That Cocaine Has Got All Around My Brain: 5 Classic Cocaine Blues Tunes
After cocaine was criminalized a century ago, in part because of hysteria about its effects on black men, the drug largely vanished from the radar in terms of popular culture. It was only when it returned to the scene in the 1970s as a replacement for freshly banned amphetamines, that pop culture really began to notice the twitchy white powder.
While other rockers—and even a few country artists—had released songs about coke, it was Eric Clapton's 1977 recording of songwriter J.J. Cale's Cocaine that really put the drug back on the map. The crunchy rocker, still regarded as one of Clapton's best, hit #30 on the Billboard charts, not to mention going to #1 in New Zealand and #2 in Australia.
It took the arrival of crack cocaine in the 1980s for Peruvian marching powder to get some attention in black music genres, with Public Enemy's 1988 Night of the Living Baseheads among the first and most well-known songs to address it. Since then, powder or crack cocaine has featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of rap and hip-hop songs.
But while cocaine may have dropped off the mass cultural map after it became an illegal substance, it was still a popular topic in "race records" from the 1920s and beyond. By "race records," we mean songs sung from the pre-civil rights era by black musicians, distributed to black record stores and radio stations, and aimed at black audiences. Cocaine may have gone illegal and underground, but it hadn't gone away in black America. Most of those "race records" were blues, a genre that addresses all kinds of social and moral issues, from bad bosses to bad lovers, from war to poverty, and not one to shy away from addressing the party life, its good times, and its sometimes dire results. Cocaine, its joys, and its evils, was topical, and black musicians were eager to take up the topic. Here are five classic cocaine blues songs from that era:
Cocaine Blues, Luke Jordan (1927)
I called my Cora, hey hey
She come on sniffin' with her nose all sore,
The doctor swore (she's) gonna smell no more
Sayin' coke's for horses, not women nor men
The doctor said it will kill you, but he didn't say when
I'm simply wild about my good cocaine
Based in Lynchburg, Virginia, Piedmont blues guitarist and vocalist Jordan admitted he was "simply wild about my good cocaine," even though his girlfriend Cora was on the verge of a deviated septum from too much snorting, and his now vanished wife had apparently pawned the furniture to feed her habit.
Dope Head Blues, Victoria Spivey (1927)
Just give me one more sniffle
Another sniffle of that dope J
ust give me one more sniffle
Another sniffle of that dope
I'll catch a cow like a cowboy And throw a bull without a rope
The Houston-born Spivey became one of the best known female blues singers of the interwar period, hitting big with her first Okeh Records recording, Black Snake Blues, in 1926, and following up with Dope Head Blues the following year. This is a pretty funny song, introducing the unreliable cokehead narrator. Not only does she claim to be richer than Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller, but "I bit a dog last Monday, and forty doggone dogs went mad" and "I feel better than I ever felt, got double pneumonia and still think I got the best health." And she's showing signs of coke-induced paranoia and grandiose thinking: "The president sent for me, the Prince of Wales is on my trail. They worry me so much, I'll take another sniff and put them both in jail."
Cocaine Habit Blues, Memphis Jug Band (1929)
I love my whiskey, and I love my gin
But the way I love my coke is a doggone sin
Hey, hey, Honey take a whiff on me
The Memphis Jug Band recorded a bunch of sizzling songs in the late 1920s and early 1930s (K.C. Moan, On the Road Again, Stealin' Stealin'), and this rollicking, good-timey tune, replete with kazoos, jugs, and washboards, is a real toe-tapper, too, despite its serious theme. In addition to moaning that "the cocaine habit mighty bad, it's the worst old habit I ever had," and referencing cocaine prohibition—they went to the drugstore and "saw a sign on the window said no more dope"—the tune also alludes to the unintended consequences of drug prohibitions: "Since cocaine went out of style, you can catch them shooting needles all the while." Still, despite bemoaning how bad it is, "It takes a little coke to give me ease, strut my stuff as long as I please."
Cocaine Blues, Rev. Gary Davis (1935)
Send for the doctor and send for 'im quick.
This cocaine has done made me sick.
Cocaine has got all around my brain.
Woke up this mornin' feelin' bad.
Worstest feelin' I ever most had.
Cocaine has got all around my brain.
The blind Piedmont blues guitar whiz, known for his unique multi-vocal voicings, influenced a generation of guitar players, including Stephan Grossman, David Bromberg, Dave Van Ronk, Rory Block, and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. He quit secular music in 1936 and became a preacher, but not before releasing this tale of cocaine-related woe and mayhem. The good reverend seemed to have the habit of improvising lyrics, with different versions on nearly every recording and live performance—most of them bad news. Cocaine got all in his brain and made him fight with his baby and made him sick and worried; it got all up in his baby's brain and made her want to hit him with a chair, hit him with a nine-pound hammer, and shoot him with a .38 revolver; you get the idea. Davis came back to the blues during the blues revival of the 1960s.
Junker’s Blues, Champion Jack Dupree (1940)
Some people call me a junker '
Cause I'm loaded all the time
just feel happy
And I feel good all the time
Some people say I use a needle
And some say I sniff cocaine
But that's the best old feelin' in the world
That I'd ever seen
Say good-bye, good-bye to whiskey Lord and so long to gin
I just want my reefer I just wanna feel high, again
In one of the earliest songs to make the distinction, the New Orleans blues and barrelhouse piano player feels like he's getting a bad rap as a hard drug user when all he wants to do is smoke pot. But that "don't mean nuthin' if I feel good all the time."