Where does the “Egyptian” melody originally come from?

I know this melody as the cartoon snakecharmer song. Here’s a kid playing it on bass clarinet:

I’ve always wondered where the Egyptian melody came from. It turns out to be hundreds of years of old, and goes by many different names. You can find an excellent capsule history of it in William Benzon’s book Beethoven’s Anvil. The context is a discussion of a Louis Armstrong recording from 1928 called “Tight Like This.” Listen at 2:04 as Louis quotes the “Egyptian” melody and varies it a few times.

Benzon knows the Egyptian melody from childhood. He quotes different sets of lyrics, such as:

All the girls in France do the hokey pokey dance,
and the way they shake is enough to kill a snake

Another variation:

On the planet Mars all the women smoke cigars.
Every puff they take is enough to kill a snake.
When the snake is dead they put flowers on its head.
When the flowers die they say 1969!

The tune has been known in America as the “hookie-kookie dance” or the “hoochie-coochie dance.” It came to fame when it accompanied a belly dancer at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, and afterwards it became something of a hit. The melody was copyrighted under various names early in the 20th century, including “Dance Of The Midway,” “Coochi-Coochi Polka” and “The Streets Of Cairo.” (Thank you, Eunji Choi, for pointing me to this last tune’s Wikipedia page.)

The Egyptian melody appears in the widely-studied Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method For Trumpet from 1864, under the title “Arabian Song.” Arban almost certainly didn’t write it; it’s one of many “representative ethnic songs” in the book learned from the folk tradition. The tune is related to an Arabic or Algerian melody called “Kradoutja” that had been circulating around France since the 1600s. Who knows if the tune in Arban’s book is an actual middle eastern folk song, or a European mutation of “Kradoutja,” or what.

The Egyptian melody also gets quoted a lot in performances of “Sheik of Araby,” for example as performed here by the Beatles for their unsuccessful Decca audition in 1962.

Steve Martin uses the melody at the beginning of “King Tut.” (no embedding.)

They Might Be Giants use the tune in “Istanbul” for the line “Even old New York was once New Amsterdam.”

A more recent quotation — “Who’s That? Brooown!” by Das Racist:

This story is a perfect illustration of how musical memes evolve the way organisms do. It has a similar evolutionary history to the “Asian riff,” another stereotypically ethnic musical meme.

Original post on Quora

6 thoughts on “Where does the “Egyptian” melody originally come from?

  1. They Might Be Giants use the tune in “Istanbul” for the line “Even old New York was once New Amsterdam.”

    As did the Four Lads, who were the first to record this hit back in 1953.

  2. I just find it interesting that Sol Bloom took credit for the tune, and really there’s no substantiation to that claim except for his own autobiography, which after learning of the Algerian kradoutja seems like complete hooey. It’s just sad that, to my knowledge, no sheet music of the kradoutja exists.

  3. And here I am, 5 a.m., wondering about this melody. A quick Google search and I end up on your excellent article. Man, I love the internet. Thanks for the great reading!

  4. Hey, thanks for this. I’ve always wondered where this originated and what it was called. Tonight I was watching Armstrong’s performance of “Dinah” from 1933 and he quotes it in his solo there, and I finally went looking for info. Great stuff here, thanks.

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