The Great Banana Shortage

Sometimes the allusions in Common Errors in English are very indirect. In the entry for “any where/anywhere” on page 19, the line “We do not sell bananas any more” is an allusion to 1923 hit song performed by Eddie Cantor, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

Like a lot of popular humor at the time it was aimed at making fun of an English-mangling immigrant, in this case a Greek grocer who always prefaced his negative statements with “yes.” The song also plays with having a pretentious native speaker give his own version of the message to customers that bananas are unavailable.

I couldn’t resist alluding to a song that nitpicks English usage by rewording it so that it becomes instead an example of standard usage.

An early cylinder recording by Billy Jones of the original song—with a little interpolated chatter—is available from the Syracuse Digital Library.

The song was a huge hit, thanks largely to its catchy tune. There is a nice jazz version by Sam Lanin on YouTube with relevant illustrations, with only part of the lyrics sung toward the end of the recording.

So popular was it that Cantor recorded another song complaining about the song’s ubiquity: “The I've Got the ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’ Blues.”

Unfortunately most recorded performances available on the Web alter the lyrics, are purely instrumental, or are otherwise unrepresentative of the original. There’s even an appalling video of Al Jolson and other performers in blackface singing the title line to various famous opera tunes.

Other versions on the Web associate this dialect joke with Italians or  Jews. An early version was even recorded in Yiddish. Fortunately, dialect humor is no longer in fashion but the title line keeps getting revived (see the Wikipedia article for a few examples). And the tune is an earworm: once heard, it’s unforgettable.

Thanks to Syracuse music librarian Jennifer Vaughn for providing the link to the Billy Jones recording.

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