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The Mysteries of “Misirlou”

[photo of Dick Dale] Most people today know “Misirlou” (often spelled “Miserlou”) as Dick Dale’s signature piece, extremely popular back when issued in 1961 and then again when used to great effect in Pulp Fiction in 1994. (Whippersnappers might know it better from The Black Eyed Peas sampling Dale’s version in a song last year.) But “Misirlou” is an old folk song, its origins obscure.

We can guess where it came from by the range of people who know it today: it can be heard at celebrations of Greeks, Turks, Arabs, or Jews. The logical explanation for this wide range is that it originated in Asia Minor, in what is now the borderlands of modern Turkey and Greece, i.e., between Salonica and Constantinople (the title means “Egyptian girl” in both Greek and Turkish). The song, surely one of the catchiest melodies ever, spread throughout Greece and the Ottoman Empire, and was also presumably picked up by the local Jewish community and spread from there. Who originally wrote it, of course, is lost to history; this, of course, doesn’t stop the Turks and Greeks from both claiming it, adding yet another dispute to their endless list of grudge matches (see the discussion page of the English Wikipedia article for amusing examples). We also don’t really know when it was written, although a reasonable guess would be late–19th-century.

Most sources state that the earliest known recording (spelled “Mousourlou”) was made in New York around 1930 by Michalis Patrinos, a Greek bandleader who had recently arrived in the United States. As of this writing, Wikipedia baldly states that Patrinos or his band wrote it; this is almost certainly baloney. It may not even be the earliest recording, despite claims to the contrary; Richard Spotwood’s Ethnic Music on Records, Volume 3: Eastern Europe lists a recording by Tetos Demetriades for Victor in 1927.

One thing everyone agrees on: the song was not written by Nick Roubanis, the credited songwriter. Like with many folk songs in the United States, the credit (and the royalties) went to the first person obnoxious enough to register a copyright. In this case, Greek-American bandleader Roubanis recorded a big band version in 1941 and listed himself as the songwriter, and that was that (c.f. “Love in Vain”, credited to Woody Payne on the original printings of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, or “Goodnight Irene”, absurdly credited to John Lomax to this day).

After Roubanis’s version, the song became a minor big band standard, performed by Harry James, Freddy Martin, Woody Herman, and Jan August (who had a hit with it in 1947). It was Xavier Cugat’s version, however, that pushed it into exotica territory; versions would follow by nearly every notable exotica artist, including Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Esquivel, Dick Hyman, Enoch Light, and our old friend Korla Pandit (on his 1958 LP Music of the Exotic East).

[photo of Seymour Rexite] In a parallel development, the “King of Yiddish Radio”, Seymour Rexite, and his wife, popular Yiddish theatre actress Miriam Kressyn, recorded a version in the late 1940s, with lyrics by Kressyn. It’s probable that Rexite and Kressyn had known the song from their youth, but they were also known for Yiddish versions of popular American songs (including, most entertaingly, songs from Oklahoma).

An indisputably traditional Jewish version was recorded in the early 1950s, however. Ethnomusicologist/filmmaker/magician Harry Smith spent two years recording elderly cantor Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, capturing hundreds of hours of traditional music and stories. One of the Rabbi’s songs was clearly Misirlou. A 15-LP limited edition of the highlights was released in the 1950s; only a handful of copies survive. Abulafia’s grandson, 81-year-old Lionel Ziprin (a former amphetamine-addicted beatnik whacko who has since gone back to his roots and hangs out with chasidim in his Lower East Side apartment), has been trying to get the recordings reissued; John Zorn has expressed interest in releasing them on his label, Tzadik Records.

In 1960, a ten-year-old boy walked up to Dick Dale at a local show and asked him if he could play an entire song on one guitar string. He said sure kid, come back tomorrow, and then wracked his brain that night trying to figure out a composition that would work. Lebanese-American Dale (his birth name was Richard Mansour) thought back to the weddings of his childhood and remembered the traditional number “Misirlou”, which fit the bill; he resolved to play it insanely fast. It would become Dale’s signature song.

It’s difficult to imagine a musical genre that was as shaped by one man as surf rock was by Dale. The vaguely Middle Eastern sound of all surf music is directly attributable to Dale’s Arabic ancestry; and Dale’s brilliant rendition of “Misirlou” ensured that it would become the surf anthem. Nearly every notable surf band would perform a version, undoubtedly unaware of its pre-Dale history: The Surfaris, The Trashmen, The Beach Boys (early in their career, when they were still a surf band), and The Astronauts all had versions, with varying results.

