Where the Song Came From
The song was introduced to the collective consciousness of the American public over a century ago by Sol Bloom, a show business promoter who later became a U.S. Congressman. Bloom was the entertainment director of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World. One of its attractions, called A Street In Cairo, included snake charmers, camel rides, the infamous dancers that later spawned the legend of Little Egypt, and other exciting things to entertain turn-of-the-century fair-goers. In his prestigious role, he made more money than the President of the United States – $1,000 a week.
In his autobiography, Bloom claimed that he improvised the melody on the piano at a press briefing in 1893 to introduce Little Egypt. Since he didn't copyright the piece, several other composers of his time used the melody for their songs. Sheet music editions that featured the melody included:
Even famous composer Irving Berlin reportedly used the popular melody in his song, "Harem Nights." (According to a fellow named Matt Love who contacted me after reading this page, this song is also known by the title "In the Harem". See the "Strangest Places" section below for a link to a CD that incorporates this song into a medley.) Although many variations on this same tune were copyrighted, only one has remained well-known today: "The Streets Of Cairo", written by James Thornton.
The first five notes of a French song named "Echos du Temps Passé" published in 1857 are identical to those of Streets of Cairo, including harmony and meter. According to The Book Of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk, the sheet music for that song refers to it as a "dance song" and comments that the first phrase of the melody resembles almost note for note an Algerian or Arabic song titled "Kradoutja," which became popular in France in the early 1600's. Unfortunately, modern-day scholars have not been able to locate any musical scores or lyrics for "Kradoutja".
In an interesting modern-day independent confirmation of this, New York dance researcher Morocco independently discovered this song was known in the Middle East. When she was dancing in Baghdad, Iraq in the late 1960's, an old woman played it on her oud for her. The woman's grandmother, who lived before the time of the Chicago exposition, had taught it to her. In the grandmother's era, which was decades before the Wright brothers built a functional flying machine, when trans-Atlantic travel via ship was still a dangerous undertaking, there was no way the grandmother could ever have been influenced by anything Sol Bloom might have been doing in Chicago. But if the melody had been known in the Orient since at least 1600, possibly earlier, as the French song's sheet music asserted, then it certainly could have spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa by the time of the 1890's.
Since Bloom claimed he had composed the song, we'll never know how it came to his attention. One possibility is that he heard it played by the North African musicians he'd brought to Chicago. Or, perhaps the connection was through the Orientalists of Europe – there was certainly a great deal of European Orientalist influence on the U.S. entertainment industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Birth of a Scandal
It was the performances by the dancers at the fair that brought the "hoochy koochy" dance into the North America entertainment world. In an era where it would have been scandalous for a respectable New World woman to expose a shapely ankle, loosen her corset, or let her tightly-coifed hair down in public, the fully-clothed dancer wearing pantaloons and loose hair performing abdominal undulations made quite a sensation. The dancers rapidly become one of the leading attractions at the fair, able to compete on a par with "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West Show and John Philip Sousa's World's Fair Band.
"When she dances," cried one barker, "every fiber and every tissue in her entire anatomy shakes like a jar of jelly from your grandmother's Thanksgiving dinner... She is as hot as a red-hot stove on the fourth of July in the hottest county in the state." When you consider the tightly-corseted fashions worn by the American women of the Victorian era, it's no wonder the dancing prompted Sol Bloom to advertise the shows as "Belly Dancing", a name that in North America has stuck with Oriental dance for over a century, along with the unfortunate association with the titillating "hoochy koochy". Modern-day Oriental dance artists are still trying to disassociate themselves from that nudge-nudge wink-wink reputation.
Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, tried his hardest to shut down this outrageous exhibit, but he succeeded only in triggering a nationwide craze. Soon, the hoochy koochy was being performed on vaudeville stages throughout the country.
Inspired by this influence, songwriter James Thornton penned the words and music to his own version of this melody, "Streets Of Cairo or The Poor Little Country Maid". Copyrighted in 1895, it was made popular by his wife Lizzie Cox, who used the stage name Bonnie Thornton. Soon it became the definitive song used by hoochy coochy dancers everywhere, forever linking this music to Oriental dance in the American collective memory.
Thornton's lyrics about a ruined young woman further solidified the public's belief that this dance form represented scandalous behavior.
Here are the original lyrics written by James Thornton for "Streets Of Cairo or The Poor Little Country Maid". When you read them, it's obvious that he had the Chicago world's fair in mind! Listen to the MIDI file accompanying this page and sing along!
I will sing you a song,
She never saw the streets of Cairo,
She was engaged,
She was much fairer far than Trilby,
Is It Okay to Use This Song for Belly Dancing?
This song is unknown in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey, and the dancers there don't use it.
You'll want to think carefully about the context of your performance before using this song. If you're doing a comedy act, then choosing this music will probably help inspire your humorous streak and prompt the audience to laugh with you. It could be fun for bellygrams, where the focus of the performance is to make the recipient the center of attention for a few minutes and provide laughs for the party. Wisconsin dancer Romnea uses it for bellygrams for that reason.
It would not be appropriate for Arabic-speaking or Turkish audiences, because such audiences will expect you to use music from the Middle East, and they wouldn't recognize this as being classic Oriental dance music.
Even for American audiences, if you're trying to do a "straight" performance, where your intent is to plant an image in the minds of audience members of a skilled artist, graceful dancer, elegant performer, or sensuous woman, this song probably wouldn't be the most appropriate choice. It has too many associations with the burlesque hoochy koochy, and has been the subject of too many jokes over the years. If the audience is primarily fellow dancers and you do non-comedy performance to this music, some audience members will probably conclude you don't really "understand" what kind of music is appropriate for Oriental dance.
In the Strangest Places!
This song pops up in the strangest places! The melody is truly deeply embedded in the American culture.
In Video Games
Oh Mummy. The song was used as the soundtrack for this Pac-Man clone video game which came bundled with the Amstrad CPC computer in 1984. According to Neville, the person who brought this to my attention, the game and the song remain popular even today among former users of Amstrad machines. Thanks, Neville, for sharing this with me!
In Television Commercials
The televised coverage of Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009, was sponsored in part by Delta Faucet, who ran a "snake charmer" faucet commercial using this song as the melody.
Over the years, people have put a variety of their own comedic lyrics to this familiar song. Here are some of them:
Some of these lyrics may have been inspired by the French music hall dancers of the time, who were known for the French cancan. It is said that sometimes performers of the cancan were wearing no underwear when they picked up their skirts to show their bottoms to the audience. It should be noted, however, that the French cancan used entirely different music and was not danced to the song "Streets of Cairo".
Where to Get Sheet Music
For Further Reading
These sources proved useful in researching this article.
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