(1943) Fats Waller - Reefer Song(1940) Herb Morand & Albert Burbank with George Lewis' Band - If You're A Viper(1938) Rosetta Howard and the Harlem Hamfats -If You're a Viper(1937) Bob Howard - If You're A Viper(1936) Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys - You'se a ViperIf You're a Viper
"If You're a Viper" (sometimes titled "If You'se a Viper") is a jazz song written by Stuff Smith in 1929 and originally recorded by Smith and his Onyx Club Boys in 1936.
The song was a hit for Smith 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. 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.
The song captures some of the slang and culture surrounding marijuana smoking in the US jazz scene in the 1920s and 1930s. "Vipers" were pot smokers, the slang suggested by the serpentine look on one's face as he dragged hard on a joint and the underground, slightly dangerous connotations of the pastime. Or as 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."
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 to 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." 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."Fats Waller Sticks it to Anslinger
Waller's 1943 recording of the song (titled "The Reefer Song" in its eventual release) was a subtle poke at Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who had declared marijuana use by swing musicians a menace and had promised to prosecute. During World War II it was harder to get American albums pressed, because of a shellac shortage created by the war effort. But in 1943 Armed Forces Radio frequently invited jazz musicians to play for the troops overseas and made "V-Discs" ("Victory Discs") for distribution as a morale booster.
Waller recorded a V-Disc a little over two-weeks after Anslinger vowed to go after pot-smoking musicians (he and others believed that some musicians were deliberately smoking marijuana to obtain "drug addict" deferments to avoid the draft). Waller decided to use the occasion as a way to reflect his puckish contempt for the man. "The reefer cats were aware of their outcast status; in fact, they seemed to relish it. They had created a self-contained culture, and squares like Anslinger were no match," Larry Sloman writes in Reefer madness: the history of marijuana in America. "This brash disdain for the square world's imperatives was nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in the conduct of Fats Waller."
In response to Anslinger's calls for "swing band" arrests Waller decided to record "If You're a Viper," and included an intro that threw only the thinnest of veils over the song's subject. "Hey, cats, it's four o'clock in the mornin'. I just left the V-Disc studio. Here we are in Harlem. Everybody's here but the police, and they'll be here any minute. It's high time, so catch this song," Waller says. "The gumshoes at the Bureau and the Army brass let that one slip right by them, but the guys in the barracks caught the drift, especially those stationed in the Phillippines, where the weed was said to be excellent," Sloman writes.
Strong evidence, however, suggests Sloman is wrong that the tune slipped past the censors and it seems likely the recording didn't become public until after the war. An article in Goldmine, a magazine for record collectors, says the army did not press the Viper recording for release to the troops. "Ain't Misbehavin'" got pressed, but not "You're A Viper (The Reefer Song)," it says. The article goes on to quote the sound engineer for the session, Ed DiGiannantonio: "We did the session with Fats Waller... When he first got to the studio, he demanded a bottle of VAT-69, which is not hair tonic. And he started playing the piano, and he was okay for a while. Then he consumed the second bottle, and out of the 22 songs, we only used about 8 or 9 of them, because he got very sloppy and started using a few words you shouldn't use." Duty, Honor, Applause, a book about US entertainers during WWII, also strongly implies that Viper didn't make the cut. "Jazz legend Fats Waller recorded 22 songs for V-Discs, but only nine were deemed usable. Censors thought the other thirteen "too risque for for young GI's ears,' wrote Gregory Spears in a December 23, 1990, article for the Houston Chronicle. Waller plied himself with a bottle of Vat-69 Scotch during each recording session, and the drunker he got, the more suggestive his songs became. His last recordings... included "The Reefer Song," an ode to marijuana."Source