[photo of The Cardinals] Below I’ve tried to post a representative overview of the song’s history. In addition to some of the versions mentioned above, we have a recording in the early style recorded in Greece in the late 1940s by “Danai”. Also, an oddity: while there weren’t too many R&B/African-American recordings of Misirlou, one of the few was a 1955 recording by doo-wop “bird group” The Cardinals, best known for “Come Back My Love”, recorded the same year. Finally we have a version by Dale that’s (slightly) more traditional than his famous rendition, retitled “Tribal Thunder”, probably because he was sick of paying Roubanis’s estate undeserved royalties.

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Great Stuff, Sluggo! This little comp must have taken ages to find all those versions! Very Good!

I lived in the Balkans for a long time, and yes, you’ll still hear it played now and then by gypsies for weddings. I heard it a few times in Skopje. This was a great article; thanks for posting it!

[...] Dinosaur Gardens does a smashing job of documenting the curious history of the song. [...]

[...] The Mysteries of “Misirlou” The history of the song “Misirlou” (tags: music) [...]

what a great blog! i just stubled across it! jodorowsky soundtracks, i mean COME ON!

What a wonderful story you have written – excellent! I love this song when I first heard it from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack – I hadn’t seen the film, but this song really catched my ears.
Of course I heard other versions since (I love Bob Demmon + The Astronauts, and their version is as sharp as anything in their discography!).

I really like your writing style: it’s subjective, detailed and not at all too lengthy for a subject like this.

I’m looking forward to come back.

Cheers!

Great exotica songs. The one in german is fabulous, but in fact they are A L L, they really have got their own singularities. Thanks for sharing these songs and for all the catchy stories you’ve written. A new compilation will be available soon ?

Best regards.

[...] Go to The Mysteries of “Misirlou” [...]

[...] Durch das Blog von Kahuna Kawentzmann bin ich über einen Artikel gestolpert, der die Historie des aus Pulp Fiction so bekannt gewordenen Instrumentals Misirlou (dort in der Version von Dick Dale) beleuchtet. [...]

Hey! You forgot the version by Gallon Drunk! (“Tonite… The Singles Bar”, Rykodisc 1992). Sounds like the band was on ‘ludes when they made it!

Someone linked your site in wikipedia. Although blog entry is very much informative, it’s audio examples do not work. Just wanted to say (needless to say, there is personal interest to listen to them)

Fixed. Thanks for letting me know.

Thanks Sluggo! Even though I am Greek and know the song, I had failed to notice the newer “foreign” versions. It’s nice to know that Greek composers are appreciated. Good work. Keep it up!

[...] Misirlou: [HONEY BUNNY] I love you, Pumpkin. [PUMPKIN] I love you, Honey Bunny. [PUMPKIN] Everybody be cool this is a robbery! [HONEY BUNNY] Any of you fuckin’ pricks move and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you [...]

[...] This is a first-rate summary of the beautiful Misirlou. We do it partly as a cha cha cha, partly as an Afro. An Afro is a slow dance rhythm that feels kind of like the Habanera — when I figure out how to display music notation here I’ll show you. [...]

[...] Patrinos Rebetiko Band 1927 in Athen, aber Michalis Patrinos scheint nicht der Urheber zu sein. Anderswo wird auch angezweifelt, dass er der erste Interpret war. Aber bei dieser Rebetiko Band verläuft [...]

[...] Both The Gremmies and 9th Wave play straight, guitar-based reverb rock by way of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” (of “Pulp Fiction” fame), but Mister Neutron hits it with a twist of British punk [...]

[...]  ÎºÎ±Î¹ αν ψάχνεις την original έκδοση -περίπου- σχεδόν ενος αιώνα παλιά (1930) κάνε κλικ εδώ [...]

[...] The Mysteries of “Misirlou” Most sources state that the earliest known recording (spelled “Mousourlou”) was made in New York around 1930 by Michalis Patrinos, a Greek bandleader who had recently arrived in the United States. (tags: misirlou pulpfiction mp3 music culture) [...]

[...] Most people know the guitar driven riff of “Misirlou” from Pulp Fiction, and others know it as being a song played by all the hot surf bands with Dick Dale being the first in the wave of ’60s bands. The truth is it goes way back at least to the 1920s. Michalis Patrinos is said to have performed the rebetiko in 1927, and a recording exists from around 1930. Richard Spotwood’s Ethnic Music on Records, Volume 3: Eastern Europe lists a recording by Tetos Demetriades for Victor in 1927. [source] [...]

