The song “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” which was based on Greek fruit sellers, became an unlikely but timeless hit after it was released for the first time in March of 1923.
The tune was written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, who were spurred on to write it after an encounter with a Greek fruit seller who had the unique practice of “beginning every sentence with a ‘Yes,'” as Silver explained to Time Magazine.
“I am an American, of Jewish ancestry, with a wife and a young son…About a year ago my little orchestra was playing at a Long Island hotel,” Silver recalled. “To and from the hotel I was wont to stop at a fruit stand owned by a Greek, who began every sentence with ‘Yes.’ The jingle of his idiom haunted me and my friend Cohn. Finally I wrote this verse and Cohn fitted it with a tune.”
Upon its release, the song was an unlikely hit with its silly, yet endearing, lyrics. Renditions of “Yes! We Have No Bananas” were recorded by some of the biggest stars of the day, including Billy Jones, Billy Murray, Arthur Hall, and Irving Kaufman.
“Yes! We Have No Bananas”
The opening lyrics, which might be considered a tad offensive today, read:
“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 yeses you to death, and as he takes your dough. He tells you…”
Then, the refrain, which has now become iconic, reads: “Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today. We’ve string beans, and onions, cabbages, and scallions, and all sorts of fruit and say…We have an old fashioned to-mah-to, a Long Island po-tah-to, but yes, we have no bananas. We have no bananas today.”
The 1920s song inspired by Greek fruit sellers played a role in history
Some have theorized that Silver’s experience with the Greek fruit seller and his lack of bananas may have been the result of an outbreak of Panama disease, a plant disease that wiped out much of the banana crops at the time.
Due to its popularity both in the US and internationally, the song became the center of many iconic historical and pop culture moments.
In Northern Ireland, the song was a rallying cry during the Outdoor Relief Protests in Belfast in 1932. The movement, which was dedicated to securing social security and welfare benefits, was one of the only in the country’s history that included both Catholics and Protestants protesting on the same side. They used “Yes! We Have No Bananas” as a rallying cry, as it was one of the few non-sectarian songs that members of both groups knew.
The title of the song was widely displayed in fruit shops in the UK during World War II, as the country banned imports of bananas for five years during rations. Fruit sellers displayed the phrase to keep up morale when they sold only locally-produced foods, providing some humor during the war.
The song has also featured prominently in many books, television shows, and movies over the years, including “Tender is the Night,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the film Sabrina in which the star Audrey Hepburn sings the song to Humphrey Bogart while they cruise Long Island Sound on a sailboat.