If You'se a Viper - Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys (1936)

Publication Year: 

Image retrieved from songbook1.wordpress.com on February 15th, 2014.
Text retrieved from Wikipedia.org on June 14th, 2014.

"If You're a Viper" (sometimes titled "If You'se a Viper") is a jazz song composed by Stuff Smith. It was first recorded by Smith and his Onyx Club Boys in 1936.

The song was a hit for Smith[1] and is one of the most frequently covered songs about marijuana smoking in American popular music. In its early history the song was identified with Rosetta Howard's 1938 recording and sometimes still is.[2] But Fats Waller's enduring fame has left his recording of the song better remembered today. Waller's track is also a small footnote in the story of Harry J. Anslinger's efforts to prosecute jazz musicians for smoking marijuana during World War II.

Jazz trumpet legend Jonah Jones performed the vocals on the first Stuff Smith recording.[3] The song captures some of the slang and culture surrounding marijuana smoking in the US jazz scene in the 1920s and 1930s. "Viper" was Harlem slang for a pot smoker at the time and the song has numerous marijuana references. Edward Jablonski wrote that the term was inspired "by the hissing intake of smoke"[4] and Russel Cronin wrote, "Conjure the image of the hissing viper for a second: taking a swift, sly suck on a skinny little joint. A viper is a toker, which practically all jazz musicians were, and the viper songs celebrated a new social hero."[5]

Smith's song was not the only one to refer to Viper culture in the 1930s. Waller had a stride-piano piece of his own called Viper's Drag, Sidney Bechet wrote and recorded Viper Mad and Fletcher Allen's Viper's Dream later gained a wide audience when it was recorded by Django Reinhardt in France.[6]

The song's lyrics also point to the way interest in jazz music and black culture more generally were slowly breaking down cultural barriers in early 20th century America. Though later recordings often render the first two lines of the song as Think about a reefer, 5 feet long/Not too heavy, not too strong both Smith's original recording and Fats Waller's more famous 1943 cut have the second line as Mighty Mezz, and not too strong. "Mighty Mezz" refers to Milton Mezzrow, a Jewish saxophone and clarinet player who became enamored with black American culture while playing in the speakeasies of prohibition-era Chicago. The self-described "voluntary negro" moved to Harlem after prohibition ended, and in his early years there was known more for his drug-dealing than his playing. The stronger Mexican marijuana that he introduced to the jazz scene in Harlem came to be known simply as "Mezz."[5] As Mezzrow later put it: "Some of our musician pals used to stick these hip phrases into their songs when they broadcast over the radio, because they knew we'd be huddled around the radio in the Barbeque and that was their way of saying hello to me and all the vipers. That mellow Mexican leaf really started something in Harlem."[7]

[1] Jazz: the essential companion, Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather, Brian Priestley, p. 464, Prentice Hall Press, 1988
[2] Spin Magazine June, 1999
[3] Arnold Shaw, Bill Willard (1998), "Jonah Jones", Let's dance, Oxford University Press
[4] Edward Jablonski (1998), Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues, ISBN 978-1-55553-366-3
[5] The History of Music and Marijuana, Cannabis Culture magazine, Russel Cronin, Sept. 7 2004
[6] Vernon, Paul (2003). Jean 'Django' Reinhardt: a contextual bio-discography 1910-1953. [7] Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 40. ISBN 0-7546-0694-5.
[7] Really the Blues Mezz Mezzrow, Bernard Wolf, pg. 216, 1946