"Misirlou" is a traditional Middle Eastern Arabic melody first and a Greek folk song second. The Arabic melody is played within the maqam hijaz, a scale that features two 1 1/2 tone intervals. In 1945, an instrumental recording of the song by the Greek-American composer Nick Roubanis1 was used by the Duquesne University Folk Dancers for their setting of the Greek "Kritikos" folk dance. The song and associated dance were adopted by Greek and later Armenian folk dancers, and the newly created folk dance has circulated ever since under variants such as Miserlou, Misery Lou, Never On Sunday, Hasamisu and the Snake Dance2. Additionally, since the 1940s, an Americanized version of the song has become a standard of cheesy exotica.

Of greater interest to me is the klezmer "Misirlou" that has existed within Ashkenazic Jewish communities since at least the 1920s.3 I can only assume that the song made its way into the klezmer corpus by way of Sephardic Jews in the Middle East who were familiar with the Arab melody. The Klezmer version of the song is a down-tempo tune but not a somber one, expressing sexual yearning above all else. Miriam Kressyn, a Yiddish singer and actress4, created lyrics for the song in the 1940s. The narrator of her "Misirlou" sings to and about his distant love, the titular Oriental princess, while the song swells with stylized obsession. The klezmer "Misirlou" is typically sung at weddings, though honestly I have no idea why; a young couple certainly can't expect much happiness so long as the groom is thinking of Misirlou instead of his pale and watery European bride.

Here are the Yiddish lyrics to "Misirlou". Each stanza is followed by its English translation. Yiddish does not differ to much from German, and isn't too hard to parse.

Vayt in dem midbar,
Fun heyser zin farbrent,
Hob ikh amol a meydele dort gekent.
Miserlou heyst zi,
Yeder dort veyst zi gut,
Kh'vel di printsesn mer shoyn fargesn nit.

Far off in the desert,
Bronzed by the hot sun
I once knew a girl.
Her name is Miserlou;
Everyone there knows her well.
I will never forget that beautiful princess.

Shtil, ovent kil,
Un ikh fil az ikh vil mayn gefil
Far ir oysgisn un zi zol visn nor,
Az nor zi lib ikh,
Mayn lebn gikh ir, yo.

It's quiet, the evening cools,
And I want to pour out my feelings
So that she knows I love her only.
If only she would love me,
I would give my life to her.

Her, s'iz mir shver,
Mit a trer zog ikh dir un ikh shver.
Midber printsesn, kh'ken nit fargesn dikh
Kum heyl mayn benkshaft,
nor di kenst heyln mikh.

Oh alas, it is hard for me,
Oh, how can I say it, tearfully I swear to you:
Desert princess, I can't forget you,
Come heal my longing,
Only you can heal me.

Miserlou mayne, meydle fun orient,
Di oygn dayne hobn mayn harts farbrent.
Mayn harts vert a kranke,
in khyulem ze ikh dikh,
Tants far mir shlanke
Drey zikh geshvind gikh.

My Miserlou, girl from the Orient,
The look in your eyes has scorched my heart.
My heart is ailing,
I see you in my dreams,
Dance for me, oh lovely one,
Spin round and round!

Midber printsesn, kh'ken nit fargesn dikh
Kum heyl mayn benkshaft,
nor di kenst heyln mikh.
Mayn mizrakh blum, Miserlou

Desert princess, I can't forget you,
Come heal my longing,
Only you can heal me.
My eastern bloom, Miserlou.

Dick Dale's classic surf-rock version of Miserlou is genuinely a cover of the Yiddish/Arabic ballad. Dale, born Richard Monsour, is half Lebanese, and his radically original version nonetheless preserves the Middle-Eastern sound of the original.

1That would be the beguine N. Roubanis. Misirlou. New York: Colonial Music Publishing Company, 1927, 1934, 1941.

2See http://www.iecc.com/cgi-bin/artget?e20000110009 for more detail. The page is an excerpt from the 1994 Folk Dance Problem Solver, by Ron Houston and the Society of Folk Dance Historians.

3The Klezmer Conservatory Band. Liner notes from Dancing in the Aisles, The Klezmer Conservatory Band, directed by Hankus Netsky, Rounder Records 3155, 1997, CD.

4The New York Times' obituary for Kressyn is at http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~mendele/vol06/vol06.087.

w00t! This writeup is CST Approved.

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