Sunday, August 7, 2016

Louis Armstrong and the Snake-Charmin’ Hoochie-Coochie Meme

Another "old time good one", as Pops used to say. This is about a little tune I learned as a kid, but which might well be hundreds of year old, if not even older. And I'm now (August 2016) bumping this to the top of the queue because I'm about write about my early education in jazz,
Some years ago I was looking for a way to open the final chapter of a book I was writing about music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. The chapter was to be a quick tour of black music in 20th Century America, starting with jazz and blues and ending with hip-hop. So, I thought and thought and, finally, an idea crept up on me.

I had this book of Louis Armstrong trumpet solos that I’d been practicing ever since my early teens. The solos had been transcribed from recordings Armstrong had made in the late 1920s and had been circulating ever since, all under copyright, naturally. These were classic Armstrong: “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Struttin’ with some Barbecue,” “Gully Low Blues,” “Muggles” (nothing to do with Harry Potter, muggles was Armstrong’s favorite inhalent, the one that President Bill Clinton never took into his lungs) and a few others. One of those others was called “Tight Like This” – an open-ended title that asked you to use your imagination. During his improvisation in “Tight Like This” Armstrong quoted a certain riff, not once, but twice.

How did I know it was a quotation? Because I was familiar with the riff from other contexts. For one thing, it showed up in cartoons, often to accompany a snake charmer, but also as general all-purpose Oriental mystery music. For another, I knew it as a children’s song that me and by buddies used to sing, with lyrics to the effect that the girls in France didn’t wear underpants – hotcha! But how did Armstrong know this tune? He recorded “Tight Like This” in 1928, the same year that Walt Disney produced “Steamboat Willie,” generally regarded as the first cartoon with a fully synchronized soundtrack. So Armstrong’s recording predated the tune’s use in cartoon soundtracks. Did he learn it as a kid growing up on the streets of New Orleans?

I made a few phone calls, sent some emails to friends, queried a trumpeter’s listserve (sponsered by TPIN, Trumpet Players’ International Network), and information began trickling in. In the first place, other people remember this tune from their childhoods. One Eric Johnson. from the TPIN list, told me that his daughters remember these lyrics:
All the girls in France do the hokey pokey dance,
And the way they shake is enough to kill a snake.
Karen Stober, also from TPIN, tells me the tune was sung by two children facing one another and clapping hands to the lyrics:
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! [whatever year it is].
We’ve moved from France to Mars, but there’s that snake again, and now we’ve got cigars – a regular Freudian wonderland of sub-rosa implication. What fun. I found a somewhat fuller version on the web where the dance was characterized as a “hookie-kookie dance.”

I then follwed a lead suggested by my friend, David Bloom, who suggested I check out the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. It was a major event in American cultural life. It was the first large-scale use of AC electricity, and the first ferris wheel. The exposition hosted deligations from all over the world, including Japan, the first chance Americans had to experience that nation and its people – who were here, of course, to learn about us as well. This is when and where hamburgers became all-American fast food; Pabst Blue-Ribbon Beer flowed freely on the midway; Kellogs Cornflakes debuted here as well. And, wouldn’t you know it? Elias Disney, Walt’s father, was a carpenter on the construction job. But all this is beside the point.

The point is about the entertainment on the midway. Yes, we had Wild Bill Cody, and we had John Philip Sousa. But we also had a lithe young woman who danced as “Little Egypt.” The exposition’s press agent, Sol Bloom, claimed that he had written our little tune just so Little Egypt could dance to it. The tune was a hit and was subsequently copyrighted under various names, including Dance of the Midway, Coochi-Coochi Polka, Danse de Ventre, and The Streets of Cairo. Just how it was copyrighted several times is a bit of a mystery, but the fact that several folks claimed it as their own testifies to the tune’s popularity. One of those folks, W. J. Voges, included it as the Koochie-Koochie Dance in the second edition of Pasquila Medley published in New Orleans in 1895. We’ve now got the tune in New Orleans at a date prior to Armstrong’s birth.

Another of my TPIN informants, trumpeter’s trumpeter Jeanne Pocius, told me that this melody appears in Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet as one of “Sixty-eight Duets for Two Cornets,” which follows “150 Classic and Popular Melodies.” Our tune is called “Arabian Song.” Arban's, as it is known among trumpeters, is the central method book for “legit” trumpet and cornet pedagogy. It was written and compiled by Jean-Baptiste Arban, a cornet virtuoso, composer, conductor and teacher on the faculty of the Paris Conservatory. He first published his Grande méthode complète pour cornet à pistons et de saxhorn in 1864, well before Sol Bloom claimed he’d written the tune for Little Egypt. Was Sol Bloom telling a stretcher – as Huck Finn called it – when he claimed that tune as his own?

