Tobacco's But an Indian Weed

George Wither, 1662

What is the point of this song? Was it an anti-tobacco song? Why or why not? It was written by the court poet of King James I, who was violently opposed to tobacco use.

Could the meaning be different depending on who sang it or where? How popular do you think an anti-tobacco song would be in the American colonies? Not very—tobacco was the primary crop in the southern colonies.

Picture a few places where this song might be sung. Church, tavern, parlor, field, school. How might its meaning be different for all the people in these situations? What would be its meaning to a minister? Focus on the spiritual lessons in each verse. A tobacco planter? See tobacco as a positive way to teach a lesson. A mother or teacher? Associate smoking with death to discourage smoking. A tavern owner? It makes a great drinking song!

This song is constructed very carefully, each verse following a few patterns. What is the rhyming pa ern? A-A-BB (within line 3)-C. What line repeats? Last line, a one line refrain.

Look for a pattern to the message, too. How are tobacco and smoking used in the first two lines of each verse? As a metaphor. What are the metaphors? Grows green, then cut; pipe is lily white; pipe foul inside; ashes left; smoke ascends. What does the third line do in each verse? Teaches a lesson. How does the author draw attention to this very important third line? Double rhyme.

What attitude does the song express toward Native Americans? Are the intended listeners—white Brits—supposed to think tobacco’s association with Native Americans is a positive or a negative attribute?


"Tobacco's But an Indian Weed" performed by Virginia Company on Nine Points of Roguery © 2004. Available on Spotify and YouTube.

Possibly sung in a variety of different social situations, the solo male voice in this recording emphasizes the moralizing tone.

View the music and lyrics for this song.

View an early version of the printed lyrics.

This song is generally attributed to George Wither (1588–1667), an English poet popular during the reign of James I. It was first published in 1699 in the first volume of Wit and Mirth: Pills to Purge Melancholy, a collection of colorful texts compiled by Thomas D’Urfrey. Wither was primarily a satirical poet who often found himself accountable for his sometimes libelous works and spent some time in prison for this reason. His later works became more religious as his Puritan leanings became more pronounced. “Tobacco’s But an Indian Weed” may be viewed as a companion to Wither’s “Britain’s Remembrances” (1628), a poem denouncing the current state of corruption and foretelling of disasters that will result from these circumstances. Puritans likely brought “Tobacco’s But an Indian Weed” to the colonies and applied it to their new circumstances, in which, particularly in the southern colonies, tobacco was a primary crop.

The repetition of the last line in each verse drives home the point, as Wither describes man’s mortality through the metaphor of tobacco. Of the different publications of this song that exist, variations appear in the last line with respect to how the tobacco is consumed; it appears as “drink,” “take,” or “smoke” tobacco.

Native Americans gathering and smoking, 16th Century engraving.

Modernize this song to be an anti-smoking/anti-vaping message using the same pattern of metaphor-lesson-refrain.

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