Saturday, March 17, 2012

Come, Mr. Yossarian, Tally Me Bananas

Alan Arkin, longtime actor and Academy Award winner for Little Miss Sunshine, is often credited as the coauthor of Harry Belafonte's classic hit "Banana Boat (Day-O)," which was a huge hit back in 1957. See, for instance, here. Alan Arkin, right? It seems too good to be true.

And it isn't - true, that is. Arkin was a member of a folk trio called the Tarriers, alongside Erik Darling, who was later in both the Weavers and the Rooftop Singers of "Walk Right In" fame. The Tarriers also recorded "Banana Boat," and even had a hit with it. In fact their version went to Number Four, while Belafonte's only went to Number Five, in what seems to have been a Pat Boone/Fats Domino kind of thing. But the song had been around for a while; it's often described as a Jamaican folk song, and had been recorded as early as 1952 by a Trinidadian singer named Edric O'Connor. All the sources I can find say that the Tarriers got the song from the folk singer Bob Gibson.

Nevertheless, the label of the Tarriers' single does credit them with writing the song. Here, see for yourself:

Weird, right? I can think of three reasons why this would happen:

* The Tarriers would get more money if they claimed they wrote the song, as opposed to just crediting it to Trad.
* Songwriting credits in those days were subject to notoriously unscrupulous factors.
* The Tarriers' version also interpolated part of another tune, a traditional Jamaican folk song called "Hill and Gully Rider." So in one sense, it was an original creation.

I can't find a copy of the label of Harry Belafonte's single, but I have seen a piece of sheet music that credits the song to Irving Burgie and William Attaway. And who knows, they may have had something to do with the creation of the song as well. But they ain't Alan Arkin.

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