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~This song is exactly a century old, and it's percolated through recent episodes of our Hundred Years Ago Show and Mark Steyn Show. So I figure it's time to stop tap-dancing around the edges, and address the matter directly:
Question: What's the connection between Rudolph Valentino, Adolf Hitler and the Beatles?
Answer: This song:
I'm The Sheik Of Araby
Your love belongs to me
At night when you're asleep,
Into your tent I'll creep...
Give it a couple of minutes. Louis Prima uses another song from the Twenties just to wet his feet:
Until 9/11 sparked the current torrid romance between western lefties and the jihad boys, the last time the stern men of the desert had the developed world mooning over them was 100 years ago. Even before Rudolph Valentino's screen version of it, The Sheik was a smash: E M Hull's novel sold two million copies within a year of publication in 1919. It's a cracking read, right from its splendid first sentence:
Are you coming in to watch the dancing, Lady Conway?
And, if you think today's Euro-American feminists are pretty submissive in the face of Islamic theocrats, well, at the very dawn of female emancipation, millions of women apparently wanted nothing more than to be forcibly seized by some Bedouin chieftain, trussed up over his Arab stallion and ridden into the desert to be his bride. Valentino's moment was brief: the film of The Sheik opened in 1921 and he was dead by 1926, at the age of only 31. And, to the befuddlement of your average bloke, Hollywood's first great screen lover was frankly a bit of a nancy. But his alleged smoldering eroticism drove the gals crazy, and 80,000 of them showed up for his funeral, and came near to rioting. It was the biggest send-off for a charismatic Middle Eastern type until the Ayatollah Khomeini's six decades later, when the excitable young lads clutching at his shroud managed to yank the corpse off the bier at one point.
So in the early Twenties the trick for Tin Pan Alley was to figure out a way to cash in on all this sheik chic. There's always been a niche market for lyric exoticism – "Moonlight On The Ganges" and whatnot – and songwriters were already gingerly setting a toe or two on the desert sand. In 1915 Irving Berlin wrote a number called "Araby", which includes some of the most atrocious rhymes in that great man's illustrious career, starting with the first couplet -
Tonight I'm dreaming of Araby,
That's where my dreams seem to carry me
- and continuing all the way through to the final eight bars:
Soon you'll see within a caravan
An Arab man
Will take me over the desert...
In between comes one of the better quatrains:
That's why I long to be
Where all those happy faces
Wait for me,
Beside the fair oasis...
"Araby" was published by the firm of Waterson, Berlin & Snyder. Berlin was Irving of that ilk, Harry Waterson handled the business end, and Ted Snyder is the fellow who gave young Irving his first job, as a song plugger back in 1909. But he was also an efficient composer of hit tunes like "Who's Sorry Now?" In 1920 he had a song he'd just completed called "My Rose Of Araby". With their customary grip on geographical reality, many Tin Pan Alleymen seemed to think roses bloomed in the desert: in 1918, Byron Gay wrote a pleasant love ballad called "Sand Dunes (My Desert Rose)". Anyway, Snyder was pleased with his "Rose Of Araby" and took it to Waterson, who was unimpressed and had a better suggestion. He figured that, with all this sheik-mania going around, Snyder should ditch his desert rose and center the song around some Bedouin stud.
Snyder's collaborator was Harry B Smith, the grand old man of turn-of-the-century American operetta. He's the most prolific lyricist in Broadway history: he wrote over 300 shows and over 6,000 songs, and none of them are known today, with the exception of "Sheik Of Araby", which in recent decades has been mostly heard as an instrumental. However, Smith's lyric is not without its moments. The verse sets up the situation:
Over the desert wild and free,
Rides the bold Sheik of Araby.
His Arab band
At his command
Follow his love's caravan...
Gotcha. He's not the dinner-and-a-movie type. Prefers the more direct approach:
At night when you're asleep
Into your tent I'll creep...
Although Snyder liked to say that in order to compose the tune he "went into the Oriental", with the best will in the world one can't detect much Arabic influence in the music. Instead, it's built straightforwardly on the sixth interval, which, for composers in a hurry, is a good shortcut to a maddeningly sing-songy catchiness: "Mack The Knife" and "The Third Man" are two of the best known examples of slightly hypnotic sixth-interval melodies. "The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else" does a somewhat better job of it. "Sheik Of Araby" belongs more in the Mack-The-Third-Knife-Man category. But it's a fun tune just to kick around between the band:
Can you hear Arabia in that? Harry B Smith's lyric, on the other hand, remains focused on the salient features of the local color:
While stars are fading in the dawn
Over the desert they'll be gone
His captured bride
Close by his side
Swift as the wind they will ride
Proudly he scorns her smile or tear
Soon he will conquer love by fear...
