The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1910
Time to move on to the next decade. In the last blog post we presented the the naughties from the previous century, now we move to the period that is one hundred years behind us. How much has changed, comparing on one hand to the 1900′, and on the other with our own time ? Or, we could also ask, has anything changed at all ? Let’s see.
As you’ve probably noticed in the previous post, although the Paris of the 1900′ was in the middle of the so called “Belle Epoque”, that is today considered to be the absolute highlight of the Parisian and indeed European history – in terms of arts, architecture, literature but also technological advancement and high hopes for a better tomorrow – the songs of this period paint a very different picture. From them, we see a city sharply divided between the idle wealthy minority and the vast majority of the working people living in dire and abysmal poverty, interlaced with violence, social unrests, political turmoil and standardly plagued by the famously French marital infidelity. Well, we could say that the latter is common to all classes of the French society – equality does exist, at least in those terms.
From this period onward we start to witness a great importance that the prostitution had in the French society of yesteryear (we didn’t quite find the time to inspect if it’s still the case today). Truth be told, there are many songs on this subject, well before the 1910’s, and as we’ll see, well after. However, we are choosing to address it now because it seems that it’s from this time that the genre of melodrama becomes increasingly popular and that the French start looking at the prostitutes differently. They are no longer the necessary convenience and a favorite past-time of the gentlemen of Paris, but are starting to be considered as human beings that have their own stories to tell. As you can imagine, it’s handled in the worst possible manner, very schmaltzy and over the top sentimental. A perfect example of this is
L’Hirondelle du Faubourg
(sorry we weren’t able to find an original version sung by Gaston Dana)
A song tells of a working girl wounded on her job (speaking of the general safety of the streets of Paris back in the day – remember the Viens Poupoule song mentioned in the previous article), dying in a hospital. The MD treating her sees that there is no hope, but is trying to make her last moments easier by encouraging her to persist, saying that she will get better. As they engage in a conversation, the MD spots a peculiar medallion that she is wearing – he asks where did she get it from, and she responds that it was given to her mother by her treacherous father that left them in great poverty, hence she became a prostitute (or, as the song title suggests, a swallow of the neighborhood – no pun intended here, it’s the actual translation). As you can already guess, the treacherous father turns out to be the MD in question : as he realises this, and publicly admits it to the hospital staff, she dies. We can see from which source material the Latin American telenovelas partially got their inspiration from. The song was parodied on many occasions – in fact, the first recording of a song on a sound carrier in the 40’s was a parody.
Many things back in the day were taken much more seriously than they are nowadays. One of them was the subway in Paris.
Nitta-Jo! – Le Jeune Homme du Métro
One of the first cities in the world (but not the first – that honor goes to Budapest) to have a subway, the Paris didn’t lose time to brag about it. Many songs from this period are about it, and although today we tend to see it as a mundane chore that you only take when you absolutely have to, back in the day it was a genuinely exciting novelty. Apart from being new, it was also terrifying, much like the rest of the rampantly progressing industrial revolution, and it took a lot of time for people not to be afraid of trains, let alone subterranean ones. So, to cheer the mood up a bit, here we have a song about a girl who takes a ride in the subway and is instantly smitten by a handsome young man seated next to her. As the train rocks, the lights go off and she can’t see him – still, she wastes no time and throws herself at him, to better use the sudden darkness. After they exchange kisses (etc.) the crowd of the subway conceals him and they lose touch. Now she spends her days in the subways looking for her man – all that she remembers was that they entered the train at the station Odéon, so that’s where she is. We’ve taken our fair share of subway rides here in Paris but can’t say that this ever happened to any of us. When Nitta-Jo sings about jumping an unassuming stranger in the dark of the public transportation, it somehow sounds nicer than anything we’re capable of imagining on the given subject actually happening.
Félix Majol – Ell’ Prend Boul’vard Magenta
Speaking of jolly old sexual harassment (that is welcomed by the ever understanding strangers), here is a veritable jewel of a chanson française. Ah, the good old days of virtue and stern values, when our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers were much better people than we are today. Here is a glistening example. We assume the position of a “flaneur” who idles his day away at the Place de la République, when he catches a glimpse of a very cute girl walking up the Boulevard Magenta. What do you do in a given situation ? Why, you stalk her back to her place, off course ! So he does, giving a detailed description of the neighborhood, a romantic/stalkers geography of that part of the city if you will. He sees where she lives and remembers it. Tomorrow, the same situation – he sees her, he follows her. Now the narrative gets an unexpected turn (seen from today’s perspective, at least) – instead of being asked to stop with his shenanigans, or taken in by the police, the gentleman in question is noticed by the lady in question, and she smiles at him and invites him in. We learn so much from these songs, don’t we – apparently, this was the mating ritual of the sorts, done by our grand fathers (or great-grand fathers, depending on who’s reading this). The invitation is taken and they spend a couple of hours together. As the merry gentleman exists his new found love nest, the story gets another turn (gasp!) – he is greeted by another gentleman who says that he is sorry to not have seen him before he took the invitation, as the mademoiselle in question definitely has ‘…’ some sort of venereal disease that the lyrical subject deliberately omits. Oups! His next stop is the pharmacy, where he spends the rest of his money (six cents) on medications.
