Ain't We Got Fun
It was first performed in 1920 in the revue Satires of 1920, then moved into vaudeville and recordings. "Ain't We Got Fun?" and its jaunty response to poverty and its promise of fun ("Every morning / Every evening", and "In the meantime, / In between time") have become symbolic of the Roaring Twenties, and it appears in some of the major literature of the decade, including The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and in Dorothy Parker's award-winning short story of 1929, "Big Blonde". The song also contains variations on the phrase "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer" (substituting, e.g., "children" for "poorer"); though this phrase predates the song, its use increased with the song's popularity.
"Ain't We Got Fun" follows the structure of a foxtrot. The melody uses mainly quarter notes, and has an unsyncopated refrain made up largely of variations on a repeated four-note phrase. The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia describes it as a "Roaring Twenties favourite" and praises its vibrancy, "zesty music", and comic lyrics.
Philip Furia, connecting Kahn's lyrics to the song's music, writes that:
Not only does Kahn use abrupt, colloquial--even ungrammatical--phrases, he abandons syntax for the telegraphic connections of conversation. Truncated phrases like not much money are the verbal equivalent of syncopated musical fragments.— Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Critical appraisals vary regarding what view of poverty the song's lyrics take. Nicholas E. Tawa summarizes the refrain Ain't we got fun as a satirical and jaunty rejoinder toward hard times. Diane Holloway and Bob Cheney, authors of American History in Song: Lyrics from 1900 to 1945, concur, and describe the black humor in the couple's relief that their poverty shields them from worrying about damage to their nonexistent Pierce Arrow luxury automobile.
Yet George Orwell highlights the lyrics of "Ain't We Got Fun" as an example of working class unrest:
All through the war and for a little time afterwards there had been high wages and abundant employment; things were now returning to something worse than normal, and naturally the working class resisted. The men who had fought had been lured into the army by gaudy promises, and they were coming home to a world where there were no jobs and not even any houses. Moreover, they had been at war and were coming home with a soldier's attitude to life, which is fundamentally, in spite of discipline, a lawless attitude. There was a turbulent feeling in the air.— George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
After quoting a few of the song's lines Orwell refers to the era as a time when people had not yet settled down to a lifetime of unemployment mitigated by endless cups of tea, a turn of phrase which the later writer Larry Portis contests.
He [Orwell] could just as easily have concluded that the song revealed a certain fatalism, a resignation and even capitulation to forces beyond the control of working people. Indeed, it might be only a small step from saying, "Ain't we got fun" in the midst of hardship to the idea that the poor are happier than the rich--because, as the Beatles intoned, "Money can't buy me love." It is possible that "Aint We Got Fun", a product of the music industry (as opposed to 'working-class culture') was part of a complex resolution of crisis in capitalist society. Far from revealing the indomitable spirit of working people, it figured into the means with which they were controlled. It is a problem of interpretation laying at the heart of popular music, one which emerged with particular clarity at the time of the English Industrial Revolution. — Larry Portis, Soul Trains
However, others concentrate on the fun that they got. Stephen J. Whitfield, citing lyrics such as "Every morning / Every evening / Ain't we got fun", writes that the song "set the mood which is indelibly associated with the Roaring Twenties", a decade when pleasure was sought and found constantly, morning, evening, and "In the meantime / In between time". Philip Furia and Michael Lasser see implicit references to sexual intercourse in lyrics such as the happy chappy, and his bride of only a year. Looked at in the context of the 1920s, an era of increasing sexual freedom, they point out that, while here presented within the context of marriage (in other songs it is not), the sexuality is notably closer to the surface than in previous eras and is presented as a delightful, youthful pleasure.
There are several variations on the lyrics. For example, American History in Song quotes the lyrics:
- They won't smash up our Pierce Arrow,
- We ain't got none
- They've cut my wages
- But my income tax will be so much smaller
- When I'm paid off,
- I'll be laid off
- Ain't we got fun?
The sheet music published in 1921 by Jerome K. Remick and Co. leaves this chorus out completely, whereas a recording for Edison Records by Billy Jones keeps the reference to the Pierce Arrow, but then continues as in the sheet music: "There's nothing surer / The rich get rich and the poor get laid off / In the meantime,/ In between time/ Ain't we got fun?"
