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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Origin of Misirlou
By Ron Houston

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Ron Houston

MISIRLOU

(me-zir-loo) = my unhappy one [according to the author, who probably knew better but didn't want to confuse the listening public]

OTHER NAMES

Cuando alegre tu sonries mujer – Spanish lyrics for Misirlou
Desert shadows creep across purple sands – English lyrics for Misirlou
Miserlou – prevalent misspelling of Misirlou
Misery Lou – prevalent misspelling Misirlou

VARIATIONS

Hasamisu
Never On Sunday
Snake Dance – the name for Misirlou among some Girl Scouts


BACKGROUND

"Is Misirlou Greek?"

"Well, a Greek-American re-choreographed the Cretan prototype, making it Greek by parantage and early development. Another Greek-American selected music which was written by a Greek, making it Greek by design and by marriage. And Greeks around the world and especially in Buffalo, New York have taken it as their own, making it Greek by adoption."

"Okay, it's Greek!"

"But it wasn't created in Greece! And those students weren't creating a product of Greek culture! And the music has absolutely nothing to do with Greece. Just read the words! It isn't a Greek Syrto, it's a Latin Beguine with an Arabian theme!"

"Okay, it's not Greek!"

Seriously though, the question of whether Misirlou is Greek or recreational, folk or popular, or meritous or not depends on the use to which you put it and on your definitions of "Greek" and "folk." So I suggest we call Misirlou a Greek dance for purposes of classification, but not for purposes of description. That way, you can locate this dance description through a search for Greek dances, read the background, and decide for yourself.


ORIGIN OF MISIRLOU

      Quoting Brunhilde E. Dorsh (no she's not Greek):

In the year 1945, the Duquesne University Folk Dancers, a group of girls who shared my enthusiasm for dancing, were asked to participate in a music-and-dance program to honor America's allies of World War II. The program was titled: "Music and Dance of Poland, Greece, Czechoslovakia and Jugoslavia" and was arranged by the Tuesday Musical Club of Pittsburgh. I knew no Greek dances, but the girls in their quick and enterprising way discovered two girls on the campus who were of Greek background: Patricia Mandros and Mercine Nesotas. Both knew something about Greek folk dances and Pat could play the piano (we had no records at that time). Before long we had learned the Hasapikos and Kritikos.1 However, Pat had no piano music for the Kritikos, apparently it was not as popular in Pittsburgh as other Greek dances. In desperation one day, she brought with her and gave to me a copy of "Misirlou" – an Arabian Serenade by Roubanis.2 She suggested that this music would come as close to the right kind of music as anything she could find, and so we adapted the dance to this tune.

When we first performed this dance as "Kritikos" on the above mentioned program at Stephen Foster Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh on March 6, 1945, I carefully explained to the audience that the dance had been adapted. After the program the girls, who had learned to like the dance very much, suggested using it as a "theme dance" on other programs and demonstrations, and thus it began to move off-campus and into the larger folk dance world. Monty Mayo, leader of the Community Folk Dance Group of Pittsburgh at that time, introduced it in New York. Michael Herman first listed it in his catalogue, Standard F-9044, a "Pittsburgh Greek," and eventually suggested calling it "Misirlou" to avoid confusion with the genuine Kritikos. The dance was first notated by Mimi Kirkell and Irma Schaffnit in their book: "Partners All, Places All," E.P. Dutton and Company, 1949. I introduced this dance at Oglebay Park camp during the Labor Day weekend of 1948. I was delighted to find this dance enjoyed by the Oglebayites and by the folk dancers elsewhere.

As the dance has gone its way, interesting "folk lore" has attached itself. For example, the Girl Scouts in this area call it the "Snake Dance." A student at Duquesne, who had never seen the title of this dance in print, once wrote me for information concerning the availability of this record and referred to this dance as "Misery Lou." We still get a good laugh out of that and at times refer to it that way ourselves.

Here endeth then, the story of Misirlou.3


BUT THE STORY CONTINUETH, BRUNHILDE:

Anne Pittman learned Misirlou at Oglebay and introduced it to Southern California in the early 1950s, and this Beguine lilted along, changing but little. In the late 1950s,4 the Armenian community of Southern California either adopted or inspired the linked-little-fingers handhold, set the dance to Armenian renditions of that Latin Misirlou, and inspired a new family of dances, the Armenian Miserlou (see page 1 of this book).


ORIGIN OF MISIRLOU VARIATIONS (NEVER ON SUNDAY and HASAMISU)

Art Schrader observed "A circle dance from Greece as done by the Youth Group in the Greek Orthodox Church in Buffalo," and presented the resultant Syrto at Oglebay Institute, 1955 and at an unspecified Pittsburgh Camp.5 Although he used Liberty Record 17-B, Panagiositsa, a Syrto with Helen Yianakakis singing, the dance is identical to Misirlou and Misirlou Variations.


