Song with the story: "There was a big crocodile walking down the street."

"There was a big crocodile walking down the street" is an urban folklore song popular in Russia in the early 20th century.
It's no easy thing to find a Russian-speaking person who would not know this unpretentious song. In their childhood, many people hummed it. Variations and interpretations of the lyrics were different – each community sang the song in its own way. The only thing that united the lyrics was the same crocodile that got into various life twists and turns. The text of the song is considered to be folk and is highly variable, consisting of one-type verses and creating a feeling of incompleteness.

Originally, the melody of the song was a bravura march "Days of Our Life", written by the hereditary composer, military Kapellmeister of the Russian Army Lev Chernetsky (1875-1945). In 1909, Lev Chernetsky wrote a march dedicated to the opening of the Art-Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition in Odessa (1910).

The march was vibrant, with catchy tune. The composer called it "Days of Our Life" and dedicated the march to the patron of arts and his friend Nikolai Ptashnikov, one of the co-owners of the largest Manufactory trading house “The Ptashnikov Brothers”. The march was released several times on records, which were sold out in high volume – over 25,000 units. The tune became the official march of the 129th Bessarabian Infantry Regiment of the Russian Imperial Army. The march "Days of Our Life" by Chernetsky was as popular as the march “Farewell of Slavianka” by Vasily Agapkin (1884-1964) would take off in 1915.

The march by Chernetsky was performed to see off soldiers to the front during the First World War. "Days of Our Lives" became a Russian, musical symbol of the First World War, so popular with the people that they begin to fancy words for it.
When, after the patriotic outburst, the war became an extremely unpopular event, Chernetsky's march, being on everyone's lips, became a parody of the imperialist war. It was, first of all, a musical piece, and the words to it appeared later. No one can say now who is the author. Therefore, all early lyrics can be considered the folk one. Anarchists made it their anthem, humming the words about Crocodile to the motif of the march by Chernetsky.
'There was a big crocodile / A big crocodile, / She, she / She was green / In her teeth she held / A piece of blanket / And she thought / That it was a piece of ham / Once she saw a Frenchman / And she grabbed him by the belly / She, she / She was so hungry.'

Other texts that existed include, among others, 'On the island of Haiti, there lived a Negro named Titi-Miti.'

There is also a version about Crocodile:
'A green crocodile / Walked down the street / And chirped a song / About a white phaeton. / He was sweeping with his tail / Green leaves, / And carried his daughter in his arms / Green like him.'

And then, all over the country, vagrant children, tradesmen, students and anyone else who could rhyme, began to make up new verses in their own way.
'Soldiers and sailors, / Buy cigarettes, / We have good tobacco / Half a pound for a nickel!'
‘Soldiers and sailors, / Buy cigarettes, / We have good tobacco / Half a pound for a nickel!’

Relatively recently, in the 70s and 80s, Valery Winarsky (1939-2024) wrote a song to this tune.
'Autumn separations. Your hands are waving to me/ with the purple handkerchiefs of evening clouds'.

In 1917, Lev Chernetsky left for France, where the Russian patriotic march turned into the most popular hit song – the foxtrot "Je cherche apres Titine" (I am looking for Titine). Europe did not know the origin of the tune, attributing the authorship to Léo Daniderff (1878–1943). The foxtrot and the song itself quickly became very popular. The tune travelled all over Europe and reached America...
In 1936, "Titina" Charlie Chaplin sang the song in the film "New Times". In the lyrics, he just used a set of meaningless words that sounded "French" or "Italian". In Russian translation, this song sounds like "On deck, sailors were smoking cigarettes, and poor Charlie Chaplin was picking up cigarette butts". Later the song was performed in the satirical film "The Great Dictator" – about Hitler with the words "Ah, the moustache, that moustache, and that look, and the fringe ...".

Much later, in France, a romanticised version of this song was performed by Yves Montand (1921–1991), a cult figure for the Parisian public. The American singer Billy Murray sang the same song, but translated into English. The hero of the song states that he has always been a fan of female beauty, but only one girl – Titina, has captured his heart. She is the one he is looking for, either in Peru or in Palestine.

“Crocodile" also sounds in the Soviet film "Anton Ivanovich is Angry" (1941). The woeful composer Kerosinov (played by Sergei Martinson) demands a fee for a new composition, but as soon as he plays the song on the piano, he is immediately exposed – the melody is based on the already popular "Big Crocodile".

This is how one seemingly ridiculous children's song reflects the history of the first half of the 20th century. There are couplets by Charlie Chaplin, lyrics by Yves Montand and the image of Crocodile walking along Nevsky Prospect from the book of fairy tales by Korney Chukovsky. According to one version, the song appeared after a crocodile escaped from the zoo in Nikolaev. It disturbed the town. It is believed that Korney Chukovsky wrote "Crocodile" after this event.

The musical selection of marches written by Semyon Chernetsky (1881-1950), the cousin of Lev Chernetsky is posted in the museum Phonotheque. Semyon Chernetsky, who lived in the same era as his cousin, was a commissioned bandmaster, composer, organiser and leader of military bands in the Soviet time, one of the first composers that wrote martial music.

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