Yes, We have no Bananas

no bananas
‘Yes! We have no Bananas’ by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, published by Salabert, Paris in 1923 and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

A newspaper article on the threat of a banana shortage brings to mind the song Yes! We have no Bananas. The origin of the song is not clear. Allegedly it was inspired by a shortage brought on by the Panama disease, a soil-based fungus which attacks the roots of the plant. As the banana is a monoculture crop, this means that if something goes wrong, the whole crop can be lost. The earlier and more tastier banana variety Gros Michel (or Big Mike) was thus completely wiped out in the 1960s. Today the Gros Michel is replaced by the Cavendish, but it is still a monoculture and it is no longer resistant to a more virulent strain of the Panama disease. About 10 years ago this new strain started to destroy plantations in Asia and Australia, threatening the Cavendish banana with the same fate as its predecessor.
Roger de Valerio, an illustrator with a vivid imagination, apparently didn’t read the original lyrics before illustrating the cover of the French version of Yes! We have no Bananas. He simply associated bananas with the stereotype of the black mammy and black people. To my dismay, this old stupid cliché is sometimes voiced on our soccer fields. For the cover of the original American sheet music Sol Wohlman straightforwardly illustrated the story: a Greek American greengrocer who tells his customers, in broken English, that he has no bananas to sell.

There’s a fruitshop down our street,
It’s run by a Greek,
And he sells good things to eat,
But you should hear him speak,
When you ask him anything,
Never answers “No”,
He just yesses you to death,
And as he takes your dough he tells you:

Yes! We have no bananas,
We have no bananas today…

no bananas original
‘Yes! We have no bananas’ by Frank Silver & Irving Cohn, published by Skidmore Music Co., Inc, New York in 1923 and illustrated by Sol Wohlman (not in our collection, Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection)

Wohlman himself falls into the trap of stereotyping when, for another sheet music cover, he caricatures a typical Italian person. Notice the similar exotic mustachios, earrings and mischievous eyes.

A typical Italian man drawn by Sol Wohlman (partition musicale - illustrated sheet music), 1923
Caricature of an Italian man drawn by Sol Wohlman for the cover of ‘When it’s Night-time in Italy It’s Wednesday Over Here’ published by The Lawrence Wright Music C°, Leicester, 1923.

Back to our song. After Eddie Cantor used the novelty song in one of his Broadway revues in 1922, it topped the charts in America and became a smashing  success all over the world.

bananas europa
Left: ‘Si, non ho piu banane!’ by Frank Silver and Irving Kohn, published by Carlo Lombardo, Milano (s.d.) and illustrated by Roveroni. Right: ‘Bananen’, by Frank Silver and Irving Kohn, and translated by Fritz Löhner (Beda), published by Wiener Bohème – Verlag, Vienna in 1923.

The song inspired a follow-up song “I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues”.

bananas blues copy
Left: ‘I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues’ By Lew Brown, James Hanley & Robert King, published by Shapiro, Bernstein & C°, New York in 1923 and illustrated by Politzer. Right: The same song published by Salabert, Paris in 1923 and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Again, Roger de Valerio gets the wrong end of the stick about the song’s content. It is obviously a mockery about a man who cannot stand the earworm, nicely illustrated by Politzer. Although de Valerio is to me the better illustrator, he once more gets his inspiration from a black people stereotype, palm tree and all.

In France the song spawned spoof versions, emphasising that the chauvinistic French didn’t suffer a banana shortage: Chez nous y a des bananes (We have bananas!). For illustrator Clérice, selling bananas is not a Greek merchant business, but a job for shrewd African vendors.

les bananes
Left: ‘La Marche des Bananes’ by Vincent Scotto, published by Salabert, Paris in 1923 and illustrated by Jacques Boullaire. Right: ‘Chez nous y a des bananes’ by René de Buxeuil, published by La Parisienne, Paris in 1923 and illustrated by Clérice frères.

The great Maurice Chevalier performed another parody: We have pineapples! (Nous avons des ananas!).

les ananas
‘Les Ananas’ by Fred Pearly & Max Eddy, published by Salabert, Paris in 1923 and probably illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

This in turn was an inspiration for the silly song ‘Nana n’a pas d’ananas’ (Nana has no pineapples).

nana
‘Nana n’a pas d’ananas’ by Dior & Delly, published by Dior, Paris s.d. and illustrated by Jean Chevalier.

Time to listen to the song. Mind you, it will stay with you for the whole day and slowly drive you mad as a box of frogs. I prefer the version by the Pied Pipers from the 1948 musical film ‘Luxury Liner’.

And because I adore Billy Wilder, I include a German version of the song from the Cold War comedy ‘One, Two Three’. The film features James Cagney as Coca-Cola’s head of West Berlin operations trying to get Coca-Cola into the Russian market.

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