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.

Leopold Stokowski: Danse Macabre

[Photo of Leopold Stokowski] One day when I was in 6th grade, I found a box somebody had left on the curb, filled with various treasures. One was a giant catalog of odd stuff: it listed where to buy things like church steeples, prison doors, and phone booths — stuff you couldn’t imagine where to get or even how to find out where to get in the days before the internet.

But the best thing in the box was an album of 12" 78s, including a recording of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. My “Show’N Tell” (anyone remember those?) played 78s, so I listened to it right away and loved it.

[Photo of a Stroh violin] I’ve heard many versions of the piece since then, but none I’ve heard match the essential spookiness of the 1925 Stokowski recording. This is largely due to the unusual recording technique. It was one of the first classical recordings to use electric microphones, but the intrumentation was still set up as orchestras were for acoustic recordings: there was a bass saxophone in place of a double-bass, and — most importantly — a Stroh violin.

My well-loved copy broke after years of play, and I was very unhappy. Then, about ten years ago, I found another copy at a Salvation Army, which I again played often. Then that one broke. 78s are annoying that way. Finally I found an obscure CD reissue, unavailable in America, that had it, so here it is.

Stoopnagle & Budd

[publicity photo of Col. Stoopnagle & Budd] The story goes that the comedy team of Colonel Stoopnagle & Budd started in 1932, when a thunderstorm knocked out the NBC network feed to their Buffalo affiliate. Faced with dead air, the station grabbed two of their staff writers, F. Chase Taylor and Wilbur Hulick, threw them in front of a microphone, and told them to improvise. The duo instantly made up the characters of “Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle”, an eccentric ex-Navy inventor famous for his invention of upside-down lighthouses for submarines, and his bemused interviewer/straight man, “Budd”, and ad-libbed for the next two hours. They were an instant local hit, and soon moved on to national prominence.

Like many too-cute tales from the days of classic radio, that story’s probably not true, but it’s “too good to check”, as the old newspaper saying goes. However they started, Stoopnagle & Budd soon became immensely popular, at one point being the second-highest paid comedy team in radio (the first was Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, “Amos ‘n’ Andy”). Despite their popularity, their offbeat humor made sponsors nervous and they had difficulty keeping them on their various NBC and CBS shows (which they turned into a running joke). They broke up due to personal differences in 1938. Stoopnagle went on to be a frequent radio guest star and author of humorous articles for magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. He became especially known for rewritten fairy tales using printed malapropisms known as “Spoonerisms” (e.g., Beeping Sleauty and Prinderella and the Cince). Budd returned to Buffalo and obscurity.

['How to Draw a Circle', by Col. Stoopnagle] Despite the team’s popularity back in the day, they are forgotten today, largely because very little of their work survives. Of their many radio shows, I only know of four that still exist: a 1935 episode of their unsponsored CBS show, a brief snippet of another show which I’m guessing is also from 1935, and two episodes of Town Hall Tonight from a period in 1936 when Stoopnagle & Budd substituted for the show’s regular host, Fred Allen.

[poster for 'Stoopnocracy'] They also appeared in four films: an installment of the short subject series Rambling ‘Round Radio Row, which I’m not sure survives; International House, a classic Paramount all-star comedy; The Inventors, a Paramount short which is on VHS, but only as part of this expensive six-tape set (if somebody wants to buy it for me, I’ll gladly post the Stoopnagle bit here); and, most intriguingly, Stoopnocracy, a Fleischer cartoon which tragically seems to have disappeared.

I’ve posted here a DivX AVI of their appearance in International House, and MP3s of the aforementioned 1935 show and show segment as well as one of their Town Hall Tonight appearances. Be sure to at least check out the first two links.

Unsurprisingly, there’s not too much online about them; this site has ambitions of being the definitive Stoopnagle site, but it’s far from being finished. Some good images and text, though. Also, here are some of Stoopnagle’s Spoonerisms.

(Update April 4, 2007: Stoopnocracy found! See here for details.)