Bach (not that Bach, obviously) – La caissière du Grand Café
The gentleman from the next song is less (or more, depending on how’re looking at it) fortunate than his colleague from the previous. Still roughly in the same neighborhood, not too far from the Magenta Boulevard is the Grand Café at Boulevard des Capucines, where this song takes place. Here we can witness a story that is much more relatable in today’s terms. A regular customer goes to Grand Café and spots a pretty cashier – he falls in love with her and (naturally) decides to quietly stalk her/stares at her as she works, hoping she will notice him. Seriously, was this a thing back in the day ? The evidence is piling up. Anyhow, she smiles at him at tells him to go to the back corridor, where he will find a door he needs to take. He does so, but finds nothing but cabinet files. Apparently, she is not interested and it’s her way of communicating it to him. He concludes that no matter what she thinks, he will always find her face and haircut pretty – we conclude that the stereotype of a rude and condescending French waiter was more deeply rooted than we’d thought. Also, this might be the historical antecedence and an explanation of that weird bistrot subplot love story from Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain. Perhaps it is a French thing after all.
Georgel – Aux Halles
Still speaking of the service sector, we go to this working class song speaking of an area not far away, Les Halles. Back in the day, it was still a large food market (instead of a shopping mall that it is today), and, not very different to today, a somewhat dodgy part of the city. The lyrical subject starts the song with a contrast between the joyfully idle wealthy people leaving the theaters, night clubs and dance halls, while at the same time the working people wake up and get out to the street. Some to work, most notably sellers of food at Les Halles, some to beg, some to take part in the most vital branch of the French economy of this era, the prostitution . These two classes, the idle and the wealthy on one side and the working and the poor on the other, are all taking the same street (Boulevard Sebastopol) but are quite symbolically going in a different direction, in more ways than one. The dawn rises in Paris, and this is what the city shows of itself. The lyrical subject continues with the contrast, mentioning the marry Montmartre, “where the champagne flows in streams” as opposed to Les Halles “where the misery makes its bed” and the unemployed scuffle about, looking quite similar to the working people. This utterly depressing song gives us a view of La Belle Epoque that is very different to the one we tend to have when we think about that time. On one side are the lavish houses in l’Art Nouveau style, on the other, in the words of the poet, “misery that is crying out to heaven”. We mention it here not only as a great example of this particular aspect of the history of Paris, but also because it gives us an image of a very joyful, lubricious Montmartre. Here it is used as a contrast to the overall misery of the rest of the city, but in the songs to come the focus will be more and more on the glamour and fun of Paris and less and less on its darker side. Speaking of darkness…
Gaston Monthéus – Y’à qu’des honnêtes gens dans l’gouvernement
Here is another reminder of how great our yesteryear was and how, sadly, similar to our today it is. The title of the song is “There are but honest people in the government” and is a sharp, sarcastic and cynical criticism of the social stratification of the society, where the corrupt class of politicians use their privilege and power to amass wealth while the rest of the people are starving. It does sound somewhat familiar, as if we’ve heard people talk about it someplace else, but we can’t quite put our finger on where exactly (everywhere?). The lyrical subject numbers all of the ways the politicians are being honest – when they steal, it’s nothing but a 5-6 millions of francs, not more; when they tax the people in order to repair the damage from the flood, they take the money but forget to spend it where it was due ; when we vote, the urnes don’t by all means have double bottoms. There is not a single trace of corruption in the system. They don’t harass the thieves, but preserve their rage for the protesting workers. Here is indeed a similar example to the “Viens Poupoule” – a merry, joyful tone of the song that is delivering a terrible image. So apparently that is also a French thing, specific to their pop songs. Much in this vein is the “C’est M’sieur Poincaré” sung by our old friend Charlus.
Suzanne Valroger – Tu l’reverras Paname
Speaking of this turbulent era, we can’t leave out the major event that marked not only the 1910’s, but the entire 20th century – World War I. Here we have a song that was made specially for the French soldiers, the so called ‘poilus’. The song is telling them to be brave and not to lose their spirit, as they will surely see Paris again. Here, the city is affectionately addressed as Paname, which is how it’s still called by the Parisians. The soldiers leaving to war are being said that they will surely see the lovely Montmartre, the Eiffel tower, the great boulevards, the whole shebang – they will surely return and will see the unchanged Paris waiting for them. But even if they don’t, they’ve had the privilege of seeing, feeling and enjoying its splendor, which is more than one can ever hope for. Again, the terror of the war that will break the European spirit in such a manner that it will never be healed is presented in a merry melody. The scars of war and the horror of the tranches is being hidden behind the splendor of Paris that all of the soldiers going to the war will surely see again.
Will it be the same after the war, and soon after, the decade, is over? What will the famous twenties bring? More or less of… What? Stay tuned to find out.