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…
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.
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.
The song inspired a follow-up song “I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues”.
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.
The great Maurice Chevalier performed another parody: We have pineapples! (Nous avons des ananas!).
This in turn was an inspiration for the silly song ‘Nana n’a pas d’ananas’ (Nana has no pineapples).
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.