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That "Snake Charmer" Song
by Shira
animation also by Shira!

Have you North America readers ever wondered about the origins of "that song"? You know, the song that cartoons on television inevitably play every time they feature either a belly dancer or a snake charmer. That song that the 10-year-old boys sang as I walked past them one evening when I finished teaching my belly dancing class. That song that everyone seems to associate with belly dancing, but that I've been able to find on only one CD meant for use by dancers.Well, wonder no more! Here's everything you've always wanted to know but were afraid to ask about that infamous piece of music!

Listen To It!
Mystified? Don't know which song I'm talking about? Well, if you have RealAudio installed on your computer, you can listen to it now! This particular recording appears on the CD titled Evolution, played by a U.S. ensemble called Oasis in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that specializes in playing music for belly dancers.

Where The Song Came From
According to The Book Of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk, the song as we know it today was created 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 Streets Of Cairo, included the famous dancer Little Egypt, snake charmers, camel rides, 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." 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 Great Song Thesaurus states that the origins of this melody go back nearly 400 years. The sheet music for a French song published in 1857 says that the first phrase of the melody resembles almost note for note an Algerian 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.

It was the performance of Little Egypt 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 dancer wearing pantaloons and loose hair performing abdominal undulations made quite a sensation. Little Egypt 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 time, it's no wonder Little Egypt's performance prompted Sol Bloom to advertise her show 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" that modern-day dancers are still trying to dislodge.

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 Little Egypt 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.

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! As you try to sing this, the verses use the familiar melody that we've all heard over and over again. The chorus melody is different.

Cover Of The Streets Of Cairo Sheet MusicVerse 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Is It Okay To Use This Song For Belly Dancing?
This song is unknown in the Middle East, and the dancers there don't use it. Considering the origins of the song, this is not a surprise! 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.

However, 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 would be absolutely the wrong music to select. It has too many associations with the burlesque hoochy koochy, and has been the subject of too many jokes over the years. If your 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.

The Strangest Places!
This song pops up in the strangest places! If you listen carefully, here are some places you will find it:
  • Homeward Looking Angel, recorded by Pam Tillis. The song "Cleopatra, Queen Of Denial" features some strains of this song.
  • The Soundtrack To Dumb And Dumber. The song "Whiney, Whiney" prominently features this melody superimposed over The Baby Elephant Walk.
  • Evolution, recorded by Oasis. The song titled Little Egypt is actually a 5-minute recording of this infamous tune. Contact Oasis, 12448 W. Cleveland Avenue, New Berlin, WI 53151. Email address: To my knowledge, this is the only CD intended for use by belly dancers that includes a recording of this song.
  • Music From The Big Top, recorded by Carl Stevens and His Circus Band. The song titled "Dance Of The Snake Charmer" is a circus march arrangement of this melody. This record has long been out of print, but you may get lucky and find it if you explore the circus music section of used record stores. Would you like to listen to it?
Alternate Lyrics
Over the years, people have put a variety of their own lyrics to this familiar song. Here are some of them:
  • "There's a place in France where the ladies wear no pants..."
  • "With your heel and toe, shake your belly to and fro..."
  • "When The Veiled Threats dance, they will make you pee your pants!"
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.
For Your Own Research
Would you like to do your own research in more depth on the history of music in North America? These books were helpful in researching this article:
  • 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.
  • 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.

Related Web Links

I'd like to thank Denis Kavemeier of the band Oasis for sharing his research with me as I was working on this story and giving me permission to incorporate it into this article. He pointed me to some very helpful sources.

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