Okay, today I’m taking a break from my ongoing series on candles and wax. Don’t worry (or maybe you should worry, depending). I’ll be back to it soon enough. But, right now, I want to write about something else.
Specifically, I want to write about a pleasant time we had with my son, a bit of American popular history, something musical, something about injustice and racism, and …
The last part is particularly important. So you might want to take notes.
One (Massive) Meatball
Last week, my son was on his own for a bit. His wife and daughter had gone down to Dallas to visit her mother. So, he invited Martha and me down for dinner at their place in Austin.
David, that’s my son, is a talented amateur chef. In fact, for a very long time, I assumed he would go into the food services industry. But, he surprised me by becoming architect, instead. I don’t know why he made that choice, but I’m guessing it had something to do with the fact that he enjoys cooking and wants to keep it a pleasant pastime rather than make it a profession. I can understand that. Nothing takes the joy out of a hobby like turning it into something you have-to-do 9 to 5.
Anyway, we got to his house and he showed us what he was working on that evening. He was making meatballs. Not little ones like the ones we Americans put into spaghetti, but huge ones. And I mean huge. They were the size of softballs.
I believe that he said they were Neapolitan Meatballs. He’d come across the recipe somewhere and decided to make it for our shared dinner. We watched as he mixed ground beef and bread, and then covered the lot with breadcrumbs. Then he refrigerated the meatballs. Otherwise, he explained, they developed a flat bottom and so were asymmetrical.
Next, he baked them in a hot oven while he prepared a ragu. After that, he put the meatballs in a saucepan with the ragu and finished the cooking. I expected him to serve them on plates with pasta, but, no. They went into bowls by themselves.
We each got a single, huge meatball. He presented them to us, each with a carefully sculpted piece of bread.
They were delicious. Very rich. Very potent. We enjoyed them enormously.
On the way home, Martha and I joked about how they were the kind of food that we should eat only with a deep, underlying sense of guilt and sin. Because, of course, you enjoy it enormously, but your cardiologist would never respect you in the morning.
Okay, next comes the song.
That night, I vaguely recalled that there is a song whose title is simply “One Meatball.” It’s a comic song, and I remember my father singing it to annoy my mother. I have to confess, I have sung what little I recall of it to annoy Martha.
I remembered, also, and again very vaguely, seeing it sung in a movie. But more about that later.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share the song with David in honor of the meal, so I headed off into the web with Google. Sure enough, I soon turned up a performance. Specifically, it was by Josh White (1914-1969), an African-American singer-songwriter whose Wikipedia entry describes him as, “an American singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor and civil rights activist.”(1)
Specifically, I found a recording of him singing “One Meatball,” on Youtube. It’s here, if you want to hear it: https://youtu.be/I5banQi2LuM Or, just click on the image below.
To hear to Mr. White, click on the image above.
And it should be heard. Mr. White’s voice was amazingly powerful.
Oh, and here are the lyrics to the tune:
A little man walked up and
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
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
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.
"One meat ball, one meat ball,
Well, you gets no bread with one
Anyway, I sent the link to David and he wrote back and said that he’d really enjoyed it. Which, I was glad about.
But then, of course, I needed to find out more about the song. Where did it come from? Who wrote it? And what was the movie that I’d seen it in?
So, I returned to the web, search-engine in hand, to research a bit more. That’s when I got a shock. The song was originally…wait for it… “One Fish Ball,” and was written by a full professor at Harvard University. No kidding. His name was George Martin Lane (1823-1897), who eventually became a professor of Latin at Harvard. But, he seems to have been a jolly man with a keen sense of humor, and a long memory. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he’d frequently been shy the plug nickel necessary for a meal. Later, remembering a certain very unpleasant encounter with a waiter when he’d tried to find something to eat for 25¢ (all he had in the world), he wrote a comic song about the incident.(3)
This was before platinum albums and social media influencers, but, still, his song caught on, particularly with Harvard students (some of whom were also chronically sort of the price of a meal) and “One Fishball” became a kind of unofficial anthem of Harvard. It stayed popular right up the end the century. There was even a mock opera written that used the tune.
Okay, then Fish Ball slowly began to fade away…until, the tune was re-discovered in the 1940s by song-smiths Hy Zaret and Lou Singer. They gave it a blues tune and turned “fishball” into “meatball.” That’s when Josh White found the revised version and performed the song. It was a rip-roaring success and became White’s single biggest hit.
Other, white musicians then rushed to cover the tune as well. Among others, The Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby both did versions of Meatball.(4)
Ah, but who was Josh White?
And that’s where the story gets complicated.
Josh White was born in South Carolina, the son of a minister. I suppose his life would have been relatively comfortable had his circumstances not changed. But, change they did. His father threw a white bill collector out of his house…and for his action was beaten nearly to death by an enraged white mob. White’s father was eventually sent to a mental institution where he died some years later.(5)
In a desperate attempt to make money for his family, White then went on the road as a street musician. He was still underaged, by the way, and seems to have been horribly mistreated by his associates and others along the way.
Gradually, though, White got a bit of luck. He came to the attention of big name musicians and even recording companies. By the 1940s, he was a success by any measure. His songs were hits. He was a regular performer at the Cafe Society and Café Society Uptown clubs in New York. He had a regular radio show, and he’d appeared on Broadway. His friends included movie stars and musicians, international figures, and…The Roosevelts, who discovered him early, loved his music and personality, and promoted him.
Those were his friends.
His enemies were rather more deadly.
