stoned solidarity, the healing balm of community—smoking grass made Satch feel like he was one of the gang. “That’s one reason we appreciated pot, as y’all calls it now, the warmth it always brought forth from the other person,” said Armstrong, who confided: “It makes you feel wanted, and when you’re with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.”

Armstrong made a point of blowing gage before he performed and recorded, and he encouraged his band members to get high with him. In December 1928, he recorded “Muggles,” another slang for Satchmo’s drug of choice and his best-known reefer tune. Showcasing solos by several musicians who passed the bluesy melody around like a burning marijuana cigarette—from piano to trombone to clarinet to soaring trumpet—this landmark instrumental signaled the transformation of jazz into an improvisatory art form with wide-open opportunities for individual expression. No one had ever made music like this before. The compilation known as the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, which included “Muggles,” had tremendous popular appeal and established Armstrong’s reputation as a jazz genius and one of the most important figures in twentieth-century music.

“If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out,” said Pops, who took Hollywood by storm, dazzling the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and other cinema stars who flocked to see the jazz avatar, their ears avid for Armstrong. The Marx Brothers also shared a fondness for Satchmo’s favorite herb. Groucho Marx got his nickname from a so-called grouch bag he wore around his neck. “in this bag, we would keep our pennies, our marbles, a piece of candy, a little marijuana,” Chico quipped.

Armstrong himself appeared in some sixty films—singing, scatting, blowing his horn, and mugging for the camera. He was the first black American to be featured in A-list movies. His songs were broadcast every day on radio and listened to throughout the world. But Satchmo’s fame did not always protect him from the cops.

In November 1930, Pops got popped by two Los Angeles narcs while smoking with Vic Berton, a white drummer, in the parking lot of the new Cotton Club. “Vic and I were blasting this joint, having lots of laughs and feeling good, enjoying each other’s company,” Armstrong recalled, when “two big healthy Dicks came from behind a car nonchalantly and said to us, ‘We’ll take the roach, boys.’”

Both musicians spent nine days in the Downtown Los Angeles jail awaiting trial for marijuana possession. They were each convicted and sentenced to six months in prison and a thousand-dollar fine. Strings were pulled and the judge was persuaded to suspend the sentences with the proviso that Armstrong leave California.

Although rattled by his close encounter with law enforcement, Armstrong continued to smoke pot for the rest of his life with little evidence of ill effect, according to Dr. Jerry Zucker, his personal physician. Armstrong couldn’t understand why his beloved muggles was illegal. “It puzzles me to see Marijuana connected with Narcotics—Dope and all that kind of crap,” he wrote. “It’s actually a shame.”

For Armstrong, cannabis wasn’t just a recreational substance—it was a nostrum, a tonic, an essential element of his life. “We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine,” he stated. Marijuana was part of Satchmo’s overall health regimen. He never used hard drugs or popped pills, preferring to self-medicate with various herbs and home remedies, a custom he learned from his mother, who emphasized the importance of being “physics-minded.” This practice, involving a mixture of African and Southern folk cures, was instilled in Louis during his impoverished childhood. His family was too destitute to see a professional doctor, so his mother would “go out by the railroad tracks, and pick a lot of peppers—grasses—dandelions, etc.,” Armstrong remembered, and “she’d bring it home and boil that stuff and give us kids a big dose of it.”

What exactly did Satchmo mean when he referred to marijuana as a medicine? What, in his case, was cannabis a remedy for? Armstrong said he used reefer to unwind, to relieve stress, to ease the chronic pain of racism. Smoking marijuana helped him deal with the daily humiliation meted out by Jim crow—white society’s relentless, sickening assault on his self-respect. As he told record producer John Hammond: “it makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro.”

Twenty years before Jackie Robinson swung a bat for the Dodgers, Armstrong slipped through whites-only portals, leaving doors slightly ajar behind him. A hero of his race, he became the first African American to host a national radio broadcast in 1937, the same year marijuana was outlawed by the U.S. government. Satchmo was one of few blacks to perform publicly with white musicians. Onstage, he was a megastar, but offstage Armstrong remained a second-class citizen of the United States. He and his band endured the indignities of touring in the South. They were harassed by police and barred from whites-only restaurants, hotels, and bathrooms. White supremacists bombed a theater in Knoxville, Tennessee, while Armstrong was playing for a racially mixed audience. Mob-controlled venues up north posed additional risks. “Danger was dancing all around you back then,” he remarked.

