Give or take a few thousand…Guinness stunt by a local supermarket brings back memories of Harry Chapin’s epic song based on a real incident
by Marshall Bowden
Earlier this month a grocery store in Westmont, Illinois displayed an outdoor fruit stand of 70,000 lbs. of bananas in a successful attempt to be Guinness Book of World Records certified as world’s largest fruit stand. It was a widely reported local story in Illinois and picked up by national news outlets due to the world record thing.
It instantly reminded me of Harry Chapin’s epic song “30,000 lbs. of Bananas” from his 1974 album Verities and Balderdash. According to his intro of the song during live concerts, Chapin heard the true story about the famous truck crash in Scranton, Pennsylvania from a man he sat next to on a Greyhound bus ride from Cornell University back to New York, and he couldn’t help but work the story into a song. Chapin spoke about it in a 1975 radio interview with Studs Terkel:
“That’s about a trip that I took on a Greyhound bus through Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1965. I wrote a poem about it then eventually put some music to it. But a, and it was really it was a comment on Vietnam War casualties frankly even though it’s about a truck driver and his 30,000 pounds of bananas but we get very enamored with statistics and large numbers and we forget about the human tragedies involved and this is a story song about this guy learning about what had happened to this driver and his 30,000 pounds of bananas and you tend to start laughing about the bananas forgetting about what was happening to the driver.”
Terkel points out “And so we have a crash but there’s something you do it as though, at the very end, as though it were funny, you know.”
Chapin replies: “…The guy who was telling me the story in…the incidental thing was the horror, the real thing to him was the bananas. The fact there were 30,000 pounds of bananas thrown all [over]…”
Chapin’s narrator hits hard on those choruses, when “Big” John Wallace, Chapin’s bassist, would answer Chapin’s call of “Thirty thousand pounds” with a thundering “OF BANANAS!” But Harry the writer works hard to remind us of the human element in this tragedy. His truck driver doesn’t see the warning to shift into low gear because he is thinking of getting home to some sweet lovemaking with his wife. Such is the stuff of human tragedy, and how many truck drivers could relate to this cautionary tale that warns of dire consequences from taking your mind off the task at hand. The story feels real.
In reality, there’s no evidence that the driver in the real incident, Eugene Sesky, was at fault in the accident. It simply appears that his brakes failed somewhere at the top of the steep grade where truckers were required to shift into low gear. But one detail of the true story that Chapin left out (and probably didn’t know at the time) is that, according to eyewitnesses to the accident, Sesky climbed out onto the truck’s running board so that he could simultaneously steer the truck and yell at those in his path to get out of harm’s way. And although there were numerous clipped cars and toppled telephone poles and a handful of people got “Blue-Crossed,” in Chapin’s words, Sesky was the only one who died that day.
`He rode it. He rode it all the way down,” said former Scranton police chief Jim Klee. “He turned out to be a hero.”
The song is reminiscent in some sense, of the Jesse Fuller song “Monkey and the Engineer,” though as Bob Weir says it’s about ‘a tragedy avoided,’ which is definitely not the case with Chapin’s song. It’s performed in a style we’d probably describe today as Americana, but at the time it was more considered to have a country touch. The problem is, it’s not in any way a traditional country song, not least because Harry’s vocal performance is more like a country-style song in a Broadway musical. But it’s a story song–kind of reminds me of Shel Silverstein as well; his song “A Boy Name Sue” became a hit for Johnny Cash in 1969, when I was seven years old. I had the 45 rpm record, it was one of those basement records my friends and I used to spin on suitcase record players after school.
The studio version of the song ends on a humorous note, with Chapin imitating the toothless old-timer who told him the story on the Greyhound–“that really musta been something…thirty thousand pounds of bananas.” As he says in the interview, the guy was obsessed with the spectacle of a veritable mountain of bananas, and that insulates him (and us) from the human tragedy.
Chapin had a couple of tries at coming up with endings for the song’s live performances. The first ends with Chapin and the band singing a chorus of the 1929 hit “Yes We Have No Bananas.” Afterward, Chapin reports that the band came to him and said of the ending: “Harry, it sucks,” which became a catchphrase among Chapin fans, even being imprinted on t-shirts. The second is a tragic country song ending in which the widow of the truck driver watches her son sleeping and then tells us that she never, ever eats bananas. That was also rejected, according to Chapin, who then ends with the version of the original studio recording.
In the early seventies there was a wave of singer-songwriters who did much of what Chapin was doing–capturing the stories, thoughts, emotions and concerns of the famous ‘man in the street.’ John Prine, Jim Croce, Steve Goodman, Arlo Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot, and others wrote both confessional songs and songs that almost bordered on journalism. Billy Joel’s early work, Piano Man, Cold Spring Harbor, and Street Life, also contained this kind of songwriting, as did the records of James Taylor and Paul Simon. It requires a strong, individual (writing) voice and is less prominent today, though it certainly still exists.
When I saw the news story about the Guinness Book entry of 70,000 lbs. of bananas in Westmont, accompanied by an aerial shot of the bananas being displayed in the Jewel parking lot, I thought, like many others, ‘that’s a lot of bananas!’ Then my mind flashed to Harry Chapin’s song. Then to the recollection that it was a true story and thoughts about the real truck driver who did everything he could to alert people and avoid crashing into them. That’s something that music can do better than almost any other art form–make connections and take you back to a story, an experience, or an emotion. It can take you back to a place and time and make you feel exactly what you felt then, for better or worse. And it can heal, too.