Bananas of all things - hit song of the 20s
Emma Derksen / Music Education
Photo: UniService Transfer

Bananas of all things...

Musicologist Emma Derksen on the successful song with the naughty chorus

"Yes! We have no bananas" is a US fox-trot hit by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, which was given German lyrics in 1923 and is still very well known today. What German song is it and how does it differ from the original?

Derksen: "Yes! We have no Bananas", originally from the Broadway revue 'Make it Snappy` (premiered April 13, 1922 in New York), was taken out of this context and published individually, which was common at the time. In 1919, Americanization began in the Weimar Republic, everything American was in vogue, the population found it wonderful. It was something new, foreign, exciting. Of course, the song was written in English and it was to be feared that it would not find commercial sales in this version. Therefore, many English-language songs were translated, not necessarily literally, but rather freely. Sometimes only the melody was taken over and the lyrics were newly composed. "Yes! We have no bananas" was changed to "Bananas of all things", the bananas remained, but the text content is quite different. The original text is about a Greek fruit seller in an American city who never uses the word "no" when talking to customers and therefore always comments on the lack of bananas in his assortment with the phrase "Yes! We have no bananas"! In the German version, which was written by Fritz Löhner-Beda, the latter made his own thing out of it. He wrote a somewhat bawdy story about the courtship of a fruit seller who can't serve his beloved with the bananas she wants. Löhner-Beda's version turned out a bit obscene, which people liked. After all, the banana metaphor in this song is very obvious. The journalist Hans Siemsen called this kind of hit song a "song with an indecent chorus". Löhner-Beda kept the fruit seller story, the seller is then called Mr. Meier, who also becomes Don Juan and who likes to convince a woman of himself. Only it is the bananas, of all things, that he cannot offer her. In the course of the song he then becomes more and more precise and the erotic context is obvious. An example of this would be: "Finally he brings her / to him by night, / and she whispers: / 'Je vous prie!' / Meier says: 'Gemacht!' / But how he tries, / nothing is right for her, / because today she wants nothing banal, only bananas."

The German text has survived in the collective memory to this day and was written by a well-known Austrian librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda, who wrote many well-known songs and whose life came to a tragic end. Who was this man?

Derksen: Fritz Löhner-Beda was born in Bohemia in 1883, but lived in Vienna. Originally his name was just Löhner. He began publishing poetry as a high school student, but this was not allowed, so he used the pseudonym "Beda," which he later kept. He actually wanted to become a lawyer, but his writings, which included poems and short stories, became more and more successful, so he gave up his legal profession. He published in renowned magazines and satirically dealt with political, cultural and social issues. In addition, he wrote chanson lyrics and song lyrics for operettas. For example, he also wrote the lyrics to Franz Lehár's famous operetta "Das Land des Lächelns". He hit the nerve of the time with his works. Publishers took notice of him and he was contacted by Bohème-Verlag. That was the publishing house for Schlager at that time. Löhner-Beda was hired there as the main lyricist with a lucrative salary. He was active on boards, was committed, cared about society, was Jewish and also lived his faith. Löhner-Beda was a public figure and published his opinions on political issues. He did all that Nazi Germany did not agree with. Everything went well until the Austrian Anschluss to the German Reich in 1938. He had to resign from all boards, was no longer allowed to work, but did not emigrate despite warnings from his colleagues and friends. In 1938 he was initially sent to the Dachau concentration camp for several months, then transferred to Buchenwald, where he had to work hard, but nevertheless continued to write. He processed his experiences in poems such as "The Prisoner" and finally came to Auschwitz in 1942, where he again worked under inhuman conditions and died.

The refrain line "Ausgerechnet Bananen" (bananas, of all things) has even established itself as an idiom in the German dictionary and stands for displeasure at an undesirable event. We Germans have now integrated many Schlager lyrics into our vernacular. Why is that?

Derksen: The definitions of idioms are not uniform, but one possible one is: 'A widely known, fixed compound of several words, often used figuratively or metaphorically`. This fits nicely with the image of bananas. In the popular music of the 20th century, and thus also in the Schlager, the originators are usually well known. The use as a figure of speech about an undesirable event also fits the origin of the song, which Löhner-Beda rewrote in German, keeping the banana metaphor at all costs, which made him very desperate. So he probably exclaimed somewhat angrily, "Bananas, of all things!" and his title was born. Schlager lyrics pass into our vernacular when they are played frequently, heard by the public and also sung. The music hits the nerve of the time, must address a topic that moves people, which can also be quite everyday things, but which affect everyone. In "Ausgerechnet Bananen" (Bananas, of all things), these two words are also constantly repeated and therefore quickly get stuck in the head. Another example of a song title that has remained in the collective memory of Germans to this day is certainly "Aber bitte mit Sahne" by Udo Jürgens.

The song was so successful that many dance bands recorded it on gramophone records, and even the diseuse Claire Waldoff recorded a version. Fritz Löhner-Beda himself was shocked by the song's success, which is why he published this satirical poem in the Wiener Sonn- und Montagszeitung: "What have I instigated / Shuddering I stand before the gorge / Oh I have poisoned myself / On my own spiritual fruit! / Could I know, could I suspect / That the world is hopping astray / By bananas of all things / This harmless silly fruit?" How can you explain the success of such a hit song?

Derksen: Löhner-Beda explains the success with the mixture of lyrics and melody. The lyrics have to be catchy, and the music and rhythm are easy and stay in the ear. I noticed that myself while I was working on this song, it still works. Today, the interpreter also plays an important role in the marketing. Löhner-Beda wrote the lyrics with the market in mind and knew what people wanted to hear. There is also the fact that in 1923 the first large banana imports came to Germany after the First World War. Bananas became a luxury item during this time and Josephine Baker, for example, wore a banana skirt while dancing, so the banana was very popular in many ways. Moreover, the "we" feeling always plays an important role in Schlager as well. Many people know a song, sing it together - e.g. at concerts - and thus experience the song together. And of course chance always plays a role.

In the 1980s, the song once again served as the theme song in the Maggie commercial for the Five Minute Terrine. Through associative links, seemingly musically conveyed meanings are transferred to products and/or brands. Studies assume that music unconsciously transports meanings emotionally, which consumers understand. Is music perhaps even the only art genre that can convey emotional messages as a universal language?

Derksen: Universal is too broad for me. Music is always something cultural, and not every culture is the same. An emotion that is conveyed in a certain way with Western European music may not be understood at all in the Asian region, because a different musical culture is cultivated there. However, it is important to remember that through globalization cultures are becoming more familiar with each other and thus perhaps the language of music is also becoming more universal.

I would even say that music is by no means the only art form that can do this. If you think of dance or visual art, it always conveys emotional messages. In the case of vocal music, there is certainly always the additional advantage that you can integrate language and thus say directly what is meant. This directness is perhaps not available in other art forms. In many cases, it's about emotions, which every art form triggers and which often can't be grasped linguistically.

The important thing is that they reach people.


Uwe Blass

Emma Derksen, M.Ed. is a research assistant in music education at the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität.

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