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Culture

The 1920s: Greek-Americans in Popular American Song

June 25, 2022

Since 1821, Americans have been singing about Greeks. The Greeks one hears of in these song lyrics rarely have anything to do with the lives or actions of living individuals on American soil. Compounding this fact is that these infrequent musical images of things Greek vary considerably.

Paying attention to each of these lyrical moments it is clear that the only constant is the continuously changing nature and presentation of individuals, situations, and/or reasons for singing of persons identified specifically as Greek.

In the past I have identified specific American popular songs where Greek-Americans are cited in their lyrics. Rather than mere musical oddities these songs remain of considerable sociological interest. How are Greeks portrayed in each song? Are there consistent images about Greeks that appear from one song to the next?

This latest consideration of the lyrical depictions of Greeks in popular American song all started with Dean Sirigos, the National Herald’s Copy Editor. It was a late night call (for him) from Athens to tell me to listen to Ester Walker’s 1927 song, ‘I Left My Sugar Standing in the Rain.’ This song, as well as all others I cite below, can be heard in their entirety on YouTube.

As published sources report, comedian and popular singer Esther Walker’s short recording career ran from 1919-1920 and 1925-1927, producing some 32 sides on the Victor and Brunswick record labels. In ‘I Left My Sugar Standing in the Rain’ we hear Walker observe that ‘You don’t miss the Greek until it’s time to eat.’ Obviously a reference, even then, to the commanding presence of Greeks in the American food industry.

A ragtime song to be sure, Sirigos’ discovery of Walker’s song lyric can now be added to the growing list of other songs from this period that mention or focus exclusively on Greeks living among Americans. These songs are predominately comedy songs. Yet, in point of fact, they are not always negative stereotypes.

In 1920, we hear, ‘The Argentines, Portuguese and the Greeks’ with lyrics by Arthur M. Swanstrom and music by Carey Morgan. In this comedic song the three identified ethnic groups (others are also mentioned in the lyrics) are presented as more successful than the average native-born American.

In part we hear that, “There’s the Oldsmobile, and the Hupmobile, and the Cadillac, and the Ford – They are the motors you and I can own, the kind most anybody can afford.

But the Cunninghams and the Mercedes and the Rolls Royce racing freaks – Ah they all belong to the Argentines, and the Portuguese and the Greeks.”

In 1922, ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’ is the internationally popular song, written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohen. It is said that Eddie Cantor first sang this song in the 1922 Broadway revue ‘Make It Snappy.’ Cantor’s rendition of this song became a major hit in 1923, achieving number one standing for five weeks. Not long after, additional recordings of this song were issued by other noted singer/comedians of the day such as Billy Jones, Arthur Hall, Irving Kaufman, Benny Goodman, Spike Jones & His City Slickers, and many others.

March 23, 1923, marks the first published record release of ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas.’ The popular origin story for this song varies but it is said that noted tin pan alley composers Frank Silver and Irving Cohn stopped at a Greek-owned fruit stand and they heard the immigrant proprietor say in response to their request for bananas the song’s now infamous title phrase.

‘Yes! We Have No Bananas,’ has proven itself to be one of the top songs of the 20th century. The instant popularity of this song inspired an immediate follow-up song, ‘I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues,’ with words by Lew Brown and music by James F. Hanley and Robert King. Beginning in July 1923, this ‘answer song’ as it was then known was recorded by Billy Jones and Sam Lanin (with vocals by Irving Kaufman and others).

Eddie Cantor, of all possible singers, released a 1924 version of this song. Again, the popularity of this song can be judged by the host of performers who issued recordings of this song and/or sang it on stage and screen such as Belle Baker and Eva Taylor. Al Jolson recorded (on film) an operatic version, in blackface, in the 1930s.

As you will note, it once again has a passing reference to ethnic Greeks.

I’VE GOT THE YES WE HAVE NO BANANAS BLUES

Lately I’ve been off my nut

I keep hearing nothing but

“Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

I would like to find the guy

Who composed that lullaby

“Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

I wish that I could go

To a cabaret or show

Where someone wouldn’t come along

And sing that doggone song!

 

I’ve got the Yes We Have No Bananas Blues

I’ve got the blues

And when I hear it

Oh, how I fear it!

It’s just like hearing bad news.

It hasn’t got a bit of sense

And I go wild when they commence

“Bananas! Bananas!”

I wish I could break up a million pianas!

Day by day and week by week

It’s “Yes, We Have No Bananas”

Every time that Greek meets Greek

It’s “Yes, We Have No Bananas”

B! A! N! A! N! A!

Yes! No! Take ’em away!

I’ve got the “Yes, We Have No Banana” Blues today.

 

Apricots and apples are good to eat,

Potatoes and tomatoes can’t be beat,

Onions, cabashes, peaches, and plums,

I could stand for any kind of fruit that comes.

Yesterday somebody kept on asking me,

“Say, what’s a wegistable what begins with ‘P?”

I gave it up and I asked him to tell –

When he said, “Pananas!” I just had to yell!

P! A! N! A! N! A!

Yes! No, no! Take ‘um away!

I’ve got the “Yes, We Have No Bananas” Blues today.

Finally, yet another mystery. By 1924, vaudeville comedians and composers Burns and Kissen were touring the country singing their latest hit ‘Stromberry Pie.’ I have never been able to locate a recording of this specific song or its printed lyrics. Yet throughout the 1920s newspaper advertisements and reviews in the daily press report again and again the popularity of this “side splitting comedy gem” is apparent. As this duo toured the nation one newspaper review after another made a special point of saying not only that ‘Stromberry Pie’ but its accompanying musical number, ‘Dank You’ portrayed ethnic Greeks.

In the reference volume Vitaphone, The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-1931 by Edwin M. Bradley we find the citation that a film was made of  Burns and Kissen’s Greek-based performance: “these boys, impersonating a couple of Greeks, step out of a saloon backdrop [and] do a parody of ‘America I Love You (McFarland & Co. Publishers 2005, page 365).” So, if a viewable copy of this film still exists this mystery may finally be resolved.

Whatever else may be said, Dean Sirigos’ discovery of Ester Walker’s 1927 song with its inclusion of Greek-Americans in its lyrics is one more addition in the step-by-step recovery and compilation of our full collective presence in American popular song.

 

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