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
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Orchestra, a Symphony, and a Philharmonic?
iStock
iStock

Remember when your brain exploded after your fourth grade math teacher told you “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square!” Understanding the difference between an orchestra, a symphony, and a philharmonic is kind of like that. Every symphony is an orchestra, but not every orchestra is a symphony. Likewise, every philharmonic is a symphony, but not every symphony is a philharmonic.   

Okay, let’s take a breath. 

Orchestra is a broad term for any ensemble featuring a hefty lineup of strings. Two basic orchestras exist—chamber orchestras (small!) and symphony orchestras (big!). Chamber orchestras employ about 50 or fewer musicians (who may all play strings). As the name suggests, they play “chamber music”—older tunes written for private halls, aristocratic parlors, and glitzy palace chambers. Of course, contemporary composers still crank out chamber music, but the style peaked during the 17th and 18th centuries as wigged songsters like Haydn, Mozart, and Vivaldi tore up the scene.   

On the flip side, a symphony orchestra can boast more than 100 players, who are divided into strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. As that name suggests, they play “symphonies”— hulking pieces that usually require 18 to 25 different instruments. (Think of the heavy hitters of the 1800s: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and company.)  

Essentially, if an orchestra is big enough to play a symphony, it’s a symphony orchestra. Simple!

Okay, maybe not.

A symphony orchestra and a philharmonic are the same thing—sort of. They’re the same size and they play the same kind of music. The two terms exist to help us tell different ensembles apart, especially in cities that boast multiple groups. For example: New York City is home to both the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Symphony. They’re the same kind of orchestra, but they have different names so you don’t confuse them. The divide between symphony-philharmonic is just a matter of identity.

And that’s what makes them different. “Symphony orchestra” is a generic term, whereas “philharmonic orchestra” is always part of a proper name. So, you can call every philharmonic a symphony, but you can’t call every symphony a philharmonic—even though they’re the same.

And as for “pops?” That just means the orchestra isn’t afraid to let its hair down and play a jaunty show tune.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
arrow
#TBT
When 'November Rain' Excited, Confused Rock Fans
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube

Slash had no idea what it was about. Axl Rose insisted it be based on a short story. At roughly nine minutes, it stretched the patience of MTV’s viewers. For these reasons—or maybe in spite of them—the music video for the Guns N’ Roses hit “November Rain” remains one of the most infamous, impenetrable rock operas of all time.

“November Rain” was a single from the group’s Use Your Illusion I album. Released in 1991, it broke into the Billboard top 10 and immediately entered music trivia lore as the longest song to make that list. Rose had started writing it in 1983, with an original running time of more than 20 minutes.

For the video, which was released in February of 1992, the group hired director Andy Morahan, who had supervised two previous G N' R efforts: Don’t Cry and You Could Be Mine. Rose also enlisted friend and writer Del James to allow them to loosely adapt one of his short stories, “Without You,” about a singer haunted by the death of his girlfriend. Model Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s girlfriend at the time, played the bride.

The crew respected the band’s wishes for an increasingly epic approach to their videos by going on location to shoot a wedding ceremony between Rose and Seymour at a makeshift church in a New Mexico desert—fabricating it cost $150,000—and arranging for a concert shoot with 1500 extras; Slash’s guitar solo was covered with swooping helicopter shots.

Speaking with authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, Morahan described the indulgent nature of the era: “You’ve got five cameras, cranes, helicopter, this big crew.” He recalled one observer asking him, “Is this the whole video? ‘No, it’s about 27 seconds of it.’” (The video cost a then-record $1.5 million.)

Though Seymour’s character appears to be elated at the reception, the video implies she commits suicide shortly after.  


The couple in happier times.

GunsNRoses VEVO via YouTube

Or not. No one really seems to know what happened. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea," Slash told The Huffington Post in 2014. It was a concept. The song itself is pretty self-explanatory, but the video is so complex ... I knew there was a wedding in there somewhere and I was not into the concept of the wedding." Morahan said he has "no idea" why Seymour was shot in a casket with half her face obscured by a mirror.

While the spot wasn’t heaped with MTV Video Music Awards praise (though it did win one, for Best Cinematography, and earn a nomination for Best Art Direction), it has aged well. By the end of 1992, viewers had voted it their favorite video of the year. Morahan, James, and Rose were even asked to collaborate on an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.

That didn’t come to pass. But even today, November Rain stands as one of the most-played music videos of the 20th century on YouTube, with more than 940 million views. Watch it enough, and maybe it’ll begin to make sense.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios