One toke over the line, sweet Jesus,
One toke over the line...
- Brewer and Shipley, from their album Tarkio1, 1970 (Kama Sutra Records)
Understanding cultural controversies is difficult for an outsider, meaning anybody who isn't part of the movement under discussion. This is true for modern subcultures such as the gamer community, hip hop culture, or trainspotters. You can't really grasp the nuances of their arguments unless you're familiar with the basics of the culture.
The problem is compounded if you throw in temporal distance. It's hard to get a grip on hot cultural issues from 50 years ago – even if you were there at the time. Opinions are territories with shifting boundary lines. Which is why we're going to take a few minutes to unpack the dispute involving the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Vice President Spiro Agnew, Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Musicmakers, and the composers of the catchy 'One Toke Over the Line'.
Let's start with the musicians. If you think they sound like country singers, that's your first mistake. If you expect them to support conservative politicians... well, that would be your second mistake. We need to clear up one thing at the outset: you do know that a 'toke' is a puff of a marijuana cigarette, right?
Brewer and Shipley are a folk-rock or country-rock duo. In 1970, they were known for their guitar skills and social consciousness. They opposed the Vietnam War, for example. They have amassed an impressive discography over the years.
Back in the day, the two musicians were not above recreational use of marijuana. The smoking of marijuana was illegal in all states at that time, which didn't mean the practice wasn't common. Smoking marijuana was often seen as a form of protest against what was perceived as the hypocrisy of the prevailing culture's widespread dependence on prescription drugs and alcohol. Some marijuana users argued that unlike alcohol or tranquilisers, marijuana altered users' perceptions in positive ways, leading to greater creativity. While this proposition is unproven (and possibly unproveable), Brewer and Shipley claimed to regard smoking pot as a spiritual exercise. Which will get us to 'One Toke Over the Line'.
According to Tom Shipley, the inspiration for the song in question came in Kansas City, Missouri. Shipley had the opportunity to partake in some marijuana, which he did not object to. However, he was warned that the stuff was strong: he should only take two hits. Shipley took three, and was feeling the effects when he told his partner that he was 'one toke over the line'. We can't prove it, but we suspect Brewer was also feeling no pain, as he found this line extremely amusing.
'I just cracked up,' Brewer testifies. 'I thought it was hysterical. And right on the spot, we just started singing, "One toke over the line, sweet Jesus," and that was about it...'2
'One Toke Over the Line' became a big hit. It's not clear whether the audiences were in agreement that marijuana use was 'spiritual', enjoyed the song for its counterculture vibe, or just liked the toe-tapping tune. But the song had a lot of fans – and some detractors. Let's talk about Spiro T Agnew.
Agnew v. Impudent Snobs
The youth of America are being brainwashed into a drug culture of rock music, movies, books and tabloid newspapers.
- Spiro T Agnew, Speech at Las Vegas, 14 September, 1970
Spiro T Agnew was the Vice President of the United States. Agnew had worked his way through the Great Depression and served with distinction in the Second World War, later becoming Governor of Maryland. A dedicated self-improver like his Greek immigrant father, Agnew was prone to flaunting what he obviously believed to be his intellectual superiority to those around him. He once referred to the media as 'an effete corps of impudent snobs.' In spite of his overblown vocabulary, Agnew's taste was definitely middle-brow, and his eloquence was brought to bear in service of the status quo.
In 1970, Agnew had had it with what he regarded as the 'subversion' of America's youth with drug-related music. In a speech held (without conscious irony) in a Las Vegas hotel, Agnew struck out at 'drug-related music', and mentioned such songs as the Beatles' popular 'With a Little Help from My Friends' as encouraging young people to experiment with drugs. The New York Times took exception to this speech, noting that to get to the venue, Agnew and his family had to drive past signs that read, 'All You Can Drink, $2.25', and that gambling and prostitution were rife in the city where Agnew was inveighing against the national 'wave of permissiveness' and urging Congress to act.
Saving Civilisation from Rock Music
Agnew's expression of moral outrage, sincere or not, had consequences. The FCC went to work on an advisory, and in early 1971 issued a 'public notice' warning to radio stations that if they played music whose lyrics promoted drug use, they might lose their lucrative licences.
In a 1971 article on censorship, Rolling Stone provided a list of 'drug-related' songs singled out for opprobrium by no less a cultural authority than the Illinois Crime Commission, 'which used to deal with such out-dated local problems as the Syndicate' (their words). Here are some of the songs in their amusing list:
- 'Let's Go Get Stoned' by Joe Cocker: fair enough, although the Commission objected to the song on the grounds that 'stoned' referred, not only to the harmless activity of getting drunk, but also to drug use.
- 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' by Procul Harum. Apparently the surreal quality of the lyric could only come from the 'mind-bending characteristics of the psychedelics.'
- 'Hi-De-Ho' by Blood, Sweat & Tears. 'That Old Sweet Roll' must be marijuana.
- 'With a Little Help from My Friends', which the Commission heard on a recording by Sergio Mendes. Supposedly about drug-sharing with one's friends...
