Friday, December 07, 2007

Song of the Week: One Meatball (and no spaghetti)

I first heard the song One Meatball at a friend's elopement 12 years ago here in Seattle, prior to her fancy wedding across the country. Over the years, I meant to find a recording, but didn't think about it until recently, when I was making meatballs out of ground lamb. I started singing the chorus to Lucia, and when she wanted to know the rest of the words, I knew I had my next Song of the Week.

"One Meatball" was adapted by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer in 1944 from an older version of a song called "The Lone Fish Ball," and popularized by Josh White, Dave Van Ronk, and other musicians. According to Duckbaker on the Mudcat forum,

"'One Meatball' may be the only well-known song in the folk tradition that was written by a Harvard professor. Its author was [George] Martin Lane, and Botkin noted the irony of a man highly regarded as a great Latin scholar having all of his "serious" work forgotten.... One evening, Lane was trying to make his way to Cambridge, MA, from Boston. He discovered that he had only 25 cents, which was not enough for both supper and the fare need to get to Cambridge. As he was very tired and hungry, he stopped at a local diner and asked for half of a serving of macaroni. After he had recounted the story to his friends, he wrote a comic ballad, called the 'Lay of the One Fishball.'"

You can read the entire thread here, including information about the comic opera in which the song appeared.

The chord changes from D to C7 and then C7 to B7 are a little tricky, and take some getting used to. I'm trying to take them slowly, though the impulse is to speed up to a perkier tempo. You could get away with playing a C chord instead of C7, but then you'd miss out on the bluesy sound that makes the song so much fun to hear. For those of you who thought E minor was the easiest chord to play, you're in for a pleasant surprise: E minor 7 is even easier, as it only requires one finger (yes, there are different notations, but you want the one that does indeed only requires you to place your index finger on the A string, second fret).

lyrics by Hy Zaret, music by Lou Singer

INTRO (2x)
Em D C7 B7

A [Em] little man walked [B7] up and down
To find an eating [Em] place in town
He read the [Em7] menu through and through
To [B7] see what fifteen cents could do

[Em]One meat [D]ball, [C7 B7] [Em]One meat [D]ball, [C7 B7]
[Em]He could afford but [B7]one meat [Em] ball. [C7 B7]

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,

"One meatball, one meatball?
This here gent wants one meatball."

The little man felt ill at ease,
Said, "Some bread, sir, if you please."
The waiter hollered down the hall,
"You get no bread with one meatball.

"One meatball, one meatball,
Well, you gets no bread with one meatball."

The little man felt very bad,
One meatball was all he had,
And in his dreams, he hears that call,
"You get no bread with one meatball.

"One meatball (and no spaghetti!), one meatball,
Well, you get no bread with one meatball."

You may view and listen to Josh White's version here, or listen to snippets of Ann Rabson's version here and Dave Van Ronk's version here (track #18).


Lone Star Ma said...

That's a good story.

Jack said...

Hi there. Just a note to say the change from C7 to B7 might be easier for you if you use the blues way of doing it; i.e. use the same shape for C7 as for B7, only moved up a fret. Then just step back for B7. (You will need to damp the B string in the C7 position).

Saints and Spinners said...

Jack: Thanks so much for the tip! I'll try it. Over a year after I posted this piece, the chord changes are a lot more fluid.