Essays - Summer 2006

Rum and Coca-Cola

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The murky derivations of a sweet drink and a sassy World War II song

By Wayne Curtis

June 1, 2006


 

 

“War is probably the single most powerful instrument of dietary change in human experience,” writes historian Sidney Mintz. Shortages force folks on the home front to change their expectations of what’s for dinner. Expeditionary forces in distant lands not only sample new and exotic foods, but also contaminate local fare with ingredients they’ve brought along.

The same may be said for habits of drink. Soldiers abroad find new and appealing means of intoxication, and seek to re-create them when they return; at home, consumers adapt to shortages of old favorites by developing a preference for something more widely available. Such a shift might start begrudgingly and evolve into genuine enthusiasm. The English war against Holland introduced gin to the British Isles in the 16th century and launched a lethal mania that took two centuries to quell. The American Revolution disrupted the rum trade and helped usher in whiskey as the American tipple. When massive numbers of American troops came home from Europe following World War II, they brought with them a new taste for French brandy and wine, as well as for German schnapps.

World War II also introduced a generation of American soldiers to rum mixed with Coca-Cola. The sweet-and-bitter soft drink, invented in the 1880s by a pharmaceutical chemist from Atlanta named John Pemberton, had grown into a global franchise operation buoyed by corporate trademarking and marketing. How and when the two sugar-based beverages first merged is uncertain. One story suggests that, like the daiquiri, rum and Coca-Cola has its roots in the Spanish-American War. In the 1960s, a man named Fausto Rodriguez swore out an affidavit that in 1900, while a messenger with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, he and an officer friend (name redacted in the affidavit) went to a Havana bar, where the officer ordered a Bacardi and Coca-Cola. American soldiers ordered a round for themselves and, finding it to their liking, toasted the officer as the inventor of a new and delightful drink.

It is rare and exciting for a cocktail historian to find a legal affidavit attesting to the invention of a popular drink, but several details make this one suspect. First, it was published in a full-page ad in 1966 by Life magazine—and paid for by Bacardi, which was promoting itself as the source of many famous drinks. More troublingly, Rodriguez was well known in spirits circles as the New York–based director of publicity for Bacardi. These facts render the document only slightly more believable than a man dressed as Santa Claus telling you that he is, in fact, Santa Claus.

A somewhat more plausible variation of the creation myth involves similar elements: American soldiers in Cuba, the Spanish-American War, a group of Cubans and Americans in a bar. But this one has the soldiers mixing rum and Coca-Cola and toasting their Cuban comrades in arms by calling out, “¡Por Cuba Libre!” (To a free Cuba!)

Whatever its origin (and it is the lot of the cocktail historian never to be fully satisfied), it’s clear that the Cuba Libre, or rum and Coke, soon crossed the Florida straits and headed north. It was initially most popular in the American South, like Coca-Cola itself. During Prohibition, Coca-Cola emerged as a handy mixer to mask the taste of the lower grades of rum and other alcohol; after repeal, rum and Coke continued to gain adherents north and west. Only the most vile and industrial rum can overpower the Coke and spoil the drink. H. L. Mencken noted, presumably in jest, that residents of western South Carolina mixed Coca-Cola with denatured alcohol drawn from automobile radiators: “Connoisseurs reputedly preferred the taste of what had been aged in Model T Fords,” he said. George Jean Nathan—who spent much of the Prohibition editing The Smart Set with Mencken—introduced a writer for Gourmet to the delights of the Cuba Libre, evidence that it had also found a home with a swankier crowd.

Rum and Coca-Cola is, by any measure, a drink of inspired blandness, with its two main ingredients both plentiful and cheap. It requires few if any skills to prepare: It is not a cocktail, like the daiquiri, that can be toppled into an overly sweet or tart imbalance with a sloppy pouring hand. It can be made heavy or light on rum, with rum that’s either light or heavy. If you have a lime to add a bit of citrusy zest to a rum and Coke, wonderful. If not, no matter. Some early published recipes make lime a mere garnish—a thin slice dropped in at the end—while others call for substantially more. A 1940 recipe calls for filling nearly half a glass with rum, the other half with Coke, and then squeezing in the juice of half a lime. More exotic versions of the Cuba Libre include one (popular before Prohibition) that calls for the addition of gin and bitters. But these are mere curiosities. Basic rum and Coca-Cola was the perfect drink for the masses. It would need only the lightning of popular culture to transform it from what cocktail writer William Grimes has called “a harmless invention” into an enduring icon.


The main action of World War II unfolded in Europe, Asia, and Africa, but another theater of combat had quietly opened in the West Indies. German submarines had taken to stalking cargo ships along trade routes and took an especially keen interest in ships carrying oil from the South Ameri- can coast and bauxite (needed for aluminum production) from island mines.

Not only did the German submarines inconvenience the war effort, they marked the first direct threat to American shores since the British sacked and burned the U.S. Capitol in 1812. Long protected by a two oceans from rival powers, the United States found itself suddenly at risk of attack from a foreign power. As historian Fitzroy Baptiste put it, submarines were a first generation intercontinental ballistic weapon system, able to bring ruin and mayhem around the globe to American soil with a simple coded message from abroad.

