Circa 2001 I was DJing at KALX in Berkeley, and we were required to play a certain number of songs per hour from the bin of new arrivals. So I spent a lot of time scouring the racks, and one day came across a compilation called Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970. This is not normally in my wheelhouse but, ever striving to be open-minded, I perused it. And there was Josh White’s name next to a song called “One Meat Ball.”
And therein lies tale, a rather long one; stick with me here.
According to the site Folk Den, in 1955,
Harvard professor George Martin Lane (1823-1897), arriving in Boston after a journey, found himself hungry and had only 25 cents in his pocket. He needed to reserve half that money to pay his carfare to Cambridge. With the remaining 12 cents he entered a restaurant and ordered the least expensive item on the menu. It happened to be macaroni.
Lane was aghast to discover that the waiter not only treated him with disdain, but refused to give him any bread with his meal. He turned this experience into a poem — changing the dish in question to “one fish ball, a favorite breakfast food of Harvard undergraduates,” says Folk Den — and then a song. (Wikipedia says that he lifted the melody from the traditional camp song “Sipping Cider Through a Straw,” though I don’t really hear it.)
The lyrics go something like this:
There was a man went up and down,
To seek a dinner thro’ the town.
What wretch is he who wife forsakes,
Who best of jam and waffles makes!
He feels his cash to know his pence,
And finds he has but just six cents.
He finds at last a right cheap place,
And enters in with modest face.
The bill of fare he searches through,
To see what his six cents will do.
The cheapest viand of them all,
Is “Twelve and a half cents for two Fish-ball.”
The waiter he to him doth call,
And gently whispers – “One Fish-ball.”
The waiter roars it through the hall,
The guests they start at “One Fish-ball!”
The guest then says, quite ill at ease,
“A piece of bread, sir, if you please.”
The waiter roars it through the hall,
“We don’t give bread with one Fish-ball.”
Who would have bread with his Fish-ball,
Must get it first, or not at all.
Who would Fish-ball with fixin’s eat,
Must get some friend to stand a treat.
After becoming popular among Harvard undergraduates, it was translated into a mock Italian operetta, Il Pesceballo by faculty members Francis James Child, James Russell Lowell, and John Knowles Paine, set to a pastiche of grand opera music, and performed in Boston and Cambridge to raise funds for the Union army. A fish ball was for breakfast, a cooked fish and potatoes pan fried together, in New England.
There are no YouTube videos from the 19th century, but in 2017 a musician named David Kelly recorded a version meant to capture the flavor (no pun intended):
Fast forward to 1944. Songwriters Hy Zaret (author of “Unchained Melody”) and Lou Singer were looking around for new material. Something reminded them of the old song, which they rewrote as “One Meat Ball” and offered to Josh White, an up-and-coming star at the time. White knew a good thing when he heard it, and his version became “the first million-selling record by a male African-American artist” (says yer Wkipedia). The original iteration “One Fish Ball” raised the issue of class — ironic though it may have been that the writer was a Harvard professor — and it is foregrounded in the Zaret/Singer version by calling the protagonist “the little man”:
A little man walked up and down,
He found an eating place in town,
He read the menu through and through,
To see what fifteen cents could do.
One meat ball, one meat ball,
He could afford but one meat ball.
He told the waiter near at hand,
The simple dinner he had planned.
The guests were startled, one and all,
To hear that waiter loudly call, “What,
“One meat ball, one meat ball?
Hey, this here gent wants one meat ball.”
The little man felt ill at ease,
Said, “Some bread, sir, if you please.”
The waiter hollered down the hall,
“You gets no bread with one meat ball.
“One meat ball, one meat ball,
Well, you gets no bread with one meat ball.”
The little man felt very bad,
One meat ball was all he had,
And in his dreams he hears that call,
“You gets no bread with one meat ball.”
In White’s hands it can’t help taking on racial overtones as well, but that’s is a whole other can of worms that I don’t necessarily want to open here, not yet anyway. So I’ll leave you for now with this clip of Josh White performing live from the 1944 movie The Crimson Canary, which Allmovie.com tells us was “an offbeat Universal murder mystery … set in the very special world of jazz musicians.” (It’s worth clicking through and reading the notes by author Elijah Wald.)