Americans Speaking

The liner notes of this 1967 album explain it pretty comprehensively, so I’ll just paste them here:

Americans Speaking is a recording prepared by the National Council of Teachers of English to provide teachers and students with large-scale samples of some of the major varieties of American English, as naturally used by educated speakers. It is the first record to provide samplings of this scale since the inauguration of the Linguistic Atlas project in 1930; thanks to the evidence of the various regional atlases, it has been possible to select speakers whose pronunciation is characteristic of wide and identifiable dialect areas. All speakers recorded represent the cultivated speech of their areas: each had had some college education at the time the recordings were made, and some were postgraduates; no speaker exhibited pronunciation features widely regarded as substandard in his own area.

To permit larger samples than most records of this type provide, only six specimens are given, three from the North, two from the Midland, one from the South, following the regional designations first used by Hans Kurath in his Word Geography of the Eastern United States (Ann Arbor, 1949).

Northern

  • Eastern New England (Topsfield, Massachusetts)
  • Brooklyn, New York
  • Inland Northern (Madison, Wisconsin)

Midland

  • The Delaware Valley (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
  • South Midland (London, Kentucky)

Southern

  • Prattville, Alabama

It is noted that three of the speakers are from the area of the original settlement where local divisions are discussed in the Word Geography. The other three—Inland Northern, South Midland, Southern—come from areas of secondary settlement for which there is as yet no detailed analysis like that in the World Geography or in Kurath and McDavid’s Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States (Ann Arbor, 1961); nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the three principal dialect regions extend west of the Alleghenies and even beyond the Mississippi, with clearly marked subareas.

The fact that these six specimens appear on this record must not suggest any judgment that these are the only models for good American pronunciation. Many others exist-from the older areas, for example, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Charleston; from newer ones, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Antonio, San Francisco, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Denver. It is to be hoped that this record will be but the first of a series which will provide teachers and students with an understanding of the many varieties of cultivated American English.

The selection for each speaker is in two parts: (1) a set text read aloud and (2) a sample of free discourse.

The set text, composed by Mrs. Celia M. Millward of Boston University, was designed to give examples of three types of pronunciation features:

  1. Differences in the pronunciation system. Does fought have the same vowel as lot, or a different one? Does morning have the same vowel as car or as ford, or are they different? Does Tuesday have a (y) glide following the (t)? Does whetstone have an (h) at the beginning?
  2. Differences in the phonetic quality of the vowels and consonants. Do you notice differences from your own speech in the pronunciation of (ai) in five, (au) in out, and the stressed vowels of rode, paper, week, murder?
  3. Differences in the occurrence of particular vowels and consonants. Does greasy have an (s) or a (z) sound? Does creek have the vowel of seek or that of sick? Does sister have the vowel of sick or something else? Does laugh have the vowel of grand or that of father?

In addition to the set passage, each speaker talked informally about some topics of interest to him, and from each of these unrehearsed recordings a selection was made. The topics are diverse: small town life in Kentucky and New England, childhood on an Alabama plantation, a philosophy of teaching, developing the craftsmanship of the professional writer, the duties of a specialized National Guard unit. What all the passages have in common is the fact that the subjects were of such interest that the speakers were unconcerned about how they were talking. From these passages one can observe several aspects of oral communication: (1) possible differences from the pronunciation of words as read; (2) the reduced contextual pronunciations of auxiliary verbs (have, will, are), prepositions (to, of), conjunctions (and, or); (3) the conversational patterns of intonations, stress, and word transitions—and the ways these may differ from the patterns found in reading aloud; (4) some evidence on the complex orchestration of speech that scholars now call paralanguage

  1. Inland Northern: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  2. Inland Northern: conversation
  3. South Midland: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  4. South Midland: conversation
  5. Eastern New England: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  6. Eastern New England: conversation
  7. Alabama: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  8. Alabama: conversation
  9. Brooklyn: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  10. Brooklyn: conversation
  11. Delaware Valley: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  12. Delaware Valley: conversation

Linguistics fans out there should also check out the International Dialects of English Archive.

Gangster Fun: Come See Come Ska

[front cover of Come See Come Ska] Gangster Fun was a Detroit Third-Wave ska band active in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although beloved of the local scene and an influence on later bands that would be better-known such as The Suicide Machines, they never really hit it big. That was a shame, because they were one of the best ska bands ever, even outranking heavyweights like Bim Skala Bim and The Toasters.

