Monday, August 30, 2010

The Fraudulent Arabian Hit Parade

There's a little palindromey phrase of music that has come to be synonymous with "exotic" and "Middle Eastern" in the last century, and you'd have to be living under a rock in Nebraska to not know what I'm talking about. Most of us learn it in kindergarten as one of a million variants on "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance", "There's a place in France where they don't wear underpants", etc.

Jimmy Kennedy's "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" was a top ten hit for the Four Lads in 1953, and has since been covered by Bing Crosby, Caterina Valente, Santo & Johnny, and perhaps most notably, They Might Be Giants in 1990. The song employs the mystery melody at the part you hear them say, "Even old New York was once New Amsterdam".

The melody also turns up in the country song "Bonaparte's Retreat", written by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart and recorded by many including Kay Starr, Hank Williams, Billy Grammer. The eerie faux-Arabian sound is especially accentuated on this home movie of Archie Campbell. Another country song to prominently use the melody is Roy Hogsed's "Snake Dance Boogie" in 1951.

Even earlier, the phrase appears prominently in Raymond Scott's "Twilight in Turkey" for the film "Ali Baba Goes to Town" in 1937 (which is where the images in this post come from.)

The Persian scale has a dark and peculiar sound that lends itself well to such arpeggios that conjure up images of snake charmers. In fact, many people know the melody as simply the "Snake Charmer Song".

Still others know it as the intro to Steve Martin's "King Tut".

So what is this passage of music, and where did it come from? Tricorder readings are indeterminate, Captain. Some say it's from a song called Streets of Cairo, written in 1893 for the famous bellydancer/stripper Farida "Little Egypt" Spyropoulos, who was herself immortalized in song by the Coasters and Elvis.

But others say - and they're probably right - that it goes back much further, to a French song from 1719 called "Colin Prend Sa Hotte". And according to some sources, this French song is in turn referencing an Arabic song titled "Kradoutja".

We suspect it goes back even further than that, perhaps to antediluvian times. Perhaps, like the worm of Ouroboros, the song has no beginning and no end.


  1. Thanks, I always wondered about that melody! Very interesting...

  2. There's a proto-feminist version of this, too:

    There's a place in France
    where the women wear the pants.