Cannabis has a long history in America, but the marriage of music and weed use began in the early 1900s in New Orleans. When jazz was emerging in the 1920s and ‘30s weed was the recreational drug of choice. Louis Armstrong, the father of jazz, said in his biography, “We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor.”
The use of cannabis had a profound effect on the music itself. Jazz, by nature, is very free- form. Musicians play together and encourage experimentation, riffing off of each other to create new sounds and beats. Cannabis not only has a positive effect on social interactions, it changes one's perception of time and encourages musical creativity. Dr. James Munch, a chemist and cannabis expert for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, said “If
you are a musician, you are going to play the [music] the way it is printed on a sheet. But if you’re using marijuana, you are going to work in about twice as much music in between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians.” (Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness)
As jazz music made its way across the country, so did the popularity of cannabis as part of the underground, counterculture scene.In the ‘50s it became popular with beatniks like Allen Ginsburg, Neal Cassady, and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s bluesy, folksy sound has some of the same manifestations of the drug’s influence as jazz. His songs are often long and seemingly rambling, ignoring traditional constructs of timing and rhythm in favor of looser expression.
According to tokelore, Bob Dylan was the first one to get the Beatles high. The story goes that Dylan, on his way to meet the Fab Four for the first time in the Delmonico Hotel in 1964, brought along some bud to share. He assumed they were smokers, as the song “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” contained the refrain “I get high... I get high...” He quickly found out that, while they were drinkers, they had never smoked, and the song lyrics actually said “I can’t hide... I can’t hide...” They decided to give it a shot, and the smoke session helped shape the future of the Beatles’ music. Their next album, Rubber Soul, which John Lennon called “the pot album,” audibly reflects their cannabis use, and is number five in Rolling Stone’s Greatest Stoner Albums.
Around the same time, on the other side of the country, another sesh would change rock and roll forever. Phil Lesh recalls meeting Bob Weir for the first time and smoking together with him and Jerry Garcia, on weed that
Weir had just bought from Neal Cassady. Lesh would go on to join Garcia and Weir, along with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Bill Kreutzmann, to form The Grateful Dead, arguably the most influential band in the convergence of music and cannabis. Not only is their music essentially synonymous with getting high, the Dead worked for decades to push awareness, acceptance, and legalization of our favorite plant.
In 1967, the Haight-Ashbury apartment where the Dead and crew were living was the target of an undercover raid. Unbeknownst to the police, the raid was much less successful than they assumed. Someone had just bought a kilo of Acapulco Gold, which was sitting in a back room. Jerry Garcia was in the front room at a table, cleaning stems and seeds out of a much less desirable batch of American schwag. The cops seized the drugs they saw, but mistakenly assumed that was all the band had in the apartment. They were all thrilled to find the high quality bud safe, sound, and ready to smoke after they made bail. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann recalls the session that followed. “We laid on the second floor upstairs, just all on our backs, and had a big hookah in the middle of the floor, and we surrounded it and proceeded to smoke that whole kilo... You couldn’t tell the difference from the fog in San Francisco and the fog in our house.”
Soon after, the Dead held a press conference rebuking the police for the war on cannabis. Manager Danny Rifkin read from a manifesto: “The arrests were made under a law that classifies marijuana along with murder, rape, and armed robbery, as a felony. Yet almost anybody who has ever studied cannabis seriously and objectively has agreed that marijuana is the least harmful chemical used for pleasure and life enhancement.” They argued that although the use of cannabis was wide- spread among doctors, lawyers, and other members of “mainstream society,” the legal battle was being waged against hippies and the counterculture movement. A few weeks later they held the Marijuana Defense Benefit concert, raising funds to cover the legal fees of those arrested on low level drug charges.
This was hardly the Dead’s sole contribution to cannabis culture. The band and their followers have spent decades traveling the world, and it’s hardly a secret that they brought weed along for the journey. The Dead reportedly commissioned a custom amplifier that had a secret compartment for transport- ing their stash. In each city, as baggies were bought and sold, strains were introduced to new areas, and people could get their hands on flower that was previously unavailable.
Throughout the years, the connection between cannabis use and music has remained strong. Musical psychologist Daniel Levitin explains that because THC disrupts short-term memory, its use enables musicians to connect with their music fully in the moment, zeroing in on the individual notes. This also helps explain why listening to music is so enjoyable when you’re high. You’re suddenly hearing it the way many of the artists intended. Lindsey Buckingham once said, “If you’ve been working on something for a few hours and you smoke a joint, it’s like hearing it again for the first time.”