Tobacco plant

‘Sing sweetly for tobacco!’

In the second of a series of posts about smoking (see also ‘A three-pipe problem’), Project Manager (Bristol) on the Life of Breath project Jess Farr-Cox writes:

The overlap between breathing, smoking and singing is an interesting one, particularly as it bends back on itself in songs about smoking, both ancient and modern. For example:

The finest ballads from a musical and literary point of view are the very old ones, but they continued to be produced throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and even in the nineteenth century. Their real dramatic character, however, had been lost. The highwayman took the place of the knights and ladies of the Middle Ages, and the general tone became much less grim and austere. Even in the time of Queen Elizabeth the ballad had lost its old savagery, and a typical ballad of that period is one about the recently introduced tobacco, of which I quote the following lines:

Tobacco, tobacco,
Sing sweetly for tobacco!
Tobacco is like love,
O love it,
For you see that I will prove it.[1]

From more modern times, we have songs such as ‘Harry Rag’ by the Kinks, 50 Cent’s ‘Smoke’, and ‘Nicotine Stain’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Many songs about smoking use it as a metaphor for other addictions, for rebellion, or deliberately pair it with other vices, as in Otis Redding’s ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’, Atmosphere’s NSFW ‘Guns and Cigarettes[2] and Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ (‘these are just a couple of my cravings’). Finally, we have the seminal Oasis song ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’, which played on the radio during my own pipe-smoking days.[3] This is a song that uses smoking to talk about both dependence[4] and independence, turning the idea of addiction on its head:

Is it worth the aggravation
To find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?
It’s a crazy situation
But all I need are cigarettes and alcohol.

In a previous post I wrote about the glamour that clings to cigarettes (and that pipe-smoking lacks – see A three-pipe problem), and at first glance there is nothing glamorous about the way smoking is portrayed in either the song or the video for ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’, which shows various underfed young people smoking, drinking and falling down in the toilets of a club, interspersed with footage of Oasis playing to a crowd, wearing dark glasses and vacant expressions, and smoking more or less continuously. I say ‘at first glance’, because this sort of dirty, bored-looking feeling was a sort of post-grunge cool in its own way at the time: grubbiness and insolence what we had instead of glamour in the ’nineties. So many songs and music videos from that era contain the same elements: a nihilistic, defiant tone; images of seedy-looking clubs; smoking, drinking and drug-taking rolled together, as if the three things were parts of a single whole;[5] and encounters with strangers in alleyways, toilets and untidy bedrooms.[6]

A very different example of popular music about smoking is k.d. Lang’s album Drag (1997). Rather than showing smoking as only one element in a chaotic and destructive smorgasbord of behaviours, smoking seems to be a metaphor for any sense of longing, and the album is both thoughtful and (to use a word often used to describe smoking itself – see A three pipe problem) elegant. Lang plays with the many meanings of the word ‘drag’ throughout the album; aside from the obvious smoking reference, she appears on the cover and in most of the videos in a suit, looking variously groomed and debonair or carelessly dishabille (the complete antithesis of the disordered rooms, smeared make-up and dingy clubs described above). Lang is not merely wearing another of her habitual androgynous suits here: she is punning on her own title, by being ‘in drag’, as well as referencing Yves Saint Laurent’s famous suit, le smoking. Like Patsy Cline’s ‘Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray’ or Frank Ocean’s ‘Forrest Gump’, Drag uses smoking as a metaphor for something more complicated throughout; the album was advertised (subtitled?) with the line, ‘twelve songs about oral addiction’. ‘Constant Craving’, for example, could be about almost any desire: the ‘great magnet’ that ‘pulls all souls towards truth’ does not have to be love, sex, or cigarettes, and to me the ventriloquists and music hall performers in the video suggest that this song may describe a craving for attention and affection. As the song Turner quotes above has it, ‘Tobacco is like love’.

Consider three final smoking-related songs: Brownsville Station’s ‘Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room, Elgar’s Smoking Cantata and Jimmy Hendrix’s ‘Midnight Lightning. Brownsville Station frame smoking as (again) an act of simple rebellion against the establishment (‘now teacher, don’t you fill me up with your rules/But everybody knows that smoking ain’t allowed in school’). Similarly, Elgar, a devoted pipe-smoker, wrote his own variation on smoking as rebellion, in a piece that lasts around forty seconds. It was recorded for the first time in 2003 by the Hallé Orchestra and baritone Andrew Shore, as part of a project to record all of Elgar’s works. The piece was supposedly born out of Elgar’s frustration at not being allowed to smoke his pipe while visiting his friend Edward Speyer. The cantata itself is a magnificent, swirling mockery of a thing, featuring a baritone soloist accompanied by an enormous, many-hornéd orchestra:

Kindly, kindly, kindly do not SMOKE in the hall or staircase!

There is, I feel, a pernicketiness about this calculated to make one want to dust off one’s meerschaum, but that would be to consider the rebellious act of lighting up in the short term only. As Jimi Hendrix has it in ‘Midnight Lightning’, there may be a limit to the number of times one is able to transgress:

We gotta stop smokin’, stop, stop
I mean cigarette smokin’
Or else I cough myself to death
And to make love to you baby,
I wouldn’t even have the breath.


[1] W.J. Turner (1942), English Music (London: Collins), p. 33.

[2] Atmosphere update (or perhaps add to) the Beatles’ ‘bigger than Jesus’ boast in this song, the chorus of which is as follows:

Bigger than Jesus, bigger than wrestling
Bigger than the Beatles, and bigger than breast implants
Gonna be the biggest thing to hit these little kids
Bigger than guns, bigger than cigarettes.

[3] From the album Definitely Maybe (1994).

[4] See also Jack White’s use of a cigarette as something to hide behind in ‘Seven Nation Army’, along with the restless, pacing bassline and percussion:

And I’m talking to myself at night
Because I can’t forget
Back and forth through my mind
Behind a cigarette.

[5] As in Nick Drake’s song ‘Been Smoking Too Long’ (Time of No Reply, 1986), or Kris Kristofferson’s lyric ‘I’d smoked my mind the night before / With cigarettes and songs I’d been picking’ (‘Sunday Morning Comin’ Down’, memorably recorded by Johnny Cash).

[6] See, for example, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by the Prodigy (The Fat of the Land, 1997). As well as smoking, drinking and drug-taking (just as in ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ with its references to cocaine in the lyric ‘you might as well do the white line’), the NSFW video contains all the elements of ’nineties club culture mentioned above. It opens with shots of a bathroom, followed by trips to various clubs (including the obligatory visit to the toilets, this time to vomit and inject some heroin). The video finishes with the notorious images that both created and scotched the controversy of the song itself, by showing that the ‘speaker’ of the song and the violent protagonist in the video is not a man, but a tall, sexually aggressive gay woman.

[7] He probably doesn’t; it seems likely that Hendrix was talking about smoking something rather more potent than tobacco.

Jess Farr-Cox

Jess is the Bristol project manager for Life of Breath. She is also a freelance proof-reader, copy-editor, indexer, teacher and writer.

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