Minnie the Moocher and Opium Use in the Old West

It’s tough to research people and life in the Old West without stumbling over references to opium use. Opiates in various forms were widely prescribed and used, and legal at the time.

I’ve read numerous books and articles on the topic of opium, and one day when I’d been delving deep, I happened to listen to the soundtrack from “The Blues Brothers” movie and caught Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” which he first recorded in 1931. I was struck by references that I’d never understood before.

Photo of Cab Calloway taken by William P. Gottlieb in 1947, now in the Library of Congress.
Photo of Cab Calloway taken by William P. Gottlieb in 1947, now in the Library of Congress.

In the first verse, Calloway describes Minnie as “the roughest, toughest frail” — frail being one of many euphemisms for prostitutes in the Old West. Such women had a high rate of drug use, but they were far from alone. In an age when medical care was often rudimentary, especially in the West, many people used opiates to ease pain, the coughing associated with countless illnesses (opium is one of the best cough suppressants around) and depression.

Minnie’s boyfriend, “a bloke named Smokey,” was cokey, meaning a cocaine user. “He took her down to Chinatown / And he showed her how to kick the gong around.” “Kicking the gong around” was slang for opium smoking, and Chinatown was where the opium dens were. Chinese immigrants who arrived for the California Gold Rush brought opium smoking with them, and the practice spread to whites in the West.

But unlike their Old West counterparts, Minnie and Smokey would have been buying their drug on the black market — the first federal ban on opium was passed in 1925.

Songfacts.com says Calloway’s song used “jive slang white audiences of the time would not have recognized,” which kept its “sordid tale” from being censored and allowed it to reach a wide audience and sell more than 1 million copies. But Steven Martin in “Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction” writes that “listeners didn’t have to be told that Minnie was an opium smoker. The slang term ‘kick the gong,’ meaning to smoke opium, had long been in use.”

In the song, Minnie goes on to dream about the King of Sweden and extravagant riches — a classic opium-induced “pipe dream.” (In other slang, to have a yen for something originally meant a craving for opium.)

Calloway must have been fond of Minnie. According to Wikipedia, she appears in a number of his songs, and he had more than one album named “Minnie the Moocher.” He also wrote an extended version of the song:

adding verses that describe Minnie and Smokey going to jail; Minnie pays Smokey’s bail, but he abandons her there…. Finally, they took Minnie to ‘where they put the crazies,’ where she dies. This explains why both the short version and the long version end with the words ‘Poor Min, poor Min.’

You can see Calloway dancing in the earliest known recording of him at the beginning of this Betty Boop cartoon on YouTube.

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