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English Acquisition by Immigrants (1880-1940): The Confrontation as Reflected in Early Sound Recordings Eric Byron

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Popular Songs Translated

Immigrant recording artists increased the meaning of their work by adding English to their recordings, but they also revised popular American songs in order to create novel interpretations of original compositions. They usually kept the music and some of the key English words and then reinterpreted the rest of the text to make some kind of statement that may or may not be consistent with the English version. For example, Eduardo Migliaccio, reworked the incredibly successful 1920s recording "Yes, We Have No Bananas" by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn for an immigrant Italian audience in 1923 on Victor 73980. The Silver and Cohn lyrics (and dialogue on some recordings) played upon the difficulties a non-immigrant American encounters when trying to order something to eat in a Greek fruit store. An excerpt from the Billy Jones version recorded on Edison Diamond Disc 51183 recorded circa 1923 (Zwarg) has the following:

"There's a fruit store on our street.
It's run by a Greek,
And he keeps good thing to eat,
But you should hear him speak!
When you ask him anything,
He never answers no. He just yeses you to death,
And then he takes your dough.
He tells you, yes, of course,
We have no bananas.
We have no bananas today." [13]

Migliaccio keeps the title of the work, the music and a bit of English including, "Yes, We Have No Bananas" to create an entirely different composition, a portion of which focuses on the sexual associations connected with bananas.

"Aisser' co' mia moglie
Durmenn' smaniava
'France', che c'hai, te lagn'
'No, nient', me sunnav
Nun saccj' che afferraj,
j tremm' sana sana"
Dicett' 'Me parev' che acchiapp' 'na banana'
Tant' ca l' piac' sa sogna pur' a notte
e dopo j puveriell' me par' 'na pera cotta
Too much te fa mal' I say
That's why you have no bananas,
You have no bananas today."


"Last night my wife
was troubled while sleeping.
I asked her: 'What's going on?'
'Nothing, I was dreaming
I seized a banana'
She likes bananas so much that she even dreams them!
And afterwards, the poor me, I am like a cooked pear.
Too much is not good for you.
That's why you have no bananas,
You have no bananas today." [14]

Image: Advertisement for a Sonora phonograph published in Americky Kalendar Pre Slovakov-Luteranov, n.d. Translation: "Sonora Phonograph. Buy one of these machines to have more fun at home, its voice is nice and sounds clear. It won the highest prize at the fair in Panama. Price 55.00 and up." Translated by Tomas Vajda. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center.

"Yes, We Have No Bananas" is not the only example of a non-immigrant recording in English that was remade by and for immigrants that plays on a sexual motif. The database suggests that there are others, such as the 1927 "Jak To Ozenic Sie Gdy" or (It Ain't Gonna Rain No More) by Dwojka Warszawska on Okeh 11325 for a Polish immigrant audience.

"Arek chce sie zenic, pieniedzy kupe ma
Ale do malzenstwa to co innego trza
OJ! It ain't gonna rain no more
Jak mozna sie zenic gdy ain't gonna rain no more

Mloda mezateczka na meza skarzy sie
Ze podobno nie wie on jak to kochac sie
OJ! It ain't gonna rain no more
Jak to mozna kochac sie gdy ain't gonna rain no more."


"Arek wants to get married, he has lots of money,
But marriage needs something else.
Oh! It ain't gonna rain no more.
How you can be married when it ain't gonna rain no more?

Young wife complains about her husband that he doesn't know how to make love.
Oh! It ain't gonna rain no more.
How you can love when it ain't gonna rain no more?"[15]

Of all the reinterpreted recordings that the database has so far listed, Eduardo Migliaccio's "A Do Fatico Giova" Italian adaptation of "Where Do You Work-a John?" must certainly be one of the most fascinating. In the original version by Mortimer Weinberg and Charles Marks, two Italians stereotypically discuss in English with an Italian accent the kind of manual work they do and the work that is available. The exchange takes place in a barbershop and starts off in the 1927 (Settlemier) Columbia 875-D version with the entrance of an Irish customer who wants a shave. The Irish customer speaks in standard American English and most likely acts as a foil to the Italian accented, broken English with which the Italians converse.

Joe: "Where do you work-a John?"
John: "On the Delaware Lakawan."
Joe: "Well, what you do-a John?"
John: "I push, I push, I push."
Joe: "And what you push-a, John?"
John: "I push, I push-a the truck."
Joe: "And where you push-a John?"
John: "On the Delaware Lackawan." [16]

The 1927 Victor 79157 pressing of "A Do Fatico, Giova" utilizes the same music and periodically English words and phrases such as "me push" and "work in the subway." However, unlike the general American version, this variation wants the audience to understand the need for work, any work that will provide an income.

"Da che è spusat, Ciccio o spugliat
Iss nun po fatica
E a muglier ha cacciat da casa
E bello scuorn quasi ogne juorn
A chiunque sta a ncuntra savvicina e le fa sta dimann':

Addo fatic, Giova?
J work in the ...
J nun te capisc, Giova
Me push, me push, me push
Ma tu che pushi, Giova?
Me push, me push the truck
Aggie pacienza, Giova, portam a me pur a pushià, pushià
Giova , accompagnam a pushia."

"Since he got married,
Ciccio hasn't found a job.
His wife threw him out of the house.
Every day he asks everybody he meets:

Where do you work, John?
I work in the ... .
I don't understand you, John.
I push, I push, I push
What's that you push, John?
I push, I push the truck.
Be patient, John.
Please, bring me with you to push." [17]

Image: Cav. Diego Giannini with orchestra, "Poor Valentino," Okeh 9287-A, recorded in September 1926.

Of course, many of the immigrants, and certainly their children, did learn English, and gradually the recordings reflect the linguistic ease with which these people lived in the United States. Over time, the use of ethnic languages tends to diminish until there may be just enough ethnic words in a composition to imply that the record belonged to a specific group. For example, in the post-World War II recording "I Found Gold, " performed by Lee Tully on Jubilee 3504, only the Italian names "Luigi" and "Giusepp" make the recording Italian. The rest of the song uses English words.

"Two miners, one Luigi and his partner called Giusepp,
A pair of gold prospectors with vim and lots of pep.
Now one day Joe was feeling low.
He lay down for a spell.
Quick as a flash he got off his back as he heard Luigi yell." [18]

Researchers can presently access the database in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum library. Copyright restrictions limit putting the entire database on the Internet, but at some point it may be possible to share a modified version online. In order to continue to pursue the work, transcriptions and translations of these recordings are needed, particularly those recorded for the ethnic market. Currently, there are hundreds of recordings in immigrant Yiddish and various immigrant Italian dialects that should be reviewed. Please contact the Park if you have the time and interest to undertake this challenging but rewarding volunteer work.


Eric Byron is the Coordinator of the Ellis Island Discography Project at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum of the National Park Service. He can be reached at (212) 363-3206 ext. 153.n

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