March 11, 2012

Cocaine blues

In the 1920s a drug economy had emerged in the United States that profited mostly from cocaine and heroin distribution. In 1922 the 67th United States Congress passed the Jones-Miller Act, which provided fines of up to $5,000 and prison sentences for up to 10 years for any individual found guilty of the unlawful importation of narcotics. Like all drug laws the legislation had little influence upon the drug marketplace except to increase the price of heroin and cocaine. (1)  In Memphis, Tennessee, cocaine was sold in neighborhood drugstores on Beale Street, costing five or ten cents for a small boxful and stevedores along the Mississippi River used the drug as a stimulant. Blues historian William Barlow suggests that white employers actually encouraged its use by black laborers. (2)

'Cocaine Blues' is a beautifully performed and recorded Piedmont blues style tune by Luke Jordan from 1927. Recorded by the Victor label in Charlotte, North Carolina. 'Cocaine Blues' is one of only 12 known recordings by Jordan. The other track recorded during that session, possibly the moral reprise of the A-side drug tale, was 'Church Bell Blues'. (3)

'Cocaine Blues' LUKE JORDAN, August 1927. Victor

It is hard to say whether Jordan was responsible for the songs' lyrics although I can find no other references to the song prior to his recording. It is the lyrics that make this first cocaine song my favourite:
Now, go on gal, don–cha take me for no fool,
 I’m not gonna quit you, pretty mama, while the weather’s cool,
 Around your back door, says honey, I’m goin’ to creep,
 As long as you make those, two–and–a–half a week.

Now, I’ve got a girl she works in the white folks’ yard,
 She brings me meal, I can swear she brings some lard,
 She brings me meat, she brings me lard,
 She brings me everything, I swear, that she can steal.

Now, Barnum ’n Bailey Circus, it came to town,
 They had a e’phant lookin’ good and brown,
 They didn’t know it’s against the law,
 For the monkey to stop at a five drug store,
 Just around the corner just a minute too late,
 Another one standin’ at the big back gate,
 I’m simply wild about my good cocaine.

 I called my Cora, Hey, Hey, —+—
 She come on sniffin’ with her nose all sore,
 The doctor swore, “I’m gonna sell no more.“
 Saying, run doctor, ring the bell,
 The women in the alley,
 I’m simply wild about my good cocaine.

 Now, there’s furniture men come to my house,
 It was – last Sunday morn,
 He asked me was my wife at home,
 An’ I told them – long gone,
 He backed his wagon up to my door,
 Took everything I had,
 He carried it back to the furniture store,
 An’ I swear that I did feel sad.
What in the world has anyone got,
 Dealin’ with the furniture man?
 If you’ve got no dough, it’s certain for sure,
 He certainly wouldn’t back your plan,
 He will take everything from an earthly plant,
 From a skillet to a frying pan,
 If it ever was a devil born without any horns,
 It must have been a furniture man.

I called my Cora, Hey, Hey, —+—
 She come on sniffin’ with her nose all sore,
 The doctor swore, “I’m gonna sell no more.”
 Sayin’ coke for horses, not women nor men,
 The doctor says it’ll kill you but he didn’t say when,
 I’m simply wild about my good cocaine.

Now the babies in the cradle in New Orleans,
 They kept on whiffin’ till they got so mean,
 They kept on whiffin’, had the sickness and sores,
 The doctor swore, “I’m gonna sell no more.”
 Sayin’, run doctor, ring the bell,
 The women in the alley,
 I’m simply wild about my good cocaine.(4)

Jordans happy go lucky delivery belies the rather dark picture he paints of the results of cocaine addiction, culminating in the final two verses describing the singers addicted girlfriend's sore nose and the doctors admission that coke will eventually kill her. The "coke for horses" line has passed into numerous variants of this song (Reverend Gary Davis, Bob Dylan) but I can't find any definitive statement about using cocaine in horses either as a veterinary practice or as a stimulant to make race horses run faster. The last verse offers a harrowing description of babies born with cocaine addictions in New Orleans!

'Cocaine' by Dick Justice is pretty much a verse-for-verse cover of the Jordan track. Justice was a white performer from West Virginia who recorded ten songs for Brunswick Records in Chicago in 1929. Justice had been a coal miner in West Virginia and it is likely he picked up the song from Jordan himself who played around Lynchburg, Virginia. Interestingly, Justice didn't change the only racial reference in the song "Now, I’ve got a girl she works in the white folks’ yard" but did swap out "Barnum ’n Bailey" for "Vaudeville". Watch the video below for a bit more background on Dick Justice.

'Cocaine' Dick Justice, 1928

'Cocaine Habit Blues' was recorded by the Memphis Jug Band in 1929. The Memphis Jug Band was one of the most recorded  bands of this period with over 100 sides between 1927 and 1934, and were one of the most popular of the jug bands to spring up in Memphis in the 1920s. Their track suggests cocaine use was going "out of style" (whatever that means) being replaced by a heroin chic? ...

"Since cocaine went out of style,
You can catch them shooting needles all the while
Hey, hey, honey take a whiff on me"

'Cocaine Habit Blues' THE MEMPHIS JUG BAND, 1929. Victor

Charley Patton's take on cocaine use and abuse is portrayed in the wonderful, 'A Spoonful Blues' recorded in 1929. The song actually doesn't use the word cocaine, instead referring to the small spoons used to snort cocaine with but which could also refer to the preparation of heroin or cocaine by melting it into water in a spoon above a flame for injection. Patton is also playing with a double entrendre here - the spoonful of lovin'. This openness of interpretation is skilfully enhanced by Patton's musical representation of the words 'spoonful' with a perfectly bended note:
(spoken: I'm about to go to jail about this spoonful)
In all a-spoon, about that spoonful
The women going crazy, every day in their life about a ... (guitar notes)

It's all I want, in this creation is a... (guitar notes)
I go home (spoken: wanna fight!) about a... (guitar notes)
Doctor's dying (way in Hot Springs)
About a... (guitar notes)
These women going crazy every day in their life about a... (guitar notes)

Would you kill a man dead? (spoken: yes, I will!) just about a... (guitar notes)
Oh babe, I'm a fool about my... (guitar notes)

'A Spoonful Blues' Charley Patton, June 14, 1929.

Huddie Lebbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was recorded twice (1933, 1934) by John and Alan Lomax while serving time in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana. In both sessions he performed 'Take A Whiff on Me'. Leadbelly's cocaine song can be lyrically traced back to Jordan's song with inclusion of the line:
Cocaine's for horses and not for men
Doctors sat t'will kill you but they don't say when.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.
'Take A Whiff On Me' Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), 1934. Lomax.


  1. Cannabis use in the United States: Implications for policy. In: Peter Cohen & Arjan Sas (Eds) (1996).
  2. Barlow, William. "Looking Up At Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture. Temple University Press (1989), p. 207
  3. Luke Jordan discography, Stefan Wirz.
  4. Cocaine Blues transcribed by Mike Ballantyne. 


Anonymous said...

Any clue what the line, "run doctor, ring the bell -- women in the alley" means? This has puzzled me for many years. I'm interested in any insights you care to share. Thanks!


Countrymike said...

Yea, that is a curious line. The song suggests in a few places that doctors were selling cocaine, possibly from back doors to their practices? I sort of took the "women in the alley" to mean prostitutes, and possibly also another place to get cocaine from.

Anonymous said...

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