Sheik of Araby (My father and ethnicity)

This is one of the first songs I ever learned, thanks to my father, who was born in 1906 and seemed to know just about every pop song of his youth. He frequently sang at the dinner table, and this was one of his favorites, along with “Lena was the Queen of Palesteena” and “When Francis Dances with Me.” He also had some more obscure items, which I remember only in part and no one else seems to remember at all–one, for instance, was about a husband whose wife has a child that resembles the man who is lodging with them, and is admonished with the chorus:

Your wife and your boarder, they’re all right,
With the red-haired child you must be satisfied.
If you don’t want to go to court
Your wife and your boarder you must support,
Your wife and your boarder, they’re all right.

My dad sang that in Jewish dialect, and I vaguely recall understanding it as an ethnic comedy routine about a Jewish husband cuckolded by an Irish boarder. He had a lot of ethnic dialect material, some sung, some recited. For example, a punning Russian dialect song, apparently written by a friend of his for a summer camp production, which included the immortal lines:

Like a balalaika, moaning in a minor key,
Some of our friends are sipping samovar tea…
(Note: “Like a”–“laika”; “some of our”–“samovar.”)

I have a good deal more about my father, including the text of his epic recitation, Jake the Plumber, on the page I made for him, George Wald – Biologist from Brooklyn.

As discussed in the video, this song and the whole “sheik” craze provided a sort of ethnic bridge, not only for Mediterraneans and pseudo-Mediterraneans like Rudolf Valentino and his Jewish admirers, but for young African Americans, as witness the Mississippi Sheiks and the Alabama Sheiks.

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