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Streets of Cairo:

That "Snake Charmer" Song

by Shira

 

Where did "that song" come from? That "snake charmer" song? Why does everyone in North America except "real" belly dancers seem to associate that song with belly dancing?

Read on, and all will be revealed!

 

Snake Charmer

 

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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:

  • "Hoolah! Hoolah!"
  • "Dance Of The Midway"
  • "Coochi-Coochi Polka"
  • "Danse Du Ventre" (French for "Belly Dance")
  • "Kutchi Kutchi"
  • "The Streets Of Cairo"
  • "Kutchy Kutchy"

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.

 

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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.

 

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The Lyrics

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!

Verse 1

I will sing you a song,
And it won't be very long,
'Bout a maiden sweet,
And she never would do wrong,
Ev'ryone said she was pretty,
She was not long in the city,
All alone, oh, what a pity,
Poor little maid.

Chorus

She never saw the streets of Cairo,
On the Midway she had never strayed,
She never saw the kutchy, kutchy,
Poor little country maid.

Verse 2

She went out one night,
Did this innocent divine,
With a nice young man,
Who invited her to dine,
Now he's sorry that he met her,
And he never will forget her,
In the future he'll know better,
Poor little maid.

Chorus

She never saw the streets of Cairo,
On the Midway she had never strayed,
She never saw the kutchy, kutchy,
Poor little country maid.

Streets of Cairo Sheet Music Cover

Verse 3

She was engaged,
As a picture for to pose,
To appear each night,
In abbreviated clothes,
All the dudes were in a flurry,
For to catch her they did hurry,
One who caught her now is sorry,
Poor little maid.

Chorus

She was much fairer far than Trilby,
Lots of more men sorry will be,
If they don't try to keep way from this
Poor little country maid.

 

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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.

 

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In the Strangest Places!

This song pops up in the strangest places! The melody is truly deeply embedded in the American culture.

 

In Music

Song Title

Artist & CD

Hear It

Comments

"Little Egypt" Oasis, on a CD titled Evolution MP3 A 5-minute recording of this tune. Contact Oasis, 12448 W. Cleveland Avenue, New Berlin, WI 53151. Email address: denisk@execpc.com. To my knowledge, this is the only CD intended for use by belly dancers that includes a recording of this song.
"Istanbul, Not Constantinople" 

Four Lads (1950's) on 16 Most Requested Songs

They Might be Giants (1990's) on their CD Flood

MP3
4 Lads Version

MP3
They Might Be Giants Version

Listen to the melody used with the lyrics, "Even old New York was once New Amsterdam..."
"Cleopatra, Queen of Denial" Pam Tillis on Homeward-Looking Angel and Greatest Hits MP3 The melody appears as an instrumental interlude in the middle of the song.
"Whiney, Whiney" Soundtrack To Dumb And Dumber MP3 The melody appears as an instrumental interlude in the middle of the song. In the actual movie Dumb and Dumber, this song is used only as background for the closing credits.
"Dance Of The Snake Charmer" Carl Stevens and His Circus Band on Music From The Big Top MP3 A circus march arrangement of this melody. This record has long been out of print, but it has been known to appear in the circus section of used record stores.
"In My Harem" Billy Murray (1913) MP3 This is the 1913 Irving Berlin song that incorporates a bit from Streets of Cairo at its beginning. A small piece of "In My Harem" can be found on the CD titled Irving Sings Berlin as part of track 4, a medley titled "Cavalcade of Irving Berlin Hits, 1910-1915 NBC Radio, 1934". The entire medley is only 2:09 in length, and unfortunately the part of "In My Harem" that uses the "Streets of Cairo" melody isn't included. (Acknowledgement: Thanks to Matt Love the pointer to the MP3 file of this song.)

