George Gershwin published songs don’t get much more obscure than 1921’s “In the Heart of a Geisha.” It never made it into a show, and there seems to be some confusion about how the lyricist published it through his own publishing house since George was under contract to write for Harms publishing at that time.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that Ira Gershwin had never heard of the song until it was brought to his attention in 1971, and that the copyright was made in the name of Fred Fisher alone, no mention of George’s contribution. I can’t imagine that a well-known songwriter like Fred Fisher (“Peg O’ My Heart” and “Dardanella” etc.) would mistakenly or falsely give Gershwin credit if it wasn’t due to him.
Whether Harms stopped Fisher from publishing, as Ira Gershwin suggested as a possibility, or the song just never took off on its own merits, it is an interesting look at the “orientalism” genre of song that was fairly popular at the time. It appears to be yet another failed attempt to recreate the success of the song “Poor Butterfly,” as both songs tell the story of lovers in Japan who are separated and contemplate reuniting.
Fred Fisher’s lyrics are serviceable here. I do have a little difficulty forgiving the line in the second verse that goes “Handsome captain too, could each day to woo.” I keep thinking, and hoping, that there’s a typo in there somewhere.
Fisher was familiar with the genre, as he wrote and published his own song “Glow Little Lantern of Love” during that same year and using the exact same geisha image on the cover of that sheet music as was used for “In the Heart of a Geisha.”
Fred had a very long career writing both music or lyrics or both as the situation required. He eventually found writing partners in his own children; the best remembered of them being his daughter Doris Fisher (who can be seen singing here). And like her father, she co-wrote with a Gershwin: “Invitation to the Blues” was a song she co-wrote with Arthur Gershwin, George and Ira’s younger brother, and Allan Roberts. She also had hits with “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” and “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”
Download the fake-book style sheet music to “In the Heart of a Geisha” here: In the Heart of a Geisha
Lyrics to “In the Heart of a Geisha” by Fred Fisher:
Verse 1: Far in old Japan, dwells my Nippo San.
Poppy flowers grow, on her cheeks aglow.
My shy geisha maid, brown eyes half afraid.
Love like hers is faithful forever, and I shall forget her never.
Chorus: In the heart of a geisha,
there the love never dies.
Like the sunrise of Asia
is the light in her eyes.
Soon cherry blossoms will bloom.
I’ll hold her close to my breast beneath the Japanese moon.
You know the rest.
Some fine day I’ll go roaming to Asia.
Build a home if I can.
In the heart of a geisha, Nippo San of Japan.
Verse 2: Mandarin with gold, pretty love tales told,
handsome captain too, could each day to woo.
But my Nippo San said, “I love my man.
In my heart the same love is burning, waiting here for his returning.”