If You’re A Viper

If You’re a Viper is a song from the ’30s, full of references to the jazz scene’s favourite herb.


(Clue – it wasn’t basil.)


I first came across the song in Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, a savagely surreal look at the bottom feeders of Depression-era Hollywood.

One of the book’s main characters is Faye Greener, a talentless actress and testament to artifice. The lone woman at a small gathering, she performs for the men that surround her. As the night wears on she gets drunk and starts to sing:

“Dreamed about a reefer five feet long

Not too mild and not too strong,

You’ll be high, but not for long,

If you’re a viper – a vi-paah.”

“Instead of her usual swing delivery,” West writes, “she was using a lugubrious one, wailing the tune as though it were a dirge. At the end of every stanza, she shifted to an added minor.”

“I’m the queen of everything,

Gotta be high before I can swing,

Light a tea and let it be,

If you’re a viper – a vi-paah.”

(Penguin: 2006, p.148)

 The song was three years old by the time it appeared in West’s book, having been written by  jazz violinist Stuff Smith in 1936. His original version is in the hot jazz style popularized by Louis Armstrong (an acknowledged influence). The term viper is jazz slang for a pot smoker, and comes from the hissing sound of someone taking  toke.

The lyrics in Stuff’s original version (and some later versions) are slightly different from those transcribed in The Day of the Locust. The second line, Not too mild and not too strong, was originally sung as, The Mighty Mezz but not too strong. This is a reference to the weed dealt by Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, a legend of 30s Harlem.

Mezz was born into a middle class Jewish family, but he rejected his background and started hanging out in Chicago speakeasies. An accomplished saxophonist and friend of Lois Armstrong, he later moved to New York and became famous in Harlem for having the best Mexican weed, which soon came to bear his name. The reference to it in the lyrics of If You’re a Viper was Stuff’s way of giving a shout out to his Harlem buddies, the only people at the time who would have dug the reference.

rosettaMany musicians have covered If You’re a Viper, including Fats Waller in 1943. My favorite version, and the one that I think best captures the laid back daze that follows a toke, is Rosetta Howard’s version from 1938. It’s a lot slower than Stuff’s original, and a lot woozier, especially the trumpet that comes in after she’s finished singing.

In my mind, this is the version that Faye turns into a minor dirge in The Day of the Locust.


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