Editor's Note: This is the third installment of Bill DeMain's new column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" appears twice a month.
“Yes! We Have No Bananas”
Written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn (1922)
Originally sung by Eddie Cantor
The story goes that one day in 1922, songwriting duo Frank Silver and Irving Cohn were on their way to work in New York City when they stopped for a snack. At a greengrocer’s, the Greek immigrant owner told the tunesmiths in his broken English, “Yes! We have no bananas today.” The reason the grocer had no bananas? A blight in Central America had caused a shortage. The songwriters made the phrase into the title of their next song. In a Broadway revue called Make It Snappy, the tune was introduced by star Eddie Cantor, and it zoomed to number one on the Hit Parade for five straight weeks. “Yes! We Have No Bananas” went on to be recorded by hundreds of artists over the years, from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman to The Muppets.
Americans love bananas. The average person eats between 20 and 30 pounds of bananas every year. And though we may consume more apples and oranges, those are often processed in juices or prepared foods. Bananas are the fruit we prefer fresh, as nature intended.
Though bananas appeared in the Americas as early as the 15th century, our love affair with them began in 1876, when they were introduced as an exotic snack at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Wrapped in tin foil and sold for a dime, they were the hit of the event.
There are over 1,000 varieties of banana, but the particular one that America preferred back in the early 20th century was called the Gros Michel, or Big Mike if your French wasn’t so great. The Big Mikes were hardy and slow to ripen, which made them ideal for export and long-distance shipping. But shortly after they were planted and cultivated in Central America, a fungus began to invade the crops.
Panama Disease, named after the country where it was first discovered, is a virulent fungus (Fusarium oxysporum) that is transmitted through soil and water. It enters through the roots, disrupts the plant’s vascular system and, basically, chokes off its water supply until the plant wilts and dies. Panama Disease can ravage an entire plantation in a matter of months, then move quickly on to the next plantation.
And bananas are particularly susceptible to disease. The Big Mike, along with most bananas we eat today, can’t reproduce on its own. These bananas have no seeds and the male flowers produce no pollen. Therefore, farmers grow new plants by trimming off a fleshy bulb (the rhizome, sometimes called the sucker) from an old plant. It’s like a form of cloning. Because of this, there is no genetic variation in bananas. That's great for getting consistently perfect bananas, but bad when it comes to any sort of disease. When one banana gets sick, all of its neighbors get sick.
There may have indeed been a shortage in 1922 that sparked the hit novelty song, but really, the Big Mikes were under constant siege from Panama Disease from 1910–1960, when they were in effect wiped out. A new seedless banana variety called the Cavendish was developed in their place, and that’s the one that most of us have been enjoying for the past fifty years.
But now the Cavendish is also being attacked by a new fungal disease called Tropical Race Four. The disease has wiped out crops in Asia and Australia, and it’s believed that it’s just a matter of time before it reaches Latin America. That could mean the end of bananas as we know them. Scientists are racing to find a cure, or genetically modify the Cavendish to make it resistant to TR4.
Let’s hope they find an answer soon, before Justin Bieber covers “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”