Last week our home town football club AA Gent crashed out of the quarter-finals of the EUFA Europa Conference League at the hands of West Ham United. The anthem of this London-based Premier League club is the American song Blowing Bubbles, originally written in 1918.
The music was co-authored by John Kellette and Jaan Kenbrovin, a collective pseudonym for James Kendis, James Brockman and Nat Vincent.
The song became a big hit in America and in the early 1920s made its way into European music halls where it was performed by major singers and bands.
If one would argue that graphical quality —or illustrative DNA— is very different for each country (or more simply said, that each region in the world has its own more or less unique illustration style) then the various covers shown here for the same song around the same period perfectly illustrate this point.
The official version of how West Ham fans came to adopt this song revolves around a schoolboy and a soap ad for Pears in the early 1920s. But this dubious claim cannot be proven as the first recording of West Ham fans singing Blowing Bubbles was not before 1940, when West Ham won the Football League War Cup Final.
In 1980 the English punk rock band Cockney Rejects reimagined the romantic Boston Waltz into a thuggish raw Oi!-version to celebrate their beloved club winning the FA Cup Final.
Their mimed performance for Top of the Pops with the lead singer clad in the West-Ham colours (claret and sky blue) ended with the teenagers running around the BBC building and causing mischief. Following this incident the BBC banned the group from performing, some calling it an unfair punishment.
The group was closely affiliated with the team’s notorious hooligan firm and they provoked violence wherever they performed. According to the Guardian a Cockney Rejects’ 1980 performance in Birmingham was “the most violent gig in British history“, which also meant the end of their career as a live band.
Anyway, I’m sure our Gent players, aka the Buffalos, were not happy to hear this song in the stadium… Oi, sorry mates!
I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air, They fly so high, They reach the sky, And like my dreams they fade and die!
In these posts we already turned our attention to a few British dance crazes. Think of the springy Sir Roger de Coverly, or theNorthern Souldance style of the 70’s. Perhaps you do remember the catching, working-classLambeth Walk. Well, here is another one of these singing dance sensations: The Chestnut Tree. Hip hip hurray!
The Chestnut Tree was the second in a series of five novelty dances, of which theLambeth Walkwas the first. The dances were launched in quick succession by the outbreak of WWII, and were produced by the Mecca Dance Halls —at the time the largest dance hall chain in England. At the head of Mecca Dance was clever Carl Heimann, advertising himself in the medallion on the cover.
The American version of The Chestnut Tree cover shows us that even King George VI was tapping his breast and his head while singing along. Or wasn’t he? In a newsreel of 1936 we see King George VI, then still the Duke of York, joining in a singalong while visiting a camp for teenage boys. Together they sing Under the spreading chestnut tree, an action song of only one verse, that is repeated again and again while certain movements replace some of the words.
Under the spreading chestnut tree, Where I held you on my knee, Oh how happy I should be, Under the spreading chestnut tree.
The action song was a great hit for the royals as witnessed by this other newsreel from 1939 — even the Queen and the princesses are joining in.
It was the success of these images of the King tapping his knee, breast and head, that inspired the creators at Mecca Dance to package the children action song as a new novelty dance. Indeed, hadn’t the publicity already been done by the King himself? Thus, The Chestnut Tree was born…
Adele England was the leading teacher in the Locarno, Mecca’s flagship ballroom in Streatham, south London. She devised the dance hall routines for Heimann’s five novelty dances. For The Chestnut Tree she was not only inspired by the action song, but also inserted elements of the polka in order to appeal to the older patrons: the dancers were invited to circle the dance floor mimicking a tree, and to conclude by boisterously shouting ‘Chestnuts!’
Mecca tried to replicate its success by creating a third dance: The Park Parade about a couple taking a romantic stroll in the park on a summer’s day and by distributing free straw hats for the dance’s launch. In the newsreel below we can see and hear Miss Adele England explaining the ball room routine.
Heimann’s novelty dances all had the same mix of ingredients. They were quintessential English with English composers, producers and developed by an English dancer. They were meant to be performed by (mostly white) Britons of all ages, with or without dancing experience, rich or poor alike. The dances were a simple arrangement of steps performed in repetition while the patrons circled the dance floor in couples. All routines included shouting together and were meant to be a good laugh.
Heimann didn’t leave to chance the success of his novelty dances. Instead he devised huge promotional campaigns to launch themall over England. First the sheet music including dance instructions was sent to the press and to both the Mecca and non-Mecca dance halls, free of charge. It camewith a warning that the dance was not to be performed in public before the date of the national launch.
