I got this from Josh White, of course. It was his big hit, and a terrific performance. I’ve written about Josh in a previous post, and before that I wrote a whole book about him. It was my first book, and a true labor of love — it took five years to write, and for most of that time a good agent was trying to find it a good home, and he never found one so we ended up at a UMass Press, which was fine, but we’d hoped for someplace that could have gotten it into a lot more hands. Not because it was such a great book (though I’m happy with it), but because I’d hoped to spark a major Josh White revival.
He sure deserves one, and the most annoying thing is it was songs like this that keep standing in his way. Because it’s a great song and he did it brilliantly, but it’s a New York cabaret number, and when people revive black singer/guitarists of the 1930s or ’40s they seem to always want bluesmen from the deep, dark Delta, or at least street singers from the Carolinas.
As it happens, Josh was from Greenville, South Carolina, and spent his early teens roaming the South as a “lead boy” for blind street singers — which is to say, he was as “authentic” a blues artist as anyone could want. But he was also very smart, hip, and versatile, so when he got a chance to reshape himself as a nightclub singer, he became one of the most popular cabaret artists in New York. His main venue was Cafe Society, and he was the star attraction there for four years straight, as well as appearing in movies and on Broadway, touring across the country and later around the world, becoming the first performer ever featured on all three BBC channels, and all sorts of other triumphs–because he was a terrific musician, a charismatic performer, and handsome, and funny, and charming.
He was also one of my all-time favorite guitar players, and although I don’t really play this in his style, I do use his unusual F7 chord,* which I learned from his son, Josh Jr. — who is also a fine musician and performer, and worthy of more attention.
As for the song, here’s the story roughly as I wrote it up for the liner notes to the Smithsonian/Folkways CD of Josh’s work:
The song was copyrighted by two Tin Pan Alley pros, Lou Singer and Hy Zaret, who had previously given Josh the pseudo-pastoral “The Lass with the Delicate Air.” Singer said they brought it to Josh and first arranged for him to record it as a wartime V-disc. The cover of the original sheet music describes the song as “presented by Barney Josephson,” Josh’s boss at Cafe Society, at both his Uptown and Downtown locations, the Uptown version being done by the singing pantomimist Jimmy Savo. The Andrews Sisters picked it up as well, putting it on the flip side of “Rum and Coca Cola” and taking it to number 15 on the pop charts.
Once the song hit, there was a hot debate about its origins, and PM magazine devoted a full-page article to elucidating the mystery. It traces the song back to a burlesque epic poem, “The Lay of the Lone Fish Ball” apparently written by a Latin professor at Harvard University around 1850. Two other Harvard men, the poet James Russell Lowell and the folklorist Francis James Child, expanded this into an burlesque Italian opera, Il Pescebello. Then, many decades later, Zaret and Singer heard someone sing a partial version of “One Fish Ball” at a party, and were inspired to write a modern song on the same theme, using many of the original lines, but putting them to a new tune and removing the mock-heroic language.
Though the Andrews’ version was the one that made the charts, most people associated the song with Josh. As a New Yorker critic put it: “Listening . . . to Josh White apply his expert talent to ‘One Meat Ball’ (which is getting to be something of a nuisance around town), I was moved to wish that the city would make it a crime for anyone else to attempt it. Come to think of it, it already is.”
*As for that F7, it’s played by wrapping your thumb around the 6th string on the first fret; barring the 1st through 4th strings with your index finger, likewise on the first fret; and holding down the 3rd string on the second fret with your middle finger.