Unlike most old-time fiddle tunes that are commonly played for dances, “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is a showpiece made just for listening. It is normally played at a slow march tempo that suggests an army in retreat. One tale about the origin of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” claims the tune was written on the bagpipe by a Scotsman who fought at Waterloo. In 1944, the folklorist Samuel Bayard insisted the tune evolved from an ancient Irish march known as “The Eagle’s Whistle” or “The Eagle’s Tune.” In America, it has been played under the title “Bumble Bee in the Pumpkin Patch” and “Bonaparte Crossing the Rocky Mountains.” When it was pointed out to an old fiddler that Bonaparte never saw the Rocky Mountains, he reportedly replied, “historians differ on that.”
In 1949, the country musician and Grand Ole Opry star Pee Wee King (composer of “The Tennessee Waltz”) wrote new lyrics to “Bonaparte’s Retreat” that had everything to do with romance and dancing and nothing to do with Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812. Pee Wee is generally given credit for adding a third part of the tune that is commonly known as “The Hoochy Cootchy Dance,” “The Snake Charmer’s Song” or “The Girls in France.”
The history of the origin of the third part of “Boneparte’s Retreat” is a fascinating story itself. It dates back to 1893 when Sol Bloom, the entertainment director of the Chicago World’s Fair, composed it on the piano for an attraction called “A Street in Cairo,” which featured snake charmers, camel rides and a seductive dancer known as Little Egypt. If Bloom had done nothing more than compose this tune, he might only be remembered in a footnote in an obscure songbook. However the truth be told, he was a successful Chicago sheet music publisher as well as boxing promoter who staged prize fighting matches that featured “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. On top of that, he was a politician who served a whopping fourteen terms in the U.S. Congress from 1923 until his death in 1949. For over a decade he was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and worked closely with the White House both on the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. He was also a member of the American delegation in San Francisco that helped to create the United Nations in 1945. To put a cherry on the top of a storied career in politics, in 1948 he was on the committee that successfully lobbied President Harry Truman to recognize the Jewish State of Israel.
For this arrangement of “Boneparte’s Retreat,” I’ve written it out both in standard musical notation and also in a tab system I created for several of my instruction books. Instead of having numbers on the lines to represent the fret that you play, this tab uses the name of the note. For more information about my instruction and songbooks for banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, dulcimer and ukulele, visit Native Ground website.
There are at least three versions of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” — this is my favorite, it’s the one with the “snake charmer” part. There is also William Stepp’s famous version, which was “borrowed” by Aaron Copeland to become a famous section of Rodeo. This totally ruins (or augments) the old fiddler’s joke: “How can you tell all these fiddle tunes apart? Answer: They have different names”. Well, they don’t, actually!