Yet, despite all, Satchmo never abandoned his overriding belief that it’s “a wonderful world.” A few puffs of that good shuzzit helped him live and let live. As his fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie put it, Armstrong “refused to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life.”

Louis Armstrong: "Mary Warner, you sure was
good to me" (courtesy of Frank Driggs collection
/ Getty Images)

In the opening pages of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the nameless narrator lights a reefer and listens to a recording of Louis Armstrong singing, “What did I do to be so black and blue,” a soulful lament that epitomized the plight of African Americans. Armstrong’s voice of musk and cinnamon imbues the lyrics with poignant emotion. Ellison’s protagonist, absorbing the smoke and sound, is propelled into an eerie reverie, a surreal space, the American Dream in blacklight. To be invisible was not just to lack acknowledgment other than scorn from the pale man; it was the fundamental condition of black people in white America.

“Black and Blue” was the centerpiece of Armstrong’s performance at an outdoor concert in Accra, Ghana, in 1956. More than 100,000 people thronged the city stadium on a sweltering afternoon to hear Satchmo sing this song with such intensity that it brought tears to the eyes of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s prime minister, a moment captured on film.

Louis Armstrong, the most visible of invisible men, traveled the world over, but this trip to the gold coast of West Africa was special. When he saw the women of Ghana, he recognized the face of his own mother. “I know it now. I came from here, way back. At least my people did,” Armstrong asserted. “Now I know this is my country, too.”

The prodigal son, the grandchild of a slave, had returned to his ancestral homeland, a land where the ceremonial use of roots and herbs had long been linked to animist spiritual beliefs. A staple of African shamanism, cannabis and other consciousness-altering flora were revered as “sacred plants” that provided access to hidden knowledge and curative powers.

Pollen samples indicate the presence of cannabis in sub-Saharan Africa for at least two millennia. Introduced by overland traders from the Arab Middle east and later by Portuguese seamen traveling from India, the herb quickly spread throughout the continent. Black Africans employed a variety of devices—clay pipes, gourds, bamboo stalks, coconut bowls—for inhaling “dagga,” as marijuana was called by several tribes, who regarded it as a “plant of insight.” According to the Tsongas of southern Africa, “Dagga deepens and makes men wiser.”

Earth-smoking, which entailed sucking cannabis fumes directly through a hole in a dirt mound, was an ancient tradition among Pygmies in the equatorial forest. The Zulus ingested psychoactive hemp via steam baths and enemas in addition to smoking it for pleasure; they also smoked it to boost their courage before going into battle. A Bantu tribe in the Congo dispensed cannabis as a means of punishment—miscreants were compelled to smoke a large quantity of marijuana until they either confessed to a crime or keeled over.

Cannabis had a medicinal reputation in Africa that varied from region to region. Cultivated as a source of fiber as well as for its remarkable resin, the versatile herb served as a remedy for a wide range of ailments, including dysentery, malaria, diarrhea, typhus, and rheumatism. The Hottentots, who applied it as a salve for snakebites, deemed dagga more valuable than gold. Sotho women used marijuana to facilitate childbirth, and Sotho children were fed ground-up hempseed paste while weaning. In West Africa, from whence Armstrong’s ancestors hailed, cannabis was utilized as a treatment for asthma.

The roots of jazz and blues extend back through slavery to the collective rhythmic patterns of indigenous tribes in West Africa, where cannabis had thrived for centuries. Thrown upon bonfires, marijuana leaves and flowers augmented nocturnal healing rituals with drum circles, dancing, and singing that invoked the spirit of the ancestors and thanked them for imparting knowledge of this botanical wonder. it was only natch that Satch, the musical savant and dagga devotee, felt right at home as soon as he set foot on West African soil. “After all,” he explained, “my ancestors came from here, and I still have African blood in me.”

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