I’ll See You in C-U-B-A

by Irving Berlin (1920, Musical Americana Collection)

with Nolan Vallier, graduate assistant

During the 1920s, Cuba was ethnically diverse and politically liberal. Its capital, Havana, was referred to as “the Paris of the Caribbean.”  While over 45,000 tourists from the U.S. visited the country in 1916, this number increased to over 90,000 people per year at the start of Prohibition.   Cuba’s freewheeling alcohol consumption during the 1920s produced a radical growth in local bars throughout the country.  Unemployed American bartenders who migrated to Cuba managed many of these new liquor establishments. 

Sheet music cover depicting a woman wearing a spotted headscarf, standing in front of a tropical background with a red bird.
“I’ll See You in C-U-B-A” (1920)

In 1915, Cuba’s Bacardi Rum Company established its bottling plant in New York City, but was closed at the start of Prohibition.  However, in 1926 the company redirected its bottling plant funds toward a new tourist campaign jointly operated with Pan Am Airways.  Other entrepreneurs, known as Rum Runners, took advantage of Cuba’s open tap to smuggle illegal alcohol back into the United States to meet the growing demand of America’s speakeasies.  Many other Americans, like Ernest Hemingway, moved to Cuba during the 1920s and 1930s to escape Prohibition’s puritanical lifestyle.  

“(I’ll See You in) C-U-B-A (Broadcast Recording)” from The Wonderful Music of Nat King Cole by Nat King Cole. Released: 1995. Originally recorded November 5, 1956.

Irving Berlin’s song projects America’s continuing fascination with the music and culture of Cuba at the height of Prohibition. The song’s first verse begins:

Not so far from here,
There’s a very lively atmosphere
Everybody’s going there this year.
And there’s a reason;
The season opened last July 
Ever since the USA went dry.
Everybody’s going there and I’m going too!