This is their first LP, Come See Come Ska. It was produced by Mike E. Clark, who would later produce albums by George Clinton, Insane Clown Posse, and Kid Rock, and issued by the imaginatively-named English label “Ska Records”. Very few copies were pressed, and I’ve even had a member of the band ask me for a copy (I found mine for 50¢ at a Kiwanis sale).

  1. Wish You Were Here
  2. I Don’t Care
  3. Can’t Remember Her Name
  4. Find a Way Out
  5. O-Soo
  6. Social Animal
  7. Informer
  8. Red Light
  9. 32 Train
  10. Old Hat New Tie
  11. Mario’s Hideout

The New York Shakespeare Festival’s Threepenny Opera

[cover of Threepenny Opera soundtrack]While the best-known American version of Kurt Weill and Bert Brecht’s Threepenny Opera is the 1954 Off-Broadway production with Lotte Lenya, the definitive performance was put on in 1976 by the New York Shakespeare Festival.

The 1954 version was tremendously watered-down, both lyrically and musically. The instrumentation had been changed from Weill’s 1920s-jazz small band style to a much more conventional theater orchestra, and the timing was “fixed” — whereas in the original production, the lines were sung off-beat from the music (a deliberate decision by Brecht and Weill), the American show had everything fit perfectly. And Mark Blitzstein’s translation was largely bowdlerized: “Ballad of Sexual Obsession” became “Ballad of Dependency”, for instance. (Other English recordings are just too classical, taking the “Opera” part too seriously, or are simply abominations.)

[photo of Ellen Greene and Raul Julia, in costume]When the famous theatrical producer Joe Papp revived the show twenty years later, he made a point to be as faithful to the original as possible. He used a much better translation and restored song verses that had never been published (one about “the ghastly fire in Soho” in “Mac the Knife” and a disturbing one about Jenny’s forced abortion in the “Ballad of Immoral Earnings”). The show also went back to the original orchestration, even ordering a custom-built acoustic Hawaiian guitar (as only electric ones were available at the time of production).

The cast was top-notch, featuring a young Ellen Greene (best-known for her later performance as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors) as Jenny and Raul Julia playing a charismatic, rascally, menacing Macheath — the best performance of that character that ever has been or ever will be.

The cast recording was issued by Columbia in 1977 and, naturally, has never been reissued on CD. It featured some highly-informative liner notes by Papp and Stanley Silverman (from which I cribbed much of the information for this post), which included a good, concise description of Threepenny‘s revolutionary appeal:

… From that moment in 1928 when the banjo entered playing lowdown jazz in “Ballad of Mac the Knife”, following a sophisticated neo-classical overture, the course of music history was ineluctably altered.

Update January 22, 2007: MP3s removed per request of BMG Classical.

Act 1

  1. Overture
  2. Ballad of Mac the Knife
  3. Peachum’s Morning Hymn
  4. “No They Can’t” Song
  5. Wedding Song for the Less Well-Off
  6. Cannon Song
  7. Liebeslied
  8. Barbara Song
  9. First Threepenny Finale: Concerning the Insecurity of the Human State

Act 2

  1. Polly’s Lied
  2. Ballad of Sexual Obsession
  3. Pirate Jenny
  4. Ballad of Immoral Earnings
  5. Ballad of Gracious Living
  6. Jealousy Duet
  7. Second Threepenny Finale: What Keeps Mankind Alive?

Act 3

  1. Song of the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor
  2. Solomon Song
  3. Call from the Grave
  4. Ballad in Which Macheath Begs All Men for Forgiveness
  5. Third Threepenny Finale: Appearance of the Messenger on Horseback
  6. Ballad of Mac the Knife (reprise)

Cary Grant Sings FCC Regulations

[photo of Cary Grant]Here’s another fun one for you DJs out there: the FCC’s 1939 station identification regulations — as sung by Cary Grant.

This is from the second episode of the NBC radio show The Circle, broadcast on January 22, 1939. NBC assembled a top-drawer cast — Grant, Ronald Colman, Madeline Carroll, Carole Lombard, and Groucho and Chico Marx — and put together a show in a round-table format, where all the stars were members of some sort of club. Much to everyone’s surprise, the show almost immediately flopped, only lasting a few months.

Grant singing is inherently amusing — check out his performance as the Mock Turtle in the 1933 Alice in Wonderland — but having him sing FCC documentation with full orchestral accompaniment is another level altogether. Truly to be treasured.

