Istanbul, Is or Not Constantinople?
"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" is a 1953 novelty song, with lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon.
James Kennedy, (1902 – 1984), was an Irish songwriter, predominantly a lyricist, or co-writing with the composers Michael Carr, Wilhelm Grosz (a.k.a. Hugh Williams) and Nat Simon, among others. In a career spanning more than fifty years, he wrote some 2000 songs, of which over 200 became worldwide hits and about 50 are all-time popular music classics.
Nat Simon (1900 – 1979) was an American composer, pianist, bandleader and songwriter. From the 1930s to 1950s his songs were used in over 20 films. Between 1931 and 1940 he also took part in the musical Vaudeville revue Songwriters on Parade, which featured hit songwriters of the day.
The song was written on the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the lyrics humorously refer to the official 1930 renaming of the city of Constantinople to Istanbul. The song's original release was performed by the Canadian vocal quartet The Four Lads released on August 12, 1953. It was the great hit of those days, was certified as a gold record and charted #10 on the Billboard in 1953.
Later, mostly in the 50s, it has been covered by tons of music greats including Bing Crosby in duet Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler in her 1977 “Live at Last” show, Santo & Johnny, the instrumental surf-rock band Bruno & the Gladiators in 1963; by Lee Press-on and the Nails in 1998 but probably currently it is remembered from a more recent better-known version of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" covered by the alternative rock band They Might Be Giants (TMBG), who released it on their album Flood in 1990. It was released as the second single from that album in the same year. TMBG's version is at a faster tempo than the original. The They Might Be Giants version is used in the
Tiny Toon Adventures episode "Tiny Toons Music Television", The Plucky Duck Show episode
It is said to be a response to "C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E" recorded in 1928 by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. It is a comical commentary on the city’s name change in 1930, making reference to other name changes, like New York City’s former moniker, New Amsterdam. Well, if so, it took them 25 years to find the correct response! Actually, there is nothing similar between the two songs except the reference to “Constantinople”!
The Four Lads was a well known group in the 50s, with a very early 50s sound and earned many gold singles and albums. Additional to Istanbul (Not Constantinople) its million-selling signature tunes include "Standing on the Corner," "No, Not Much," "Who Needs You?" and “Moments to Remember"; well to be honest, probably very few remember any of their hits today.
The group is still active but the last original member, Frank Busseri, born 10 October 1932 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, died in Rancho Mirage, CA, on 28 January 2019 at age 86.
If you are interested to listen the original version by The Four Lads, check this Youtube link
And here are the lyrics:
It’s Istanbul, Not Constantinople
Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish Delight on a moonlit night
Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul
Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way
So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks
But, why an Irish - American songwriter bothers to write a song in 1953 about a then relatively unknown city in the Middle-East or Asia Minor, as Turkey is called in some geographic reference? For the Americans public, when the song came out, Turkey seemed very far away and of no significance, so the changing of the city's name for nationalist reasons, from Constantinople to Istanbul, a couple of decades earlier, actually, was good for a light-hearted novelty song, which is all this is. Just fooling around with funny-sounding names and far from touching on the political implications of changing city names.
People started to hear news about Turkey in the 1950s when Turkey-United States relations gained strength. Turkey decided to join the Allies at the end of the World War II. From then on, Turkey became an important ally of the USA in order to block the Soviet influence in the region. Substantial aid was transferred to Turkey as a part of the Marshall Plan. Moreover, Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and Turkish troops were sent to Korean War to fight together with the American forces.
These close relations were materialized in the American pop culture. First reflections can be observed in Hollywood. During the mid-1940s, Turhan Bey became the first Turkish Hollywood actor and he starred in oriental-themed high grossing movies like "Arabian Nights" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". Then it was music. Ahmet Ertegün, an American of Turkish descent, formed Atlantic Records that dominated the American music industry. He also composed songs for Ray Charles and B.B. King though these blues/soul songs were far from an Eastern influence. In 1953, Eartha Kitt recorded "Usku Dara", a traditional Turkish song, and she impressively sang the song, in Turkish! The song was performed one year later in her movie "New Faces".
Let's go back to "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)". The book "The Man Who Wrote The Teddy Bears' Picnic" explains the background of this song. In the late 1953, lyricist Jimmy Kennedy heard his musical partner Nat Simon playing an improvisation with an Eastern feeling, the trend of the time. The melody was inspired by an English dance group Wilson, Keppel and Betty. The music hall group was very popular in the UK during the 1930s and their performances were based on Arabic/Egyptian themes. Kennedy decided to write the lyrics with a Turkish reference… but the only thing he knew about Turkey was Istanbul and her previous name Constantinople, so his only option was to write about this name change. The song also refers to the name change from New Amsterdam to New York and the narrator just does not understand why people like to change the names of locations. Well, the case of New York is obvious: It's because the British captured it from the Dutch and named it after the Duke of York. I guess that doesn't really rhyme though. However, the narrator does not judge the decision as well. He says: "It is nobody's business but the Turks!".
A funny fact is that both names are actually Greek in origin. Constantinopolis means "the city of Constantin". Istanbul is a Turkishization of “istimbolin,” meaning in Greek “in and to the city” a term commonly used by local Turks since the 13th century or even earlier, long before Constantinople was overtaken by the Ottomans.
Ancient Greeks recognized the strategic location, a crucial gateway between east and west, north and south, for thousands of years and called the settlement Lygos. Beginning in about 660 BCE and for more than 900 years, the urban area was known as Byzantion and later Byzantium, arguably Hittite in origin, the language spoken by the legendary Trojans. Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who ruled between 306 – 337, built a new imperial residence at Byzantium and renamed the city "Nova Roma Constantinopolis" modesty apart, after himself (the laudatory epithet of "New Rome" came later, and was never an official title). Constantinopolis became the capital of the Empire for more than a thousand years, with the later Eastern Roman Empire now being referred to as the Byzantine Empire.
Even if Mehmet the Conqueror changed the name of the city to Istambul when he conquered the city back in 1453, up until the 19th century, Ottomans continued calling the city by both names. They had no problem with that, because unlike the modern Turkey, the Ottoman Empire was not a nationalist institution. It was multicultural, (in its own way) and in their view, this was Istambul, the city of Constantine, which they had eventually occupied and made Muslim. So up until the Republic of Turkey, the name of Constantinopolis actually endured. It wasn’t until 1928 when Turkey’s postal system stopped accepting packages addressed to Constantinople that the rest of the world began to adopt the name Istanbul and was only solidified completely as the official governmental name in March 28 of 1930, when Turkey officially requested all countries stop referring to the city as Constantinople!
However, even currently the Greek name for Istanbul is their spelling of Constantinople.