End of an Era –
Or Birth of a Culture?
Or Birth of a Culture?
Les Paul, inventor of the solid-body electric guitar and multi-track recording, died this week. It is also the 40th anniversary of the festival at Woodstock.
Normally, the death of a noted innovator is marked as the end of an era. But in this case, we have to ask if this week commemorates, not the end of an era, but the coming of age of the marijuana culture.
The early history of marijuana in America is a mystery. The time from about 1900 until 1970 can be called the Dark Ages, with only a few beacons shining out. The main beacons are the El Paso city ordinance of 1912 – the first marijuana prohibition, Anslinger’s testimony to Congress supporting the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, the Life magazine issue on the Beatniks, and the 1968 – 70 hat trick of Monterrey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont. All else is pretty well hidden.
In 1937, Harry J. Anslinger testified that there were less than 100,000 marijuana users in the country, mostly Mexican agricultural workers in the Southwest and Black jazz musicians in a few eastern cities (I am developing strong doubts about Anslinger’s numbers, but that’s a subject for another time). By the middle 1970s, pursuant to the Drug Abuse Control Act of 1970 (which included the Controlled Substances Act), Congress had funded the Monitoring the Future survey, administered by the University of Michigan, and the SAMHSA Household Survey, both trying to determine the levels of drug use in America. Both of these indicated that millions were using marijuana.
What happened in the intervening 40 years that led to a more than ten times increase in the number of users?
The answer to this question is likely to be complex. The period covered World War II, which included a dramatic shifting of the American population as well as economic upheaval and millions of men exposed to military life. Surely, large numbers of those men returned with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was not really recognized until the Vietnamese War era and for which treatment is still under development.
It included the Fifties – that most complex American decade. On the surface it was suburbs, prosperity, television, and the first college generation. Underneath it had the communist witch hunts, the stirrings of the civil rights movement, the growth of psychedelics, and alienation and anomie.
The Sixties added the sexual revolution and the pill, civil rights activism, the war in Viet Nam and protests, and ended with three assassinations. The country seemed to split in two, and the rift has yet to heal.
But music played a large part in the spread of marijuana culture.
The traditional Creation Myth has marijuana spreading from the crews of Mexican and Caribbean ships in the Port of New Orleans to the bordellos of Storyville and then going up the Mississippi to Chicago with musicians like Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong. From there, Mezz Mezzarow, the Pied Piper of Pot, took his sax and some weed to New York in 1927, where he turned Harlem on.
The Creation Myth is true as far as it goes, and it does support Anslinger’s testimony. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Those musicians of the 20s and 30s were a peripatetic bunch. They toured the entire U. S. by train, bus, and car. Louis Armstrong’s only marijuana bust was in LA; Charlie Parker learned about dope and weed while touring by car out of Kansas City.
Detroit Red (later known as Malcolm X) made a living selling reefers to New York musicians in the early- and mid-40s and followed them on tour with his supplies up and down the east coast. His source was the crews of coastal freighters from the Gulf of Mexico berthing in war-time New York.
But the main problem with the Myth is that it leaves out the bluesmen that also spread from the Mississippi to Chicago and Kansas City and also to St. Louis, Houston, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. They carried their music and weed with them, but they also played the early electric guitars that gave Les Paul his inspiration.
During the 20s, 30s, and 40s, music was as segregated as the rest of American society. Separate labels published and distributed “Colored” records and “Colored” radio stations played them. But no one could control the music once it was distributed or aired. White people, especially young ones, listened to Colored music; and by the 50s, some disk jockeys were broadcasting it on “White” stations. By the mid-50s, a few publishers like Sun Records were finding White singers who could sound “Colored” – Elvis was the prime example, and some Black artists like Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Ike Turner were playing to white audiences.
Some of the biggest fans were in England, where the blues, especially, fuelled a new sound by groups like the Yardbirds and the Animals. Rock and Roll was here to stay.
The intelligentsia and the Beats had their jazz; the college crowds, their folk music; and the teens had rock n’ roll. The Civil Rights movement turned gospel and folk into songs of protest and rebellion. They all came together in the new urban youth culture in places like San Francisco and Greenwich Village.
And grown-up American stared in horror at this cuckoo’s egg hatching in its nest: a hatchling whose peeps were amplified by Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls through Marshall amps. This hatchling came of age at Monterrey, Woodstock, and Altamont.
We may never trace the exact sources of the taste for marijuana that blossomed during this time. The causes are multiple and obscure.
We can be sure, however, that the medium through which that taste spread from coast to coast, from rich to poor, from drop-out to Ph.D., was the new evolving music.
Now, excuse me while I go listen to Jimi Hendrix play “The Star Spangled Banner.”