Last Sunday's Turkish referendum, accelerating Sultan Erdoğan's dismantling of the Kemalist republic, brought to mind (as almost any news from that part of the world does) one of my favorite novelty numbers. I meant to quote it in America Alone: The End Of The World As We Know It, but it never made the final cut. However, it did end up in the Canadian Islamic Congress' exhaustive and exhausting complaint about my writing to the Canadian "Human Rights" Commission, the Ontario "Human Rights" Commission and the British Columbia "Human Rights" Tribunal, which is more than most novelty songs can claim. It first entered the hit parade in October 1953:
Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, ol' Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night...
I find that for Americans the words "Turkish delight" aren't quite as evocative as they are for those born within Her Majesty's Dominions. I quoted that line to the supervising producer of The Mark Steyn Show, who happened to be Turkish, and I was rhapsodizing about Turkish delight as the great Christmas morning treat across the British Empire. If you're thinking of "Fry's Turkish Delight" ( a staple of Brit sweetshops in the Sixties and Seventies), I was enthusing about the real deal: a wooden box with chopped pistachios, or dates or whatever, bound together in lightly powdered cubes of rosewater or lemon gel. I hadn't had it in years, and, after my nostalgic effusions, a couple of days before Christmas Faruk brought me a box in to work. Which was very sweet of him: It quite made my holiday.
Turkish delight wasn't on my mind the last time I quoted the song. As I said, it never made America Alone, but instead I mentioned it in Maclean's, in a piece that Khurrum & the Sock Puppets, "Dr" John Miller, head of Ryerson's Department of Ovine Fornication Studies, and many others were much exercised by. "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" arose in the context of a characteristically vivid observation by Oriana Fallaci about the fall of Constantinople in 1453, which Mehmet II celebrated with beheading and sodomizing, and some lucky lads found themselves on the receiving ends of both. And I added that, when it came to this landmark event in Islamo-infidel relations, most multiculti westerners, consciously or otherwise, adopt the blithe incuriosity of that marvelous couplet from this song:
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks.
Why did Constantinople get the works? Best not to ask.
The man who wrote those words was Jimmy Kennedy, and although "Istanbul" didn't make it into America Alone, there is an allusion to another of his songs in one of the chapter sub-headings in the section on Russia: "Red Sales In The Sunset" – which is, of course, a play on a Jimmy Kennedy title, "Red Sails In The Sunset". Jimmy wrote that one when he was sitting on the shore at Portstewart, County Derry and noticed a small yacht lazily sailing into the west as the sun met the horizon. The yacht was called the Kitty of Coleraine and, if you're ever in Portstewart, you can see a plaque and statue commemorating ship, song and writer, and find the yacht itself beautifully restored and on display in a local museum.
Born in Omagh in 1902, Kennedy grew up the son of a policeman in the Royal Irish Constabulary, and then hit it big in London's Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, the heart of the British music business just off the Charing Cross Road. Once in a while he wrote about home: aside from "Red Sails In The Sunset", there was an inevitable Irish mother song - "Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?" (a blockbuster for Bing Crosby) - and the lovely "Harbour Lights" (inspired by seeing a cozy pub's welcoming shingle through the English fog) and, I suppose, "The Teddy Bears' Picnic", which to my ears has always had a faintly British tweeness about it. But other than that he roamed far and wide. His catalogue includes "Isle Of Capri", "April In Portugal", and also "South Of The Border", written not about the partition of Ireland but after his sister sent a postcard from California beginning, "Today we've gone Mexican - we're south of the border..." Kennedy knew a hit title when he heard one:
South Of The Border
Down Mexico way
That's where I fell in love
When stars above
Came out to play...
Sinatra made it a signature song in his early days at Capitol, though I'm also fond of Keely Smith's recent take with its cheery sign-off, "Olé, you muthas." Kennedy's songs were recorded by Nat Cole, Perry Como, Ella, Elvis, the Platters ("My Prayer"), and, though he's not exactly a household name, he was the most successful British songwriter pre-Lennon & McCartney. Until the Beatles came along, Britain's pop industry was a small parochial thing reeling under a barrage of Yank imports, over-played, over-sexed and over here. The composers' professional body, the Performing Right Society, even called for severe protectionist measures, under which American songs could only have been played as part of an elaborate transatlantic-exchange quota system, which would have been very economically disadvantageous to the Old Country once the Fab Four, the Stones, Elton John et al came along. Yet, for three decades in the mid-century heyday of the American standard song, Kennedy was a rare British exception to the general rule.
