Song of the Week: Hindustan (1918)

We’re continuing our series of popular songs, film, and other media from 1918 with two recordings of Hindustan, a hugely popular hit of that year penned by Oliver Wallace and Harold Weeks.

The earlier of the two recordings, from 29th July 1918 (though not released until the November), is an instrumental version by the Joseph C Smith Orchestra for the Victor Talking Machine Co. The second, recorded a few weeks later for Columbia, is a vocal version by Albert Campbell and Henry Burr.

What makes the song especially interesting for us is that it is an early instance of a new expression of ‘Orientalism’ in 20th century popular song, one that recognises real geographical destinations a mere steam ship’s journey from home.  Oriental themes, mirroring a Western fascination with the East that would go back at least as far as Antoine Galland’s translation into French of The Arabian Nights in 1704, had of course featured in both popular and classical music throughout the previous century and indeed earlier.  In the 19th century alone one thinks, for instance, of Beethoven’s ‘Chorus of Dervishes’ and ‘Turkish March’ from his The Ruins of Athens (1811), of Bizet’s Djamileh (1832), of Félicien-César David’s Le Désert (1844), or of Ravel’s Shéhérazade (1989, 1904), to name just a few among the more well known. But this had largely been an Orient of the imagination as unreal, as theatrical, and as divorced from real geographies as, for example, Shakespeare’s Othello’s “antres vast and deserts idle”.1  Nineteenth-century interest in the Orient finds expression in painting (Thomas Daniell, David Roberts, John Frederick Lewis, Frederic Leighton, among many), in literature (Shelley, Byron, Wilkie Collins, Disraeli, Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, etc), in travelogue (William Daniell’s The Oriental Annual, 1834; Sir Richard Burton’s many publications; Conder & Kitchener’s The Survey of Western Palestine, 1881; etc),2 in architecture (the 1762 Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens, the 1815 Royal Pavilion in Brighton), and towards the end of the 19th century in esotericism (Madame Blavatsky’s Tibet, for example, or Aleister Crowley’s Egypt), yet little in popular song, and that through the distorting lens of Empire, for example Charles Godfrey’s music-hall song ‘It’s the English-Speaking Race Against the World’ or Kipling’s ‘Road to Mandalay’, rather than as a geography in its own right.

It seems to us that there are in particular two important technologies and two significant events that underlie the re-invention of the Orient in popular culture for the 20th century:

  1.  enormous changes in the manufacture of paper and improvements on the printing press that, with the spread of literacy and the birth of the modern newspaper and magazine industry during the 19th century, gave ordinary people an unprecedented access to knowledge of places and events far beyond their immediate lived experience
  2. the invention of cinema (following on from the already significant invention of photography) that for the first time brought scenes from the contemporary Orient to screens in Europe.  See examples below, from 1896 and 1897.
  3. the fall of the Ottoman empire and the consequent rediscovery of Arabia in its own right in and after 1917, and in particular following the British Mandate for Palestine and British Mandate for Mesopotamia (1921, enacted 1922).  Already from 1883 with the launch of the Orient Express it was possible to travel by train from London to Constantinople or “Stamboul” (Istanbul), as it was otherwise known, with onward lines to Baghdad and to Cairo started in 1903 and completed by 1930.
  4. the archaeological digs of the English Egyptologists (pre-eminently Flinders Petrie and Francis Llewellyn Griffith), and in particular Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

Thereafter there is a veritable tsunami of Orientalist popular culture sweeping throughout Europe and North America, from popular songs such as Sophie Tucker’s In Old King Tutankhamen’s Day (1922) to films such as George Melford’s The Sheik.  But that is all for another blog post and for our forthcoming Learning Pack, ‘The New Orientalism, 1890 to 1930’.

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  1. “In the case of Orientalist operas, I had at first thought it might be important to understand where they were set geographically.  Then I began to realise that, for the most part, all I needed to know was the simple fact that they were set in exotic, foreign places.  Perhaps I should have remembered Edward Said’s advice that ‘we need not look for correspondence between the language used to depict the Orient and the Orient itself, not so much because the language is inaccurate but because it is not even trying to be accurate’.”
    Derek B. Scott, ‘Orientalism and Musical Style’. []
  2. “The travelogues were part of the Orientalism that abetted empire”, Kabbani (1986:10) []

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