I heard it most recently in an old episode of M*A*S*H, the gang were dancing around to it in one of the tents, at the time of the Korean war it would have been a hit song. I’ve heard it on Mad Men, when Don Draper finds himself in L.A and the object of a beautiful, girl’s desire. But most will probably know this song from Pulp Fiction. Dick Dale’s surf rock version is now instantly recognisable as the sound of Quentin Tarantino’s ’90s cult flick. The song is Misirlou. It’s one of those songs that pops up again and again in various guises in various contexts but it’s almost always used to represent the exotic and strangely desirable.
It has no known composer because it’s an old folk song from the Greek rebetiko tradition, back in the day when music was owned by no one and yet by everyone. As was the fashion of newly developing social music of the early decades of the 20th century, songs like this generally took on the ownership of whomever’s band was playing it. The earliest known recording was by Tetos Demetriades in 1927, but it was Michalis Patrinos’ 1930s version that gave it the lyric and title it’s known for today. Misirli in Greek means an Egyptian muslim girl. To Patrinos she is ‘my black-eyed, my wild Misirlou’ with ‘magical, exotic beauty’ whose ‘two lips are dripping honey’.
Whether this song is actually from Greece no one will ever know. According to Wikipedia, the song sounds middle Eastern because it runs up and down the Hijaz Kar or double harmonic scale (E-F-G#-A-B-C-D#) a distinctly Arabian mode. So as to the true origins, it could have been stolen from a middle-eastern minstral or simply come from a time when borders were more fluid than they are today. Interestingly, and I’ll credit www.dinosaurgardens.com for this fun fact, Dick Dale was originally known as Richard Mansour and had Lebanese heritage.
‘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 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.’ – Dinosour Gardens