Johnny Neel: One Meatball
I first heard the song “One Meatball” sung by my father as he shared a fond memory from his younger days. For this reason, I always assumed that the song originated in the Great Depression. As it turns out, that is not the case at all.
The original version of the song dates from 1850, and became variously known as “One Fishball” or “The Lone Fishball”. The melody was not the one we know now, and the metamorphosis into a meatball was still years away, but the story was essentially the same. The song was adapted into a comic opera in 1862, called Il Pesceballo. I found a review of the opera which tells how the song came to be written:
“Il Pesceballo is a nineteenth-century American pasticcio opera written by Francis James Child, a Harvard English professor and opera lover. The text was originally inspired by an incident which occurred to a colleague of his. One evening Martin 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." A fishball was a fried New England concoction made of potatoes and fish stock, and usually eaten for breakfast. The ballad became very popular with Harvard students, and inspired Child's opera.” *
From there, the song kicked around for many years, occasionally being collected in songbooks. The fact that the fishball was a regional dish, virtually unknown outside of New England, limited the song’s appeal. In 1944, Hy Zaret and Lou Singer created the version we are familiar with today, and the fishball became a meatball. Early recordings of “One Meatball” included one by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. The folksinger Josh White Jr. began performing the song, and became its greatest popularizer.
Nowadays, the song tends to be regarded as a kid’s song, which sometimes means that it is given a syrupy production. But version heard here avoids those pitfalls, even though it comes from an album of food songs that Disney crassly released as a tie-in with the movie Ratatouille.
* This text comes from a thread found on The Mudcat Cafe. This is a wonderful resource for researching folk and blues songs