Reception and performance history
It premièred in the show Satires of 1920, where it was sung by Arthur West, then entered the vaudeville repertoire of Ruth Roye. A hit recording by Van and Schenck increased its popularity, and grew into a popular standard.
The song appears in the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby, when Daisy Buchanan and Gatsby meet again after many years, and the latter forces one of his guests to play it for him. It also appears in Dorothy Parker's 1929 short story, "Big Blonde". Warner Brothers used the song in two musicals during the early 1950s: The Gus Kahn biopic I'll See You in My Dreams and The Eddie Cantor Story. Woody Allen used the song in his 1983 film Zelig.
- Doris Day for her album By the Light of the Silvery Moon
- Renee Olstead for the Kit Kittredge: An American Girl soundtrack
- Charlie Hunter for his album "Public Domain"
In popular culture
The song was sung by an off-screen chorus during the title sequence and concluding scene in the 1950 comedy, The Jackpot starring James Stewart.
The song was featured in the film "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" (1953), and performed by Doris Day and Gordon MacRae. Day and MacRae also dance to it in On Moonlight Bay (1951) — anachronistically, since the movie is set during the First World War, before the song was written.
British emo/post-hardcore band Baby Harp Seal's song "Eric Arthur Blair" incorporates lyrics from "Ain't We Got Fun?", as well as numerous references to George Orwell and The Road to Wigan Pier.
It was used as a late 1970s commercial jingle for Little Friskies Cat Food.
It appears in the film adaptation of the novel from 1974, The Great Gatsby, directed by Jack Clayton.
"Ain't We Got Fun?" was used in a 2010 episode of True Blood, "Fresh Blood", as Eric Northman's ring tone.
Trixie Trotter sings the song in Episode 2 of "Back to the Future: The Game".
In season 15, episode 1 of "Law & Order: SVU" - "Surrender Benson" - serial rapist/murderer William Lewis (played by Pablo Schreiber) can be seen/heard singing along with the song as he drives down the road with a kidnapped Detective Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) in a drugged/alcoholic stupor on the floor of the back seat.
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- Nicholas E. Tawa (2005). Supremely American: Popular Song in the 20th Century: Styles and Singers and What They Said About America. Scarecrow Press. p. 33. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
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- Thomas S. Hischak (2002), The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-31992-8, page 8.
- Philip Furia (1990). The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists. Oxford University Press US. p. 76. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- Diane Holloway, Diane Holloway, Ph.D., Bob Cheney (2001). American History in Song: Lyrics from 1900 to 1945. iUniverse.com. pp. 203–204. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
- George Orwell (1958). The Road to Wigan Pier. Taylor & Francis. pp. 140–141. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
- Larry Portis (2002). Soul Trains. Virtualbookworm Publishing. pp. 145–146. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
- Stephen J. Whitfield (2001). In Search of American Jewish Culture. UPNE. pp. 94–95. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
- Philip Furia, Michael Lasser (2006). America's Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. CRC Press. p. 56. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
- Catherine Gourley (2007). Flappers and the New American Woman: Perceptions of Women from 1918 Through the 1920s. Twenty-First Century Books. p. 60. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
- Richard A. Whiting, Raymond B. Egan and Gus Kahn, (1921) Ain't We Got Fun, Jerome K. Remick and Co., New York
- Billy Jones (1921), performing "Ain't We Got Fun" by Richard A. Whiting, Raymond B. Egan and Gus Kahn, Edison Records Edison Blue Amberol #4309.
- David A. Jasen (2002). A Century of American Popular Music: 2000 Best-loved and Remembered Songs (1899-1999). Taylor & Francis. pp. 203–204. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, (1925) The Great Gatsby, Project Gutenberg. (Chapter 5)
- Dorothy Parker's "The Big Blonde", in The Vicious Circle: Mystery and Crime Stories by Members of the Algonquin Round Table (2007), edited by Otto Penzler, published by Pegasus Books, ISBN 1-933648-67-8. p. 115.
- George Orwell (1995). Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman. Woody Allen, Stig Bjorkman. p. 273. Retrieved 2008-09-30.
- Zimmer, Chris. "Law & Order SVU “Surrender Benson – Imprisoned Lives” Recap & Review". All Things Law & Order. Retrieved 26 September 2013.