Song of the Vipers: That Time Louis Armstrong Got Arrested For Hotboxing

by Kevin

Everybody knows Louis Armstrong. And everybody loves Louis Armstrong.

He has that deep rumbly voice like a gravel truck. He has those trumpet skills. He has the best version of “What A Wonderful World” (second best: Joey Ramone). But what most people are surprised to learn is that not only was Satchmo arrested for possessing marijuana, but that he was part of a huge group of weed enthusiasts in the jazz scene who viewed cannabis as not only a creative tool, but a form of overall wellness maintenance.

They called themselves “the Vipers” – sort of. It wasn’t like a “this meeting of the Vipers shall now come to order, will the secretary please read the minutes of the last meeting” type of thing, though. Even capitalizing the word “viper” is a bit over the top. Really, it was just a loose affiliation of people who liked to smoke a lot of weed.

Back in those days – “those days” in this case being the 1920s and 30s, when Satch and his jazz contemporaries were out in effect – pretty much all musicians were of the punk DIY ethos, getting themselves to the next show by hook or by crook. The interstate highway system was still over a quarter century away. Hitchhiking wasn’t unheard of. And Black people especially had to be ever-vigilant of their surroundings and the nature of the town they were headed to. Jazz musicians were itinerants, and spent a lot of time on the road.

Living on the road ain’t easy. Some nights you might not find a place to bed down. Some nights you might not eat. Other times you might need a bathroom (more accurately, the stuff that’s in a bathroom, and more accurately than that, toilet paper) and you can’t find one. And there was no such thing as power steering or, y’know, any concept of vehicular suspension (see again: the toilet paper thing).

And that’s if you’re white. If you’re Black, all bets are off, especially in the Southern towns where jazz was popular. Black men could be murdered simply because they were in the vicinity of a white woman. Black men could be murdered simply because they spoke to a white person in an insufficiently deferential tone. Black men could be murdered because white people were bored. 

Imagine living in that, and imagine someone handing you a spliff, and imagine how much better that must have made things. Imagine all the people today who smoke weed for depression and anxiety. Now imagine how rampant depression and anxiety would have been in an environment where you could be killed or thrown in jail for the color of your skin, with only the flimsiest of excuses applied for justification. Imagine what a relief weed would be, and how many of you and the people like you would seek it out. 

Hence: The Vipers. On second thought, let’s stick with the capitalization. 

Armstrong said of his and his contemporaries’ cannabis use: “Now, when it came to summing it up, the difference between the vipers and those using dope and all other kinds of drastic stuff, one could easily see who were actually dope addicts. First place they were never clean, and they stays dirty-grimey all the time. Show most addicts a bucket of water and they’ll run like hell to keep it from touching them. But a viper would gladly welcome a good bath, clean underwear and top clothes—stay fresh and on the ball.”

Most white folks and non-musicians at the time were not really aware of the “viper” term, nor any of the other many phrases and slang words guys like Satch used to refer to weed and the smoking thereof. But boy oh boy did they work weed into their songs in interesting ways. 

In this 1933 recording of “Sweet Sue, Just You,” Satch, clearly vibing on some solid sativa, introduces the song as a “viper” song and then trails off as he walks away from the mic – but then turns in a seriously rollicking tune, during which saxophonist Budd Johnson takes a turn at scat-singing, which Armstrong translates. The joke here is that Budd was so stoned that he needed Satch to translate. Long story short: Without weed, there would be no scat. There might not be a Louis. There might not be an Ella. Imagine such a world. 

But Louis Armstrong wasn’t the only one singing the praises of the viper lifestyle. Some musicians, of course, didn’t even sing! The amazing and inspirational Django Reinhardt recorded a fantastic song called “Viper’s Dream,” which has a considerably broader appeal than the stoner rock most of us probably associate with pot these days. The song shifts moods a lot, jumping from tempo to tempo – maybe a little more reminiscent of a jumpy acid trip than the mellow vibe of a cannabis high, but who knows? Maybe pot hit differently back then.

But you can’t go around playing songs about weed all the time without getting some attention from the cops – especially if you’re a Black guy in the 30s. So in 1930, Satch became the first celebrity to be thrown in jail for smoking weed. He and Vic Burton, his drummer, were both arrested in the world-famous Cotton Club in Los Angeles (home of Grassdoor!) and each sentenced to a thousand dollar fine and six months in jail. Luckily he was able to pull some strings and stay out of jail, but it wasn’t easy.

“It was during our intermission at this big nightclub which were packed and jammed every night with all sorts of my fans, including movie stars,” Armstrong said at the time. “Anyway, Vic and I were blasting this joint—having lots of laughs and feeling good enjoying each other’s company. We were standing in his great big lot in front of some cars. Just then two big healthy Dicks (detectives) came from behind a car nonchalantly—and said to us, we’ll take the roach boys.”

Sadly, though, Satch had to give up his medicine because the heat just got to be too much.

“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,” he said at the time. “But with the penalties that came, I for one had to put it down though the respect for [cannabis] will stay with me forever.”

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