- 'White Rabbit' by Jefferson Airplane. Lewis Carroll has a lot to answer for.
- 'Yellow Submarine' by the Beatles. Did you know that the title referred to 'yellow, barbiturate capsules'? Did Paul McCartney?
- 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'. Innocent song about a child's drawing or advertisement for LSD?
- 'Puff the Magic Dragon' by Peter, Paul and Mary. Children's songs were not safe anymore. Was nothing sacred?
Brewer and Shipley's 'One Toke Over the Line' was definitely on Agnew's radar. His boss, President Richard M Nixon, included the two musicians on his infamous 'enemies list'. Which is rock'n'roll fame of a sort.
The lone dissenter at the FCC was commissioner Nicholas Johnson, who worried that this policy violated citizens' First Amendment free-speech rights – and also pointed out that many of the lyrics regulators objected to were not really 'drug-related'. Johnson wanted to know why, if the Commission was so worried about substance abuse, they didn't crack down on popular music that glorified alcohol consumption. After all, alcohol was the 'number one drug abuse problem in this country.' Historical note: alcohol-related songs were censored on the radio: during Prohibition in the 1920s. Cole Porter's lyric that started 'I get no kick from champagne' was banned for its alcohol reference – and not for the later line, 'Some get a kick from cocaine, I'm sure that if I took even one whiff...'.
How did this controversy play outside the corridors of power? Even such a patriotic publication as the military's Stars & Stripes, which interviewed veteran jazz trumpeter Harry James in September of 1970, shortly after Agnew's speech, had its doubts:
James shrugged off the charge made last week by Vice President Spiro T Agnew – in James's own bailiwick of Las Vegas, by the way – that rock music is driving youth to drugs:
'He should've looked around 40 years ago,' James said, 'There were more musicians using drugs then than now.'
- David Iams, Stars & Stripes, 22 September, 1970
Where did they think rock musicians got all that marijuana in the first place? From jazz musicians, that's where.
In spite of the lack of airplay, Brewer and Shipley's 'One Toke Over the Line' became a Top Ten single in the US, reaching Number 10 on the Billboard charts on 3 April, 19713. Which is where the Champagne Musicmakers come in.
The Champagne Musicmakers Go One Toke Over the Line
Lawrence Welk (1903-1992) was a bandleader. His band, known as a 'sweet' (melodic, non-jazz) band during the 30s and 40s, was famous for its 'champagne style' of playing, which in addition to being yet another alcohol reference, meant that its music was light, melodic, and good to dance a foxtrot to. The band accentuated its claim to champagne by playing in front of a bubble machine which they'd acquired from a hotel in the 1920s.
Welk had a weekly television programme distinguished for its relentless cheerfulness and the proliferation of polkas played on accordions. Welk himself, a native of Strasburg, North Dakota, announced the numbers in his heavy German accent followed by a brisk swing of his director's baton, 'and-uh-one-and-uh-two...' Spiro Agnew was known to like Lawrence Welk, along with millions of nostalgic members of the Greatest Generation. Lawrence Welk's show was the polar antithesis of a rock concert.
Welk's crisp style adapted to anything. The Lennon Sisters would warble 'The Lonely Goatherd' wearing what can only be described as parody dirndls, or tackle the British Mod Revolution with 'Georgy Girl' and some jaunty cloth caps atop their bouffants. But it took an amazing amount of naïveté – above and beyond the call of cluelessness – to have produced that rare 1971 television moment: Gail and Dale's peppy rendition of 'One Toke Over the Line'. Watch: be sure to stay for the end. That's when Maestro Welk explains that the song is 'a modern spiritual'. On that, he and Tom Shipley would have agreed.
In a very real sense, the Lawrence Welk performance of 'One Toke Over the Line' represents a crystallising moment in culture/counterculture clash. The older generation oblivious to nuance and insistent on staying the course, its preferences and prejudices intact, while the younger folk experiment and the leaders lament that nothing is as it was in the 'good old days'. The 'good old days', of course, being the era of champagne on stage and reefers in the alley behind the jazz club. Why couldn't those darn kids leave well enough alone?
These days, Brewer and Shipley live in the US state of Missouri, where Tom Shipley is on the staff of the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Shipley is also a member of Engineers Without Borders, and travels abroad to help developing countries meet infrastructure needs. In other words, Brewer and Shipley were socially aware in 1970, and still are.
Spiro T Agnew was forced to resign as vice president in 1973. The charge was tax evasion, pled down from bribery. Agnew was only the second vice president to resign from office, and the only one to leave in disgrace. He died in 1996.
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law, and is the author of How to Talk Back to Your Television Set.
Lawrence Welk retired in 1982, but his television show hasn't gone away. It frequently airs on PBS, the viewer-supported public television network in the US that carries educational programming, such as Antiques Roadshow and Are You Being Served?4. PBS runs Welk shows because they are popular with viewer-supporters. Which raises the question: who won those culture wars? Or was the outcome more of a draw?