‘We’ll sell you two kinds of red herring, but . . . .”

May 5, 2014

Bananas - 1
We saw a major production of South Pacific the other night — at least the fifth time we’ve seen it on the stage — and so we heard the Seabees sing once again: “We got mangoes and bananas we can pick right off the tree.” No doubt that was true in that part of the world in the 1940s, but the news lately suggests that bananas may not be nearly that available, if they are available at all.

Aggressive diseases that are immune to pesticides and other control measures are threatening to seriously deplete the world’s banana crop, which provides a staple in the diets of an estimated 420 million people and is an important food source to hundreds of millions of others. The worst menace seems to be a soil fungus known as Panama Disease, which has devastated crops in Southeast Asia and has also been identified in Mozambique and Jordan. Authorities say there is a risk that the fungus will spread to Latin America, where the Cavendish variety of banana most familiar in the United States is grown.

Bananas - 2
As serious as this situation is, I can’t hear about it without thinking of the novelty song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which was written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn in 1922 for the Broadway revue “Make it Snappy.” Eddie Cantor sang it in that show. Nonsense songs were very popular then and down through the 1950s, and Billy Jones’s recording of this tune was the number-one song in the nation for five weeks in 1923. The origin of the title and first line of the song is uncertain, but the lyrics as a whole may have been inspired by a similar banana blight that originated in Suriname and by the 1920s reached the Caribbean and Central America.As the illustration on the sheet music suggests, this song was part of a genre of entertainment that depended on making fun of immigrants. The lyric tells of a Greek man who owns a fruit store and answers any question in the same fashion: “Yes, we have no bananas.”

Italian translation of the Silver-Cohn tune.

Italian translation of the Silver-Cohn tune.

I was curious about a reference in the lyric to “sparrow grass,” a term I had never heard before. I learned that “sparrow grass” is a corruption, perhaps a derisive one, of “asparagus.” The Oxford English Dictionary includes a statement written in 1791 by natural historian John Walker, presumably writing about the usage in Britain: “Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.”
You can hear Billy Jones’s 1923 recording, in which his put-on accent sounds more Italian than Greek, by clicking HERE.

These are the lyrics:

There’s a fruit store on our street
It’s run by a Greek.
And he keeps good things to eat
But you should hear him speak!

When you ask him anything, he never answers “no”.
He just “yes”es you to death,
And as he takes your dough, he tells you…

“Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today!!
We have string beans and onions, cabBAges and scallions
And all kinds of fruit and say
We have an old fashioned toMAHto
A Long Island poTAHto, but

Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today!”

Business got so good for him that he wrote home today,
“Send me Pete and Nick and Jim; I need help right away.”
When he got them in the store, there was fun, you bet.
Someone asked for “sparrow grass”
and then the whole quartet
All answered:

“Yes, we have no bananas
We have-a no bananas today.
Just try those coconuts
Those wall-nuts and doughnuts
There ain’t many nuts like they.
We’ll sell you two kinds of red herring,
Dark brown, and ball-bearing.
But yes, we have no bananas
We have no bananas today.”


Billy Jones and Ernest Hare gained fame as radio personalities, billing themselves as "The Happiness Boys."

Billy Jones and Ernest Hare gained fame as radio personalities, billing themselves as “The Happiness Boys.”


2 Responses to “‘We’ll sell you two kinds of red herring, but . . . .””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I’ve known the expression, “Yes, we have no bananas,” my whole life, but didn’t have a clue about its history.

    And that “sparrow grass” reference is really interesting. Did you happen to catch the “asparagus” uproar between Rep. Louis Gohmert and Atty. General Holder? The history and Gohmert’s explanation of the phrase is here. When Percy Foreman died, that line was one that often was quoted in tributes.

    When I was living farther south in Texas, I often heard people refer to asparagus as “asper-grass.” Whether it was a joke that slowly became a regional expression, I can’t say, but it was as common as the saying about the bananas.

  2. Lou caruso Says:

    Paolino very interesting, speaking of bananas , I spoke to Joe yesterday very interesting conversation abut his uncle John.
    Call me when you have time.

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