Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Tobacco's But An Indian Weed

Where there's Smoke, there's Tobacco. Except, of course, in ariplanes, taverns in California and most office buildings. The song Tobacco's But an Indian Weed appears on the Virginia Company's album Nine Points of Roguery and on Colonial Williamsburg's Nottingham Ale. Williamsburg's version comes from the "two volumes of drinking songs" owned by Thomas Jefferson, showing just how long a good song can last. I found more information on it in William Chappell's Popular Music of the Olden Time ( Vol. 2, p. 563- 564), a massive bit of research originally published in 1859. Now, King James I would certainly have approved of any anti-tobacco legislation, as he himself wrote a Counterblaste to Tobacco. The words to this song can first be traced to a Presbyterian satirist of his day, one George Wither, who published it in his "Abuses stript and whipt", which got him sent to Marshalsea prison. One of his verses is:

"Why should we so much despise, So good and wholesome an exercise, As, early and late, to meditate? Thus think, and drink tobacco.
The earthen pipe, so lily white, Shews that thou art a mortal wight; Even such - and gone with a small touch: Thus think, and drink tobacco."

In the times of Elizabeth and James I, the English inhaled and swallowed the smoke, explaining the phrase "to drink tobacco". It was then puffed out "through the nostrils, like funnels." As described by Ben Jonson, a young gallant attempting to learn this method, was "sitting in a chair, holding up his snout like a sow under an apple-tree, while th'other open'd his nostrils with a poking-stick, to give the smoke a more free delivery."

By 1670, several copies of this song began to appear, with minor wording variations, and it finally appeared in 1699 in Thomas D'Urfey's "Pills to Purge Melancholy". Here's the version as it appeared in many broadsides and in "Pills to Purge Melancholy":

Tobacco's but an Indian weed, Grows green at morn, cut down at eve,
It shews our decay, we are but clay:
Think of this when you smoke tobacco.

The pipe, that is so lily white, Wherein so many take delight,
Is broke with a touch - man's life is such:
Think of this when you smoke tobacco.

The ashes that are left behind, Do serve to put us all in mind
That unto dust return we must:
Think of this when you smoke tobacco.

The smoke, that does so high ascend, Shews us man's life must have an end,
The vapour's gone - man's life is done:
Think of this when you smoke tobacco.