For reasons of time and space, I’m going to leave out here a great many important details. White lived a complicated life, with a few controversies, and I don’t want to try to get into all his various entanglements. But, suffice to say that White was an early and forceful advocate for desegregation and what would later be called Black Liberation. Needless to say, this did not endear him to a great many people. Soon, he was accused of being a Communist (which, by the way, he wasn’t).
For so long as the Roosevelts were alive, that didn’t seem to matter. But, then, FDR died, and Eleanor Roosevelt was soon the subject of what amounted to a smear campaign. She was herself accused of being a Communist sympathizer, and she was soon unable to protect her friends.
And so White was left alone to face the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Red Witch Hunt of the 1950s. He would be blacklisted and his career in the United States was effectively over.
Tragically, and ironically, in an attempt to clear his name, White would testify before Congress. This did not serve him well, as he was blacklisted by the Right anyway. But, worse, the Left effectively blacklisted White as well. Since he had been a “friendly witness” and had voluntarily appeared before HUAC—or so went the argument—he must be a traitor to the cause. Thus, when the folk music scene revived in the 1960s, Josh White was excluded from its festivals and gatherings. Cancel culture, alas, has always been with us.
The story does have a little bit of a happy ending. White lived overseas for a time, mostly in London. Then, in 1955, a very young, very brash record company owner, Jac Holzman, signed White for Elektra Records, which won him new fans. In 1963, President Kennedy invited him to appear with him on a televised civil rights special. And, after that, White slowly recreated his career.
Finally, he passed on in 1969. Scores, if not hundreds, of musicians have cited him as a major influence on their lives and their careers.
But what about that movie? I was sure I’d seen a movie in which a character sang “One Meatball.”
I went back to Youtube and discovered that White himself had sung the song on the silver screen. It turns out that he had part in a 1945 film, The Crimson Canary, which is a murder mystery dealing with a (white) jazz band and the death of “a beautiful nightclub singer,” the canary of the title.
Anyway, in the film, White appears and sings two pieces, “Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho,” and “One Meatball.” Elijah Wald, a musician, writer, and historian, has done the world a service by posting that scene to his Youtube account, and you can see it here: https://youtu.be/87uVJ42QZqQ
Once again, just click on the image above
According to Mr. Wald, the video gives you a fairly good idea of what White was like in concert and when he was performing at his beloved Cafe Society clubs.
I strongly urge you watch the piece. It is, in its way, powerful.
The kicker? I’ve watched and watched the clip from Crimson Canary, and it is almost but not quite the scene I remember. I recall something just a little different…
For a time, I wondered if there might not be another movie out there…maybe a remake of Crimson Canary…which looked like, but wasn’t exactly the movie I’d discovered on YouTube. But, no. I found no references to other films that had the same or a similar scene.
Finally, I decided that what had happened was that I had re-edited the film in my memory. It is something I find I do frequently, particularly with films and TV shows I saw as a child. I revise them, unconsciously, to make them either better or, at least, more relevant to my own life. For example, the number of science fiction films I remember as being quite amazing…only to be revealed as utter tripe on re-watching…is without number.
Thus, the movie that I remember is, like Canary, set in a cafe or cabaret, but it isn’t as high class as the Cafe Society club. It is more of a beatnik dive. The film is in black and white, and it is set in the late 1950s or the very early 1960s. The singer is a black man, and like White, performs with a cigarette behind his ear. And, yes, he does “One Meatball.”
But, he is seated rather than standing, and he is solemn. He does not smile. No one in his (racially mixed) audience laughs. They are silent. He performs the song as a kind of warning. This, he says, is what hunger and desperation look like. This is what humiliation looks like. And, remember, no matter how privileged you are, no matter how white you may be, eventually you could suffer the same…the gnawing in the belly, the contempt of others.
Remember, too, he says (if not quite saying it aloud), there will be a price to pay if we do not act, and act swiftly, to end that hunger, and to erase the shame…
And that price may be violence…
As I say, I have mentally, and unconsciously, re-shot the scene in my head.
But, I wonder, if the me which first saw the scene…I must have been about six at the time…didn’t actually get it right. I wonder if the child that I was then didn’t read into that scene both the tensions of the time it was made, and the tensions of the time in which I lived.
I wonder if, somehow, that child…despite his extreme youth…didn’t somehow see what Josh White was saying…
Even though he said it with a smile.
And maybe everyone always knew what he was saying.
We just pretended otherwise.
Well, anyway…that’s the story the “One Meatball,” and the One Fishball, and the blues singer, and the Harvard Professor…and the Roosevelts, and HUAC, and my own strange memory…and the curious ways that all of them somehow link together.
I think, now, I shall go have a bite of lunch. Perhaps I will have a meatball. Our talented son gave us two to bring home. I would so hate for them to go to waste. Would be an actual crime for them not to be eaten, wouldn’t you agree?
But, maybe, while I’m at it, I will think…
Of all those who hunger…
Of those who were punished by the rich and the powerful for pointing out that hunger, and suggesting that it might not be a good thing…or an inevitable thing…
And of a song….
Which is, on the face of it, rather comic…
But which is, in fact, a warning…
Of all that will occur, and will be terrible…
If we fail to hear the pain…
Beneath the laughter.
Until next time…
Onward and Upward.
Copyright©2021 Michael Jay Tucker
Josh White, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josh_White
2. “Song for Hard Times,” by Primus V, “The Harvard Pump,” Harvard Magazine, May-June 2009, https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2009/05/song-hard-times
3. See Primus, above, and Lane’s Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Martin_Lane
4. Lane, “Wikipedia.”
5. For the details of Josh White’s life, I rely on his entry in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josh_White