I’ve posted just the song MP3 and also the entire show, which has some other entertaining moments, like a routine where Chico owes Groucho money.

Leo Diamond: Skin Diver Suite

[cover of Skin Diver Suite]Harmonica virtuoso Leo Diamond was in a couple novelty combos in the 1940s and early 1950s, and then signed with RCA Victor for a series of solo albums. This is the first one, Skin Diver Suite. It’s irresistable for the cover alone, but side one (“The Skin Divers”) is surprisingly experimental; a 20-minute collage of 1950s orchestral glissandos, home-on-the-range–style Americana, and sound effects of water splashing. It’s the Lumpy Gravy of easy listening.

This was recorded just a little too early to be stereo, which is a shame; it would have been a great entry in RCA’s “Living Stereo” series.

  1. The Skin Divers
  2. April Again
  3. Melinda
  4. Wendy
  5. Reminiscing Interlude
  6. Ride the Dark Hills Home
  7. All I Desire

Conquer the Video Craze

[Conquer the Video Craze cover] Conquer the Video Craze was issued in 1982, at the height of arcade games’ popularity. Over a background of ambient arcade noise, Curtis Hoard, “Atari Champion finalist”, reads convoluted game tips in a slow nasal monotone.

I’ve not been able to find out much about Hoard; most of the search results point to articles about a different Curtis Hoard, a sculptor of some reknown at the University of Minnesota. Perhaps this fellow’s father? One of the few links I found about this Hoard says that he graduated from Alhambra High School in California in 1981. Perhaps he knew David Wills (“The Weatherman” from Negativland), who also attended around that time.

The liner notes talk a little about Hoard and his sad, sad life:

There are few games in the marketplace that Chris has not mastered. He has extensive experience at playing video games and diciphering [sic] their patterns and techniques of play. His analytical mind automatically envisions patterns and virtual line drawings of the games. He currently logs more than 8 hours of play per day and has been coined by his peers and friends as the “Human Video Game”.

The label, ALA Enterprises of Los Angeles, is similarly obscure. They issued a motley grab-bag of products in the late-1970s–early-1980s, including bootlegs of Memphis Slim and Canned Heat; “Dungeon Key”, a cassette game for the TI-99/4a computer; and film composer warhorse Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack for blaxploitation flick The Mack and His Pack.

I’ve always thought that between the subject matter and Hoard’s slow talking, this would make great sampling material; just snip off the introduction where he says the video game’s name, and you have a man saying things like, “As a beginner, it is better just to kill everyone as fast as you can”, utterly deadpan. At least one DJ, Canadian Kid Koala, had the same idea.

  1. Introduction
  2. Centipede
  3. Defender
  4. Stargate
  5. Dig Dug
  6. Donkey Kong
  7. Pac-Man
  8. Ms. Pac-Man
  9. Tempest

Pascal: The Sixth Ear

[photo of The Sixth Ear LP cover] Nik “Pascal” Raicevic’s chief claim to fame is as a session percussionist for two tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup, but in the early 1970s he released several pioneering electronic instrumental albums under various names.

His first release, in 1970, was an eponymous album under the name “Head”; it was released by Buddah Records and contained tracks with names like “Cannabis Sativa” and “Methedrine”. Buddah had second thoughts fairly quickly and Raicevic was soon on his own. He released four albums on his own label (keeping the drug theme by naming it “Narco Records and Tapes”) before selling all his equipment to Steve Roach and dying of an overdose or finding Jesus or something.

This is The Sixth Ear, from 1972, with great spacey Moog sounds. For you DJs out there, this makes a fantastic music bed for back-announcing. Raicevic credits himself under three different pseudonyms on the involved musicians list on the back cover. The engineer is listed as “William Elder”, but I don’t think it’s the Mad/Playboy artist.

[photo of The Sixth Ear 8-track cover]

  1. The Sixth Ear
  2. Journey Into the Light
  3. Subconscious Nebula
  4. Anandamayi
  5. Identity
  6. Demons of Rage
  7. Karma
  8. Vision of Kali
  9. Life

I have this on LP, but I’d really like to find the 8-track, which has a great warning on the cover: “DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS TAPE IF YOU ARE STONED”. It’s unclear what would happen if you were to ignore the warning, or why it wasn’t on the cover of the LP.