1923 was a big year for novelty songs. We’ve already noted “Barney Google”, one of the hits of the year. On Twitter, Bill Higgins, who recalls his mother singing that song when he was young, reminded me of an even bigger novelty hit, “Yes! We Have No Bananas”. The rapid expansion of radio broadcasting quickly put the the song into the ears of listeners across the country and beyond, and its sheet music reportedly sold 2 million copies within 3 months of its initial publication. Copyrighted in 1923, and renewed in 1950, the song will join the public domain 24 days from now.
What may not be recalled so much today is how much of the tune echoed earlier tunes by other writers. But many listeners of the time would have known, especially if they’d seen writer and musicologist Sigmund Spaeth perform. His routine “New Tunes for Old”, a mixture of music and comedy similar in some ways to later routines by Victor Borge and Peter Schickele, had as its signature piece “Hallelujah, Bananas!”. In it, Spaeth showed how the chorus to “Yes! We Have No Bananas” could be stitched together (with a bit of tugging of the rhythms and keys) almost entirely from bits of Handel’s Messiah, the Scottish folk-tune “My Bonnie”, the operatic aria “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls”, John Fletcher’s “Seeing Nellie Home”, and Cole Porter‘s 1919 hit “An Old-Fashioned Garden”.
How much of this resemblance was deliberate recycling, and how much was just coincidence? At least some of it was deliberate; in particular, the “old fashioned to-mah-to” phrase in “Bananas” is sung to the melodic motif of Porter’s “Old Fashioned Garden”, and an article about the song that appeared in the June 14, 1923 issue of Variety says that Porter’s publisher granted permission for that bit. On the other hand, Spaeth admits in The Common Sense of Music (1924) that the melodic phrase used for both “oh bring back my Bonnie to me” and “we have no bananas today” is a common melodic ending used in many songs.
With a limited number of tones in the western scale, and a limited number of common chord progressions, patterns, and basic rhythms, pretty much every song reuses elements from other songs. If the “Bananas” chorus could be completely derived from one previous work, one could make a credible argument for plagiarism, but having to quote five different works to reconstruct (most of) the chorus supports the argument that the chorus is mostly an original melange of generic musical patterns that live in the public domain. Indeed, after Spaeth became famous from his performances and books, he was frequently called as an expert witness to make arguments of that sort in court cases alleging musical plagiarism
If someone had brought such a plagiarism suit against “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, it would have also helped that the songs Spaeth cites in his routine (other than the licensed “Old Fashioned Garden”) were legally in the public domain as well. Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus premiered in the 18th century; the “My Bonnie” melody is a traditional folk tune; “Marble Halls” dates from 1843; and “Seeing Nellie Home” is from the 1850s. Since US copyright terms in 1923 ran a maximum of 56 years, copyrights to any of these works had expired well before “Bananas” came out. If the 95-year maximum terms that now apply to 1923’s songs applied then, though, Silver and Cohn might have had more reason to be cautious in their composing.
Much of this article is based on what I learned from Gary A. Rosen’s book Unfair to Genius (2012) as well as Sigmund Spaeth’s Words and Music (1926). I thank Kip Williams and Bill Higgins for pointing me towards these sources. This song’s calendar entry goes out to the folks at Making Light, where the song and its predecessors were discussed some years back. If you’d like to make your own requests or dedications, you can leave them as a blog comment or contact me.
2019 update: Link to sheet music of “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the University of Maine.