In the summer of 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill to address the threat. The deal they hammered out was this: the United States would provide England with 50 Liberty ships and a million rifles to aid the war effort. In return, the United States would get 99-year leases to construct a first line of defense in the form of bases on British-controlled islands, which included Newfoundland, the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, Bermuda, and Trinidad. Within months of the agreement, thousands of servicemen had been deployed to beef up national defense at this country’s extended eastern perimeter.

The impact of the military influx on island life was abrupt and profound. Bermuda’s local population of 31,000 soared by 20 percent almost overnight. Trinidad became home to the largest Caribbean naval base, with American military occupying 34,000 acres and the island population of 400,000 swelling with the arrival of 130,000 U.S. soldiers, airmen, and sailors. The great flood of servicemen to the islands resulted in cross-cultural ferment as the soldiers adapted to local flavors and islanders in turn clamored for American products. On Bermuda, bartenders reported in 1941 that rum was now beating out beer as the drink of choice among the soldiers, in large part for economic reasons—beer cost 30 cents a glass and rum 25 cents. When the newfound appreciation for the spirit led to rowdiness near bases, bars were ordered closed between lunch and dinner, and an 11 p.m. curfew was mandated. The U.S. military brass did their part to keep servicemen from causing trouble by reducing the price of beer to 10 cents on the base.

On Trinidad, the U.S. military arrived with fistfuls of U.S. dollars, Chiclets chewing gum, and cigarettes. With the soldiers also arrived case after case of Coca-Cola, war being a prime occasion to boost sales. (During World War I, Coca-Cola ran ads slyly associating itself with patriotism, one of which depicted a hand bearing a glass of Coke in front of the Statue of Liberty, bearing a torch.) When America entered World War II, Coca-Cola moved swiftly, starting with a company commitment that servicemen would always be able to buy a bottle of Coke for a nickel, the same price it cost during World War I. Coca-Cola sent its own small army of technical advisers abroad to follow the troops. When a region was secured, the advisers would immediately set up bottling operations to ensure that the soldiers were never without Coca-Cola.

The Coca-Cola Company also commissioned studies to show that well- rested, well-refreshed soldiers performed better than tired and thirsty sol- diers, and that, in short, war went better with Coke. Some 10 billion Cokes were served to soldiers around the globe during World War II. An unusually large number of soldiers wrote home that they were fighting, among other reasons, for the right to drink Coca-Cola. (In God Is My Co-Pilot, Col. Robert L. Scott wrote that his thoughts when shooting down Japanese fighters were of “America, Democracy, Coca-Colas.”)


In 1943 a trained cellist turned comedian arrived in Trinidad on a tour of West Indian military bases. His name was Morey Amsterdam, and he was winding down a 10-week USO tour. (Rubbery-faced and with a memorably nasal voice, Amsterdam is best remembered as Buddy Sorrell, the comedy- writing sidekick on the immensely popular Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s.) In the 1940s, he broadcast 12 radio shows a week and was known as a “human joke machine” who could spit out jokes on any topic with the speed and firepower of a Gatling gun.

While on Trinidad he overheard sailors and soldiers singing a catchy calypso song around the base. It was a version of a number made popular by an island singer named Lord Invader, who had adapted the lyrics of an earlier tune. The original tune was composed in 1906 by Trinidadian musical prodigy Lionel Belasco and originally entitled “L’Année Passée”; it told in French patois the melancholy story of a young country girl from a good family who fell in love with a cad who cast her aside and left her to fend for herself as a streetwalker. Lord Invader altered the song to make it about American soldiers and their off-duty activities. He had recently visited Point Cumana—a beach near the naval base at Chaguaramas—and here he watched the American soldiers flirting with the island girls, and drinking rum followed by a chaser of Coca-Cola. He wrote a calypso about what he saw:

Since the Yankees came to Trinidad,

They have the young girls going mad,

The young girls say they treat them nice,

And they give them a better price.

They buy rum and Coca-Cola,

Go down Point Koomhana

Both mother and daughter

Workin’ for the Yankee dollar.

The song was a great local hit with both Trinidadians and sailors. Amsterdam liked it, too, and figured that he might sing a version of it on one of his radio shows. Back home, he sanitized the lyrics somewhat. Instead of “young girls going mad” around the Yankees, he changed it to “They make you feel so very glad.” Yet the mother and daughter remained working for the Yankee dollar, and Amsterdam added some goofy new lyrics, among them:

Native girls all dance and smile

They wear grass-skirts, but that’s okay

Yankees like to “hit the hay.”

Amsterdam worked with a pair of professionals to polish the song and help with the scoring: Jeri Sullivan, a singer best known for her work with Mel Tormé and the Mel-Tones; and Paul Baron, then the musical director for the CBS broadcast network. Success remained elusive: eight publishers turned the song down. Then, after singing it on one of his shows, Amsterdam received a call from Leo Feist, who said he’d be honored to publish the tune.