Where did Arban get it? Roughly half the book is a set of technical exercises graded from elementry to extremely advanced. Those exercises are followed by complete tunes and compositions, real music. And that’s where we find our snake-charmin’ shimmy-shakin’ tune. The melodies Arban collected comprise what appears to be a European Songbook of the 1860s. Some of these tunes were by recognized masters of the European high art tradition—Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bellini, von Weber, and Haydn, among others. But many were just tunes, attributed to no one. And so it is with “Arabian Tune.” As I said in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 253-254):
When we consider the lyrics this tune has attracted, its use in cartoons to accompany snake charming, and its title, it seems to be a musical icon of the Mysterious Licentious Orient, which had fascinated European peoples at least since the Crusades. It is the only song identified with the Orient in Arban’s collection, but other tunes have national or ethnic identification. Thus we find a “German Song,” a “Neapolitan song” and a “Swiss Song,” a “French Air” and an “Italian Air,” a “Russian Hymn” and an “Austrian Hymn,” as well as “Blue Bells of Scotland” and “Yankee Doodle.” In compiling his collection of melodies Arban clearly wanted to present music from all the civilized nations he could think of. It is thus in the service of a truncated ethnic inclusiveness that he included an “Arabian Song”—or, more likely, the one-and-only “Arabian Song” he knew.

Beyond this, the opening five notes of this song are identical to the first five notes of Colin Prend Sa Hotte, published in Paris in 1719. Writing in 1857, J. B. Wekerlin noted that the first phrase of that song is almost identical to Kradoutja, a now-forgotten Arabic or Algerian melody that had been popular in France since 1600. This song may thus have been in the European meme pool 250 years before Arban found it. It may even be a Middle Eastern song, or a mutation of one, that came to Europe via North Africa through Moorish Spain or was brought back from one of the Crusades. For all practical purposes we can consider it to be nearly as old and widely dispersed as dirt. And, on the evidence, equally fertile.
We still don’t know exactly how Armstrong and the tune found one another, but that no longer seems like much of an issue. That tune got around. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he learned it as a child, and that it had lyrics similar to those that I learned, and that others learned after me.

If we think of that melody as a meme, or perhaps several memes, then Armstrong’s uses would be mutations and his use of only part of the melody would seem to be a kind of memetic recombination. But what is that fragment being recombined with? For one thing, it was being combined with other licks, or riffs as musicians call them. Some of these fragments may have come from the same pool that floated the “Arabian Song” across the Atlantic from Europe. Others may have been indigenous to the United States or even local to New Orleans or Chicago. Jazz culture, like any musical culture, is full of these licks, which can come from any place.

Musical quotation is rife among jazz musicians. Dizzy Gillespie often inserted a fragment of the “Habanera” from “Carmen” into his “A Night in Tunisia.” Dexter Gordon liked the opening phrase of “Mona Lisa.” Lee Morgan recorded an improvisation in which he quoted Ziggy Elman’s licks from Elman’s famous solo on “And the Angles Sing,” which he recorded under Benny Goodman. Morgan was too young to have seen Elman perform live and so must have learned those licks from a recording. As for Elman’s licks, they came from Europe with Elman’s Jewish ancestors.

Anyone who’s read a number of jazz biographies has read many accounts of jazz musicians hearing jazz on records or on the radio, becoming intrigued, inspired, and learning from these secondary sources. These secondary sources may well have been as important in jazz’s evolution as direct person-to-person transmission, for they allowed memes to spread over great distances in a matter of days or weeks. Musicians learned, not only from those whom they knew directly, but also from those who recorded and broadcast. Jazz culture was thus able to develope a huge pool of memes which musicians could use in performance. Thus, when jazz musicians play, they call on various intersecting pools of material which they then assemble into a performance.

Of course, jazz musicians and would-be jazz musicians weren’t the only ones to hear the broadcasts and the recordings. Everyone heard them. Thus everyone was familiar with the tunes and riffs, the licks and phrases, the memes of jazz culture. The audience was thus primed to hear and appreciate what the musicians played. And that priming is as important to cultural life as the performances by the musicians themselves. As I wrote in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 255-256):
The greatness of an individual musician such as Armstrong is a function, both of his power to forge compelling performances from the “raw” memes and of the existence of that meme pool. While Armstrong may have been ahead of his fellows, he couldn’t have been very far ahead of them, otherwise they could not have performed together. Beyond this, without a large population of music-lovers familiar with the same meme pool, Armstrong’s recordings would have had little effect. By the time he went to Chicago, a large population had been listening and dancing to rags and blues, show tunes, fox trots and Charlestons and marches, all with a hot pulse and raggy rhythms. Armstrong’s improvisations gave them a new wild pleasure, and their collective joy made him great.
Where would Armstrong have been if he’d had to clear copyright on every lick and phrase and tune he used from the common culture?

* * * * * *
If you’re curious about the hoochie-coochie meme, check out the Wikipedia entry, which lists a good many video games that use it, and Shira’s web page, which tells more of the history and has links to mp3s of various versions and links to some cartoons that use it.

* * * ADDED * * *

A eBuddy of mine from Meanderings, David Michael Cobb Bowen, then known as Boohab, has added another set of lyrics to this little ditty:

There's a place in France
where the naked ladies dance
and the men wear bikinis
and the ladies suck their weenies.

He attributes these lyrics to his fifth grade memory.


  1. In my school in north London it was "All the girls in Spain do their wee-wee down the drain". I can't remember a second line, but if there was one I'm sure it would have been just as insightful and educational as the first...
    Just heard the tune again in the bass solo in Minor Swing here

  2. When were you in school, if I may ask?

  3. This was "primary" school (7-11 yrs old), in my case 1964 to 1968. Hopefully it goes without saying that the lyric came from other schoolchildren, not from a teacher...

  4. Just found another variation:
    The definitive work I think on British playground folklore of that time (and before) is The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie

  5. Thanks for the link, Steve.

    Of course, what I'd really like to know is what lyrics it's got now.