MISIRLOU HITS THE BIG-TIME

In 1960, Never On Sunday became the first foreign song to win an Academy Award7 and spent 14 weeks on the Top Ten list,8 inspiring in 1967 the musical Illya Darling with new lyrics by Joe Darion,9 and yet more lyrics by Billy Towne in 1968. And what does this have to do with Misirlou? Well, Bob Wischnick (or Wiechnick), formerly of Wheeling, West Virginia,11 learned Misirlou from Buffalo-area Greeks (sound familiar?), allegedly added two Hasapiko-like variations to the Misirlou step, called it Hasa Misu, and set it to Never On Sunday. The name, perhaps derived from Hasapiko and Misirlou, later became Hasamisu and was said to represent the "real" Greek dance from which Misirlou was derived.12 Whether Art Schrader or Bob Wischnick/Wiechnick "discovered" Misirlou Variations really doesn't matter now, since they both learned from the same source, that Greek Orthodox community in Buffalo.

By the way, our Greek Orthodox friends here in Austin translated hasamisu as a rude phrase meaning "Go engage in sexual intercourse with yourself." When you stop laughing, consider this: unless Buffalo Greeks or Bob W. perpetrated the name as a jest, it illustrates one problem of creating or accepting "fakelore," the problem of translating significance from one culture to another. At least one recreational group in America is named "Always on Sunday." Good thing they didn't name themselves "Hasamisu!"


AND NOW

The subsequent and continuing decline of international folk dancing has not diminished the popularity of Misirlou as Greeks around the world embrace it as their own, providing an example of the phenomenon that folk dancers legitimize with the label "reverse osmosis." Lest you fret further for the future fortunes of faux Kritikos, know that also Eurythmics teachers and Surfers preserve it:

"I taught some folk dances at a summer program for eurythmics teachers [...]. Of course we had to do Miserlou and they told me how the dance had come to be. [...] the Beach Boys recorded a version of Miserlou (instrumental only). It's on their Surfin' USA album. It's a bit faster than the Miserlou I'm used to – obviously I need to go back and dance the original Kritikos/Syrtos Haniotikos to it."13

What's Eurythmics? Well, it's obviously no kin to Eugenics else we might not have Misirlou/Never On Sunday/Hasamisu to dance. Quoting Jere Paulmeno: "I encourage folk dancers to dance haniotiko syrto to its native music. The traditional music of Crete is beautiful in its own right, thrilling to dance to, and requires no foreign substitution."14

We had danced Misirlou and Never On Sunday/Hasamisu for some years when George Lowrey presented a rather different dance (resembling the Greek Slow Hasapiko) to Never On Sunday at the 1967 Texas Camp. Quoting George's directions: "This particular version probably originated in California."15

And Brunhilde? Art Hurst cites the Carnegie-Mellon Alumni News of June, 1980: "Mrs. [Brunhilde E.] Dorsch retired in May after 42 years with Duquesne University's School of Music."16


PARTIAL DISCOGRAPHY

Balkan S-7000-A
Columbia 7217-F, 10072-78
Educational Dance Recordings FD-3
Electra EKL-206
Festival F-3001-B-1, F-3505, Festival Records FLP-1505
Folkraft 1060x45-A, 1021
Kismet 142-A
Kolo Festival 804-B, 45-4804
Liberty Records 17-B, Panagiositsa
Mercury 70145
RCA Victor EPA 4129-A-1, LPM-1620, 25-5047, 26-8019, 47-7769
Slavtone S2
Standard T-131-A
United Artists 1622, 234 Never On Sunday
Worldtone 10001
and a whole shelf of surfer, rock, and now, punk variations.


[Extensive instructions and lyrics omitted for brevity.]


  1   Also known as Syrtos Haniotikos or Kritikos Syrtos.
  2   N. Roubanis. Misirlou. New York: Colonial Music Publishing Company, 1927 (1934, 1941). Note that this is a Beguine, not a Tango as some folk call it.
  3   Brunhilde Dorsh. "How Misirlou Came Into Being" in Viltis 17:[5] (October-November 1958), p. 21-22.
  4   "Misirlou" in Let's Dance (April 1962), p. 15.
  5   "SYRTO Taught by Art. Schrader." In Oglebay Institute 1955 (syllabus). Oglebay Park, West Virginia: 1955; and Texas Folk Dance Camp 1967 (syllabus).
        Austin, Texas: Texas International Folk Dancers, 1967, as reprinted from "Hasamisu" Folk Dance House dance instruction sheet.
  6   Words and music by Manos Hadjidakis.
  7   Julius Mattfeld. Variety Music Cavalcade 1620-1961. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
  8   Elston Brooks. I've Heard Those Songs Before. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1981.
  9   Richard Lewine and Alfred Simon. Songs of the American Theater. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1973.
11   William Gargan and Sue Sharma, eds. Find That Tune. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1984.
12   Constance V. Mynatt and Bernard D. Kaiman. Folk Dancing for Students and Teachers. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, 1968, p 74.
13   Stan Isaacs. Internet rec.folk-dancing newsgroup message 4823, August 12, 1994.
12   Warren Kubitschek. internet rec.folk-dancing newsgroup message 4852, August 15, 1994.
14   "Comments & Letters" in Viltis 44:4 (December 1985), p. 34.
15   Texas Camp 1967 (Syllabus).
16   Art Hurst. internet rec.folk-dancing newsgroup message 4733, August 9, 1994.,


Used with permission of the author.
Excerpted from the 1994 Folk Dance Problem Solver,
Ron Houston and the Society of Folk Dance Historians.