The dances then all had a simultaneous debut at the Mecca dancing halls throughout the country. Professionals demonstrated the dance first and then invited patrons to join in. The words of the song were displayed on large banners along the dance halls so that everybody could sing along. And the very same day the sheet music and gramophone records would go up for sale.
The fourth (Handsome Territorial) and fifth (Knees Up, Mother Brown) novelty dances were less successful. During the war the dance business, owing to the presence of the large number of American servicemen and the jitterbug craze, would become explicitly less ‘British‘ and more Americanised.
Time to get your knees up!
Further reading: Doing The Lambeth Walk: Novelty Dances and the British Nation, by Allison Abra
In 1817 the Irish writer Thomas Moore published his bestselling epic book: Lalla Rookh. Hundred years later George L’Estrange —a now totally forgotten composer— wrote a sentimental and unremarkable waltz of the same name. This L’Estrange was not the first who got inspired by Moore’s Oriental romance. From the startLalla Rookh roused the romantic imaginations of several artists.
Moore’s tale narrates how the beautiful Lalla Rookh, daughter of the Mughal Emperor, travels from Delhi to meet —for the first time— her fiancé, the king of Bukhara (in what is now Uzbekistan). She is accompanied by Fadladeen, a self-righteous, obnoxious chamberlain and also by the handsome minstrel Feramorz, who distracts her from the long journey by telling her charming stories. Predictably, the princess falls in love with the young poet and dreads the moment she will have to face her royal betrothed. In the end the amiable storyteller appears to be none other than the king who had wanted to know if Lalla Rookh would love him for his own merit rather than for his wealth. All’s well that ends well.
It was Lord Byron who had advised his very good friend and literary rival Thomas Moore to try Orientalism.He in turn was tipped off by Madame de Staël, a French-Swiss writer and influencer avant la lettre. Byron wrote to Moore in 1813: “Stick to the East. The oracle, Staël, told me it was the only poetic policy. The North, South, and West have all been exhausted…”.
Moore had never travelled to the East and thus spent six years of extensive research to come up with his armchair traveller’s view of the Orient. But it was time well spent —and sound advice from Byron— that earned Moore a princely sum of money. Byron also had orientalist ambitions and had by then already travelled to the east. In 1810, while in Greece, Byron wrote the poem Maid of Athens, which has been set to music by numerous composers. On the cover above we recognise Byron and Theresa Makri, the daughter of his landlord in Athens. Theresa was twelve years old when Byron (he was twenty-two at the time) fell head over heels in love with her. Reportedly he offered £500 for her hand in marriage. The offer was rejected. Byron wrote the girl a poem, and set to his new destination, Constantinople.
Félicien David, a French pioneer of musical Orientalism, was another composer excited by Lalla Rookh‘s fairy-tale plot. In his opéra comique Lalla Roukh the heroin kept her phonetic name, but the poet/king Feramorz became Noureddin. Lalla-Roukh is also accompanied by her servant Mirza and by Baskir (Fadladeen in Moore’s version), the pompous, critical and conniving chamberlain.
Contrary to Thomas Moore, Félicien David did travel to the Orient. He even had a specially reinforced piano built to withstand the heat and long journeys. With this small piano that could almost be slung over the shoulder, he travelled to the Middle-East, Algeria and Egypt. He stayed for two years in Cairo where he gave music lessons and explored the desert. These years were decisive for the Orientalist character of his musical work.
David returned to France where his Lalla Roukh was first performed to huge acclaim in 1862 and would remain popular till the end of the century. It was the catalyst for an explosion of operas set in the ‘Exotic East’.
David’s Lalla Roukh was almost forgotten, but was revived in 2014 by Opera Lafayette in Washington DC. Enjoy an excerpt of their production with a classical Indian dance.
The story of Lalla Rookh also found its way in popular culture. Kate Vaughan, allegedly the first woman to flash her petticoats, also inventor of the skirt dance, had a vaudeville act as Lalla Rookh in the London Novelty Theatre during the 1880s.
In the United States showman Adam Forepaugh presented in 1880 a street pageant Lalla Rookh’s departure from Delhi. Atop of an elephant sat the most beautiful woman in the world, for which title she had been awarded ten thousand dollars. Curiously, it was not the beauty queen who was named Lalla Rookh but the elephant.