Louis Armstrong and the Snake-Charmin’ Hoochie-Coochie Meme

by Bill Benzon

Some years ago I was looking for a way to open the final chapter of a book I had been writing about music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. The chapter was to be a quick tour of black music in 20th Century America, starting with jazz and blues and ending with hip-hop. So, I thought and thought and, finally, an idea crept up on me.

I had this book of Louis Armstrong trumpet solos that I’d been practicing from ever since my early teens. The solos had been transcribed from recordings Armstrong had made in the late 1920s and had been circulating ever since. These were classic Armstrong, “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Struttin’ with some Barbecue,” “Gully Low Blues,” “Muggles” (nothing to do with Harry Potter, “muggles” is old New Orleans slang for Armstrong’s favorite inhalant) and a few others. One was a response to a recent recording by McKinny’s Cotton Pickers, “Tight Like That” [1], and was called, naturally enough, “Tight Like This”. During his improvisation in Armstrong quoted a certain riff, not once, but twice (at roughly 2:04 and then 2:13).

How did I know it was a quotation? Because I was familiar with the riff from other contexts. For one thing, it showed up in cartoons, often to accompany a snake charmer, but also as general all-purpose Oriental mystery music [2]. For another, I knew it as a children’s song that me and by buddies used to sing, with lyrics to the effect that the girls in France didn’t wear underpants – hotcha! But how did Armstrong know this tune? He recorded “Tight Like This” in 1928, the same year that Walt Disney produced “Steamboat Willie,” generally regarded as the first cartoon with a fully synchronized soundtrack. So Armstrong’s recording predated the tune’s use in cartoon soundtracks. Did he learn it as a kid growing up on the streets of New Orleans?

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