How Cannabis Influenced Bob Dylan’s Musical Career

Bob Dylan is one of music’s most prolific songwriters. The poet, warbling singer, and musical artist is renowned for his lengthy and impressive career, and he’s made it clear that much of his music was inspired by the muse that is cannabis.

From ‘Zimmerman’ to ‘Dylan’

Dylan doesn’t remember who specifically turned him on to cannabis, but in the early 1960s, while perusing the coffeehouse scene in Dinkytown, Minnesota, cannabis was plentiful and abundant. He often played at Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffee house near the University of Minnesota where he was enrolled as a student. It was during these performances that the singer, née Robert Zimmerman, first dubbed himself “Bob Dylan,” inspired by poet Dylan Thomas.

He dropped out of the university and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to immerse himself in the burgeoning folk scene. It was there that he met Eric Von Schmidt, who would end up being a source of inspiration for his music. They both mastered the harmonica and smoked joints together backstage during musical sets by legendary folk singer Joan Baez.

One night, as they were smoking backstage, Dylan got an unexpected call to action from Baez, who he later ended up dating. “I was already in a zone,” Schmidt recalled. “All of a sudden, Joan calls Dylan out to the stage and he sings what seems like a hundred verses of ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.’ I couldn’t believe how this guy could remember all the verses. He may have missed a few, he may have made up a few. I was amazed by his ability to function. He had that covered.”

In 1961 Dylan moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, making friends on the folk scene and playing the local clubs. By 1962, he had officially changed his name to Robert Dylan and assumed this new identity with gusto, releasing his first self-titled album March 19, 1962. He traveled to the United Kingdom in March 1963 and performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a BBC drama in one of his first public performances.

‘Those Things Aren’t Drugs’

As his popularity was beginning to take off, Dylan was interviewed by Playboy magazine and asked about drug use: “Considering the risks involved, do you think that experimentation with such drugs should be part of the growing-up experience for a young person?”

Dylan pondered the question for a moment before replying. “I wouldn’t advise anybody to use drugs–certainly not the hard drugs; drugs are medicine,” he answered thoughtfully. “But opium and hash and pot–now, those things aren’t drugs. They just bend your mind a little. I think everybody’s mind should be bent once in a while.”

He put it in a slightly less eloquent way in the lyrics for his song, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” the opening track on his acclaimed album, Blonde on Blonde. Simply put, “Everybody must get stoned.”

Introducing The Beatles to Cannabis

In 1964, in New York’s Delmonico Hotel, Bob Dylan met up with the Beatles after being introduced by a mutual friend. They settled into the hotel room and Dylan suggested they smoke a joint. The boys from Liverpool eyed each other sheepishly before admitting to him, “We’ve never smoked marijuana before.” Dylan was so surprised, he didn’t believe them at first. “What about your song?” he asked.“The one about getting high?”

The Beatles looked at each other in confusion, asking, “Which song?”

Dylan was insistent. “You know…’and when I touch you, I get high, I get high…”

John Lennon blushed when he realized. “Those aren’t the words. The words are ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide.’”

With that, Dylan gleefully set about with a proper introduction to the marvels of marijuana.

They put towels beneath the door, drew the drapes tight, and Dylan started to roll up a joint, but, according to a memoir from his road manager, Victor Maymudes, the joint fell apart in Dylan’s fingers and scattered cannabis across a bowl of decorative fruit in the hotel room. Maymudes had to take over and rolled up a joint, handing it to Ringo for the first puff. Ringo, not understanding the “puff, puff, pass” etiquette, smoked the whole joint himself. Dylan just laughed and Maymudes rolled more joints for the group.