Only in the very last lines does a certain fudging of the issues occur:
The stars that shine above
Will light our way to love
You'll rule this land with me
The Sheik Of Araby.
I see. He creeps into your tent, captures you, takes you to his remote encampment, has his way with you, scorns your tear, wins you by fear. But you'll get to co-rule his desert kingdom, eh? Tell it to Ibn Saud's sixteen wives.
Ah, well. In 1921, the Arabian interior was one of the remotest places on earth, and, indeed, it stayed that way until Osama bin Laden's dad built the first trans-Arabian highways in the Fifties, enabling the kingdom to advance to its present condition of state-of-the-art barbarity. But 92 years ago your average American woman was as smitten by the image of the noble Bedouin riding his Arab all night as the British Foreign Office is to this day. A few days after Snyder and Smith had rewritten "My Rose Of Araby" as "The Sheik Of Araby", Harry Waterson's bet paid off big-time: it was announced that The Sheik was to be adapted into a motion picture. The song never looked back.
I mentioned the Beatles earlier. They did it in the 1960s, with George Harrison wrapping his Liverpudlian vowels round the vocal rather charmingly:
I assume the "Not arf" was a reference to one of the many catchphrases of Alan "Fluff" Freeman, greatest of all Australian disc-jockeys and host of the BBC's "Pick of the Pops". But, whatever the pretext, it does no harm. To be honest, I was bored to death by Harrison in his Maharishi phase and, whenever I played the Sergeant Pepper album and that yingy-yangy "Within You, Without You" started up, I'd fondly fantasize that halfway through George might segue into "Sheik Of Araby". I'd rather have fun Tin Pan Alley exoticism than plonkingly earnest Tin Pan Alley exoticism. Better than the Beatles is Louis Prima, who made "Sheik" one of the highspots of his stage act, with Sam Butera and the lads pointing up that sixth interval with their own hypnotic interpolation. This is one of his final performances:
I'm the Sheik of Araby
(With no pants on!)
Your love belongs to me
(With no pants on!)
At night when you're asleep
(With no pants on!)...
Etc. For the recording up at top, the execs made them change it to "Put your turban on!", which is even goofier.
Yet even then, in the Vegas Sixties, "Sheik" was a period piece. It's one of those songs movies use when they want to conjure time and place immediately: it's instant shorthand for the Twenties. When you read the party scenes in The Great Gatsby, you can hear it playing (as you won't in the forthcoming raptastic movie version). Along with flappers and bootleggers, the sheik is one of the types of the era. As P G Wodehouse wrote in The Girl In Blue, she was "a girl Sheiks of Araby would dash into tents after like seals in pursuit of slices of fish". Eddie Cantor sang it on stage, and Harry McDonough made the first hit record, and here's my favorite big screen version - Alice Faye, Betty Grable and the fabulous if somewhat under-dressed and high-heeled Nicholas Brothers. And yes, it's not exactly authentically Saudi, but there are more ideas in this six minutes than the last fifteen superhero movies I've seen:
The Misses Faye and Grable look awful cute as they sing:
He's the Sheik of Araby
His faithful wives are we
But life is such a bore
He has a thousand more...
That's funnier than most of the parodies "Sheik of Araby" prompted. This one was a hit for Fanny Brice about a year after the original - "The Sheik Of Avenue B". As Fanny enthuses:
You should see his Hebrew harem!
But the weirdest revision was to come. It's 1940, and you're in rural England during an air raid, twiddling the radio dial, a little bored by the BBC Light Programme and looking for something else. Suddenly, you recognize the song:
I'm the Sheik of Araby
Your love belongs to me...
The band's hot and the singer's great, at least for the first chorus. And then over the music a spoken voice says, "Here is Mr Churchill's latest song", and the vocalist returns to sing:
I'm afraid of Germanee
Her planes are beating me
At night when I should sleep
Into the Anderson I must creep
Alhough I'm leading England's men
I'm led to the cellar by ten
A leader in the cellar each night
That's the only damn way I can fight....
(The Anderson was the air raid shelter, by the way.) Thus, "Charlie and his Orchestra" – vocalist Charlie Schwedler, orchestra led by Lutz Templin, and with a very fine drummer. It was one of the more inventive and beguiling attempts by the Third Reich to demoralize its enemies.
Which makes you wonder: Given that the song's been used as propaganda in one war, surely it could have been pressed into service for endless wars of our own time?
~Don't forget, some of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season. You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your promo code at checkout for special member pricing.
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