[...] Here’s an online article about the tune Miserlou, that has always been an Exotica favourite, and proven to be a great guitar melody over the years as well. [...]

[...] – Seymour Rexite (~1950), aus dem interessanten Artikel zu Misirlou bei Dinosaur Gardens, den ich hier auch vor einiger Zeit schon mal erwähnt [...]

[...] faimoasei piese din Pulp Fiction – aici. Most people today know “Misirlou” (often spelled “Miserlou”) as Dick Dale’s signature [...]

[...] MUSIC: SONGS: The Mysteries of "Misirlou" (aka "Miserlou" aka "Mousourlou&q… I always thought this song originated out of the 1950s/1960s surf rock movement… But no. I was wrong. It's a Greek song that originated in Athens in 1927, and has cult-like popularity in 5 different styles of music: rebetiko, belly dancing, Klezmer (Jewish wedding music), surf rock, and easy listening (exotica). [...]

[...] Danae – Misirlou http://www.dinosaurgardens.com/archives/297 [...]

[...] странице c оригиналом статьи выложен добрый десяток ссылок на полные mp3-записи [...]

[...] out that Dick Dale’s birth name was the very Arab Richard Mansour, also here is a link to a 1930 recording of “Mousourlou” by Michalis Patrinos, as well as more links to more recordings. Posted in music. Leave a Comment [...]

[...] digging brought up this site : http://www.dinosaurgardens.com/archives/297. The author has nicely documented the history of this song. There have been so many different [...]

[...] King of the Surf Guitar.” (You know the main theme from Pulp Fiction? That’s his version of “Misirlou,” which is a Greek folk/pop song. Who knew? *I* [...]

Check These Out…

[...]check below, are some totally unrelated websites to ours, however, they are most trustworthy sources that we use[...]…

[...] Dinosaur Gardens » The Mysteries of “Misirlou”Oct 3, 2006 … It may not even be the earliest recording, despite claims to the contrary; Richard Spotwood’s Ethnic Music on Records, Volume 3: Eastern … [...]

[...] ניגונים מסתובבים בעולם. כמו סיפורים שלפעמים מיוחסים לבעל שם טוב ולפעמים לבודהא, מפתיע לגלות לאן מתגלגלות מנגינות. בפעם הראשונה שבה שמעתי מאות חסידים מתוועדים לצלילי הניגון שהכרתי כפתיחה של הסרט "ספרות זולה", חשבתי שאפילו הבמאי, קוונטין טרנטינו, לא יכול לעשות סצנה טובה יותר. רק אחר כך גיליתי שהניגון ×”×–×” מסתובב בחצרות חסידיות כבר עשרות שנים כחלק מניגוני מירון, לשם הוא ×”×’×™×¢ (לפי רוב העדויות) מגבול יוון-תורכיה. כך מנגינה שהתחילה במועדוני הלילה של המזרח התיכון נחתה על שולחנות התוועדות החסידים, ולבסוף ×”×’×™×¢×” גם לסרט המייצג של שנות התשעים. ×›×œ אחד והניגון שלו. [...]

[...] de Julien Mignot) à découvrir aussi sur dinosaurgardens [...]

[...] [...]

[...] Wikipedia, of course. A handful of forums and blogs, most notably, Dinosaur Gardens, which had some good info and some nice links in it. NPR did a little show on it, which includes [...]

Full Post…

Dinosaur Gardens » The Mysteries of “Misirlou”…

[...] ניגונים מסתובבים בעולם. כמו סיפורים שלפעמים מיוחסים לבעל שם טוב ולפעמים לבודהא, מפתיע לגלות לאן מתגלגלות מנגינות. בפעם הראשונה שבה שמעתי מאות חסידים מתוועדים לצלילי הניגון שהכרתי כפתיחה של הסרט "ספרות זולה", חשבתי שאפילו הבמאי, קוונטין טרנטינו, לא יכול לעשות סצנה טובה יותר. רק אחר כך גיליתי שהניגון הזה מסתובב בחצרות חסידיות כבר עשרות שנים כחלק מניגוני מירון, לשם הוא הגיע (לפי רוב העדויות) מגבול יוון-תורכיה. כך מנגינה שהתחילה במועדוני הלילה של המזרח התיכון נחתה על שולחנות התוועדות החסידים, ולבסוף הגיעה גם לסרט המייצג של שנות התשעים. כל אחד והניגון שלו. [...]

[...] from a time when borders were more fluid than they are today. Interestingly, and I’ll credit www.dinosaurgardens.com for this fun fact, Dick Dale was originally known as Richard Mansour and had Lebanese [...]



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