 

In Cartoons

Cartoon Title & Star

DVD It Appears On

View a Clip

Comments

Goofy Goat

Goofy Goat Antics, no big-name characters

100 Cartoon Classics, on disk 7

MPEG

Quick Time

Windows Media

1933 cartoon about a goat who plays the accordion. The accordion escapes from the goat and begins to dance, so the goat pulls a mizmar out of his pocket. He plays about 9 seconds of "Streets of Cairo" on his mizmar while the accordion belly dances to it.

Circus Capers

Circus Capers, with Milton Mouse (resembles Mickey, but isn't)

100 Cartoon Classics, on disk 7

MPEG

Quick Time

Windows Media

As the title graphic is displayed for this 1930 cartoon, about 3 seconds of "Streets of Cairo" is played in the background. The song is not used again in this cartoon.
Aladdin's Lamp

Aladdin's Lamp, with Mighty Mouse

Mighty Mouse: Here I Come to Save the Day, disk 1

MPEG

Quick Time

Windows Media

In this 1947 cartoon, Aladdin's daughter is crying. To cheer her up, her father offers to use his lamp to get her anything she wants. One of the things he offers is "many, many dozen pairs of nylon hose". As soon as he says this, a chorus line of shapely legs clad in nylon stockings appears on screen and dances for about 4 seconds.

Ali Baba Bound

Ali Baba Bound with Porky Pig

Toon Factory Porky: Ali Baba Bound

MPEG

Quick Time

Windows Media
As Porky Pig rides a camel through the desert, the music accompanying the camel's walking is a 10-second clip of Streets of Cairo.
  The Simpsons: Homer's Night Out   After Homer Simpson gets up on a table and dances with a belly dancer, he whistles this on his way home.

 

In Movies

  • The Devil And Miss Jones. The song can be heard in the background during the boardwalk scene.
  • The Great Ziegfeld. The song plays in the background as the barker summons people to come watch the show by Little Egypt. Later, Sandow the Strong Man flexes his muscles in time to the song.

 

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.

 

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Alternate Lyrics

Over the years, people have put a variety of their own comedic lyrics to this familiar song. Here are some of them:

  • "There's a place in France where the ladies wear no pants. There's a hole in the wall where the men can see it all."
  • "Tap your heel and toe, shake your belly to and fro..."
  • "There's a land called Mars where the ladies smoke cigars, and the men wear bikinis, and the children drink martinis."
  • "Oh they don't wear pants in the southern part of France. All the men wear glasses to see their ladies' asses."
  • "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance..."
  • "There's a place in France where the ladies wear no pants. And the men go 'round with their ding dongs hanging down."
  • "There's a place in France where the ladies wear no pants. And the men don't care 'cause they'd rather see them bare."
  • "All the girls in Spain do the rhumba in the rain."
  • "On the other side of France where the naked ladies dance, they all wear grass to cover up their ass!"
  • "All the girls in France do the hoochy koochy dance, and the way they shake, it would kill a rattlesnake!"

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".

 

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Where to Get Sheet Music

  • Favorite Songs Of The Nineties. Complete sheet music for 89 American songs from the 1890's. Edited by Robert A. Fremont. Published in 1973 by Dover Publications, Inc. in New York. The ISBN Number is 0-486-21536-9.
  • Songs Of The 1890's. Sheet music for songs from the 1890's, including Streets Of Cairo. Published in 1995 by Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation. The ISBN number is 079353125X.

 

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For Further Reading

These sources proved useful in researching this article.

  • The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular and Folk by James Fuld. The entry in The Great Song Thesaurus appears to have drawn heavily from this book. This was definitely the most helpful source of information about the history of this song.
  • Looking for Little Egypt. By Donna Carlton. Well-researched history of the appearance of Oriental dance at the 1893 Columbia Exposition and the pop culture phenomenon it triggered in the early 20th century.
  • The Great Song Thesaurus by Roger Lax and Frederick Smith. Lists virtually every song written in the English-speaking world over the last 400 years with brief notes about each.

 

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