The song’s Lana Turner moment didn’t arrive until late 1944. The Andrews Sisters, whose stardom was built on hits like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” were in New York to record for Decca Records. LaVerne, Patty, and Maxene had finished up half an hour early one afternoon, and rather than break, decided to record a silly song with a catchy beat they heard for the first time just the night before. It was, of course, “Rum and Coca-Cola.”

“We just threw it in,” Patty Andrews later recalled in Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story by John Sforza. “There was no written background, so we just kind of faked it.” The sisters used the same faux-Caribbean accents they had earlier adopted in “Sing a Tropical Song,” and the whole recording took less than 10 minutes. It was pressed on the flip side of a curiously plaintive ode called “One Meat Ball,” a song that Decca expected would be a huge hit.

“One Meat Ball” proved prophetically titled. Although this song edged briefly into the Top 20, it was “Rum and Coca-Cola” that took the single into the stratosphere. This wasn’t without complications. Since the song glorified drinking, national radio networks weren’t eager to broadcast it to the dry states, making the network a lightning rod for critics who were teetotalers. Anyway, liquor advertising over the airwaves was illegal, and the song seemed to venture into a murky region between advertising and entertainment. Financial considerations also arose: why should the networks give the highly profitable Coca-Cola Company a free ride? Shouldn’t they be billed for the airtime when the song was broadcast? Then there was the whole mothers-and-daughters-working-for-the-Yankee-dollar thing. That the GIs abroad were hitting the hay with “native peaches” probably wasn’t the best morale booster for a nation at war, and no one wanted to be seen as undermining the war effort. (The Andrews Sisters, somewhat disingenuously, said that they never really considered the lyrics, but just liked the rhythm.)

Any objections fell aside as the song proved a force of nature. Sheet music flew off the shelves—by February 1945 nearly a half-million copies had been sold, driven in large part by the exotic place-names and oddball lyrics behind the hard-to-discern accents. On January 6, 1945, the Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca-Cola” broke into the Billboard Top 30, where it would remain for 20 weeks, 10 of those in the number-one spot. It also hit number one on Variety’s “Jukebox Hits” list. (Bacon’s Grille in Phoenix banned the record from its jukebox following an uprising of waitresses who refused to hear it played eight hours straight.) Decca could scarcely keep up with demand and had to beg other record companies for shellac, which was in short supply during the war, to keep pressing the disk. The song would go on to sell seven million copies and be the third-best-selling hit of the 1940s, topped only by Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.”

“Rum and Coca-Cola” was an especially huge hit with soldiers at military bases, and the most requested Andrews Sisters’ song during their USO tours. The song was called the national anthem of the GI camps. And soon rum and Coke became the de facto national drink of many of the troops. During World War II, Gen. George Patton reportedly ensured that the Coca-Cola “technical observers” had unfettered access to get their job done efficiently and quickly, in large part because he demanded a reliable supply of Coca-Cola to mix with his rum.

By 1946 Gourmet writer and bon vivant Lucius Beebe would write in his Stork Club Bar Book that the Cuba Libre, the daiquiri, and the MacArthur Cocktail were as “dominant in their field as Martinis or Scotch and Soda are in theirs.” (The MacArthur, sadly forgotten, was made with rum, triple sec, and a dash of egg white.) Rum and Coke had achieved icon status.

Morey Amsterdam had “borrowed” the song without permission and profited from it greatly. This did not go unnoticed in Trinidad. After the song became a smash international hit, a lawsuit was brought by Maurice Baron, a music publisher who had recently come out with a collection of West Indian songs that included Lionel Belasco’s “L’Année Passée.” Belasco, who was then in his 70s, traveled to New York to testify in the trial. The plaintiffs suggested that Amsterdam brought the song from Trinidad as a tourist might a suitcase full of rum. Amsterdam continued to insist that all the lyrics were his. Yet a number of facts were marshaled to upend his assertion. Among them: the plaintiff’s lawyer had soldiers take the stand to testify that throughout the island substantial portions of the song had been sung long before Amsterdam had even arrived. And it didn’t help that Amsterdam had earlier boasted to Time magazine that he had “imported” the song to the United States. Amsterdam shared the common attitude that calypso, no matter how recently composed, fell under the category of “folk song” and could be freely harvested and exploited by traveling foreigners as they saw fit.

In February 1947, a federal judge prohibited Amsterdam and the other defendants from further profiting. He ordered up an accounting (Amsterdam claimed he had made $60,000 off the song) and said that henceforth all profits would go to Belasco. “There is no doubt in my mind that Amsterdam brought both the words and the music with him from Trinidad, and it was in substantially that form that the song was published,” he wrote. Amsterdam et al. appealed the verdict, but the courts once more ruled that his “songwriting” was tantamount to theft. The rights and profits from “Rum and Coca-Cola” returned to the island whence they came.


Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails and The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Imbibe, The Daily Beast, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.


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