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When Tin Pan Alley Went Bananas

March 2023
1min read

There is no better example of both how collaborative an institution Tin Pan Alley was and how one of its songs could catch the public’s fancy than the smash hit of 1923, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

The song originated one evening when Frank Silver, a musician in Irving Cohn’s New York Band, was over at a girl friend’s house. The girl’s kid brother kept repeating over and over a phrase he had picked up from the neighborhood fruit seller, a Greek immigrant. The twenties was a decade of nonsense songs—“I Love to Dunk a Hunk of Sponge Cake,” “Diga, Diga, Doo,” “I’m Wild About Horns on Automobiles That Go Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta,” “I Faw Down an’ Go Boom,” and others—and Silver saw the possibilities. He picked out a melody, brought the results to his boss, and soon the number was a popular request.

Silver and Cohn took the tune to the Shapiro-Bernstein publishing house, where the staff writers went to work on it. The contributors included the team of Ballard MacDonald and James F. Hanley, Lew Brown, and Shapiro and Bernstein themselves. They were liberal in their musical quotation, lifting phrases from “My Bonnie,” “Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party,” “The Bohemian Girl,” “An Old-Fashioned Garden,” and “The Halleluiah Chorus.”

Their recipe must have been sound, for “Bananas” became the rage of the year. It was impossible to escape its strains—even in Europe. David Niven lost his virginity to a London prostitute while the song was playing on her Gramophone. In Germany it was known as “Ja, Wir Haben Keinen Bananen Heute.” The New York Times , in an article entitled “Yes, We Have No Peace,” told of a New York novelty-store owner who played the song all day on his phonograph. When a neighboring lawyer complained, the music lover “punched him and called him vile names.” A few days later the Times , acting much as it does today, solicited the opinion of an expert—Miss Emma Howells Burchend, “who has studied, edited and transcribed the folk songs of thirty-three languages, European and Asiatic.” Her verdict: “I have never found any folk song as inane as this.”

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