"Istanbul" belongs with "South Of The Border" and "Isle Of Capri" in the novelty exotica end of the Kennedy catalogue. He wrote it in 1953 with Nat Simon, a New York composer who had a smash with "Poinciana", a biggish hit with "The Old Lamplighter", and somewhat lesser success with "Her Bathing Suit Never Got Wet" and a goofy number I've always been fond of that Sinatra once sang on the radio, "No Can Do". I'm somewhat surprised that Irving Berlin, sole proprietor of Irving Berlin Music Publishing, let Mr Simon get away with "Istanbul Not Constantinople". If you hear "Istanbul" and find yourself singing...
If you're blue
And you don't know where to go to...
...that's because the main phrase of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" is more or less identical to the opening bars of "Puttin' On The Ritz" - not just melodically but rhythmically. Many a successful where-there's-a-hit-there's-a-writ plagiarism suit has been brought on far less - and this song was certainly a hit. (Indeed, when They Might Be Giants revived "Istanbul", there were those who thought they'd stolen the song from Taco's Eighties remake of "Ritz".)
Still, the lyric gives it a character all its own. Kennedy had a gift for numbers with ideas so strong there's no real competition in the category. After all, there's not many English-language numbers about meeting hot Islamobabes in Turkey:
Ev'ry gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul
So if you've a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul...
As to the local color, Nat Simon attempted to give the tune a Turkish flavor and wound up with Irving Berlin sideways. In their famous hit record of the song, the Four Lads add some mosque-type ululating that in these touchy times would probably earn them a fatwa. But, within months, there were any number of covers of the song – in Britain alone, in the space of a few weeks at the end of 1953, Frankie Vaughan, the Malcolm Mitchell Trio, Edmundo Ros and the Johnston Brothers, Joe "Fingers" Carr and his Ragtime Band, the Radio Revellers, and Ken Mackintosh, his Saxophone and his Orchestra, among others, all recorded "Istanbul". As to the specific conundrum posed by the title, the song's middle section prefers to see it as part of a broader trend, explained in broader legato lines:
Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it, I can't say
People just liked it better that way...
Well, that's one way of looking at it. In reality, both name changes embody a transfer of sovereignty, the one rather bloodier than the other. How Jimmy Kennedy would have felt about our present struggle is hard to say. As an Ulster lad, he knew a thing or two about terrorism and religious identity. On the other hand, unlike today's pop crowd, he had no trouble figuring out which side he was on. In 1939, Kennedy wrote a song for the British Tommies marching off to war and certain to bust through the German defenses: "We're Gonna Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line". It was over-optimistic but his heart was in the right place, which is better than today when the showbiz set are mostly over-pessimistic and their hearts are in the wrong place. Kennedy served as a captain in the British Army and came out of the war having written one of its most unlikely hit songs, the quintessential English singalong knees-up for when the old Dunkirk spirit starts to flag: just put your left foot in, out, shake it all about and do the "Hokey Cokey" – or the "Hokey Pokey", as it mysteriously became known in America.
But "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" is in a class of its own, and we're surely due for a revival. A few years back, They Might Be Giants took a whack at it, as did Ska Cubano, in Spanish. They Might Be Giants drain most of the rhythmic bounce out of the song, although folks seem to like it. But 60 years on the Four Lads still have the measure of the number – a clean-cut vocal quartet wailing like sycophantic courtiers salaaming one of the nuttier sultans. It's the clash of civilizations in one slab of mid-century pop culture. And the final couplet gets right to the nub, both in its recognition of transformation and in our reluctance to dig any deeper:
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks.
Not anymore. I'm sorry I never got it into America Alone, but then that book does subtly modify Jimmy Kennedy to ponder the next stage of the process: when will old Amsterdam get the works?