Bananas, Fungus and the Songwriters

by Dan Koeppel, 2008
Food shortages are not funny, as many people today and in our collective history can tell you. Drought, excessive rain, and disease can wipe out a food supply for many people.  These shortages can be significant and may lead to malnutrition.  Malnutrition can lead to increased incidence of various diseases including infectious diseases.  No one can dispute, reasonably, that the potato famine didn't have serious effects on the Irish, nor the concentration camps on the Jewish.  Malnutrition is serious;  it affects many in the US, but is most severe in developing nations such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and others.

On the lighter side, a novelty song may have been born out of a shortage of bananas in a New York grocery store in the early 1920's.  In 1923 Frank Silver and Irving Cohn published "Yes, We Have No Bananas", a song that became a smashing the chagrin of Harry L. Alford, composer, music arranger and publisher in Chicago who rejected the work.  It's been passed down that he said something like "It was the biggest business mistake I made.  I would never have thought that a song about bananas would sell like that".  My Grandmother would say this and shake her head, remembering her father's dismay. The Missouri Jazz Hounds play the song here, a free download from the Internet Archive.

The full lyrics to Yes, We Have No Bananas are available online.  Here is the first stanza:

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-a no bananas today.
We've string beans, and onions
Cabbageses, 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."

Obviously, a shortage of one food in our grocery store may not seem like a big deal, but it was then and is now, as Dan Koeppel outlines in his book "Banana:  The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World" and an earlier article.  A fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, otherwise known as Panama Disease, wiped out the Gros Michael banana that was known to America until that time in the 1920's.  Now we have the Cavendish variety [there are others], still susceptible to Fusarium and other species of fungus, and is currently endangered again, in many parts of the world.

A fungus took the potato from the Irish.  Phytophthora infestans causes late blight in the potato and was the likely culprit.  Early potato blight is caused by Alternaria solani.  Tomato blight caused a shortage of tomatoes last year in the US.  Main causes of tomato blight are Verticillium, Fusarium, and Alternaria.

Toxins produced by Fusarium--fumonisins [interfere with absoption of folic acid by cells of body] and trichothecenes have caused many problems in our time.  Fusarium-contaminated wheat flour in the 1920's in Russia killed over 100,000 people, and high fumonisin in corn [during a drought year] may have lead to many babies in Texas being born with multiple neural tube defects such as anencephaly--without a brain.

These fungi are not all bad, perhaps.  Fusarium venenatum--used to produce Quorn, is eaten by some vegetarians as a mycoprotein source.
One Hundred Years
of Solitude by
 Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Back to the banana.  Bananas are a major food source for many people and are the most popular fruit in the US.  They are fun to look at, eat, smash, and sing about too.  In addition, their latin name is Musa, yet bananas have a dark history.  Many scholars believe that the banana is the original fruit on the tree of knowledge and the banana, for better or worse, started the fruit industry that we know today.  It is and has been the continuing source of land and ecological strife, murder, poisoning, and even Gabriel García Márquez details the Columbian Banana Massacre of 1929 in "One Hundred Years of Solitude".

Interesting history of a fruit.  Relevant to us. Relevant to infectious diseases...Inspires the arts.


  1. Nice piece of work. I liked it, especially since bananas are one of my favorite fruits.

  2. @ Ernie...thank you very much for your comment. Please feel free to read anytime.

  3. Interesting post. I remember when I visited East Germany (when it was still divided from West Germany by the Berlin Wall). One group of people I met were obsessed with the lack of bananas in their country.


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