CLOSE

Music History #3: "Yes! We Have No Bananas"

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HygopC4S5W0

The Music

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.

The History

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.

Banana Splits

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.”

See Also: Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"; #2: "Smoke on the Water"

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Tonamel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
arrow
fun
Listen to the Eerie Sounds of a Glass Armonica
Tonamel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Tonamel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Invented by Benjamin Franklin in the 1760s, the glass armonica (named after the Italian word for harmony, armonia) is one of the world's more unusual musical instruments. It's formed of about 50 glass bowls attached to a rotating spindle and nested inside of each other, which are played to produce sounds similar to those you get if you rub a moistened fingertip around the edge of a wineglass. Mozart composed for it, and Beethoven too.

Today, Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts graduate student Jake Schlaerth is one of only about 30 glass armonica players in the country, and he contributed his talents to the score for the Wolverine movie Logan earlier this year. In the video below from Rutgers (spotted by The Kid Should See This), you can watch Schlaerth play the eerie-sounding instrument and explain more about what makes it so special.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Ronald Dumont / Stringer / Gett Images
arrow
Pop Culture
Ella Fitzgerald Recording Will Be Released After More Than 60 Years in Record Label Vault
Ronald Dumont / Stringer / Gett Images
Ronald Dumont / Stringer / Gett Images

Ella Fitzgerald ascended to jazz royalty with her pitch-perfect renditions of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "Summertime," and tunes from the Great American Songbook. Now, Verve Records plans to release a Fitzgerald recording from the 1950s that’s never been heard by fans. As WBGO reports, Ella at Zardi’s will make its public debut on December 1 after 60 years in the record label’s vault.

Fitzgerald sang the two sets featured on the album in 1956 after signing with Verve Records, a label her manager Norman Granz formed specifically for her. She was days away from recording Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, a turning point in her career, and she spent her nights practicing songs at Zardi’s Jazzland in Hollywood. The recording opens with Granz introducing Fitzgerald, describing her as “the greatest there is,” before she dives into her performance of “It All Depends on You.” The new release will mark the first appearance of the song on a Fitzgerald album.

After Verve recorded the sets at Zardi’s on February 2, 1956, they stowed the tapes away in the vault, where they lay buried for decades. The decision to finally share the music with the public comes on the year of the singer’s centennial celebration, marking what would have been her 100th birthday.

The full 21-track album will be available digitally and as an audio CD when it comes out at the beginning of next month. Listeners can preorder it today on Amazon.

[h/t WBGO]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios