PARIS IN THOUSANDS OF SONGS
By Thirza Vallois*
If ever there was a superlative city, Paris is the one. Whether gastronomy or protest marches, fashion or romance... everything gets amplified in Paris. And celebrated in songs. Thousands of songs have been written about Paris since the 19th century, a mindboggling figure no other city can match. Prompted by love, by yearning, by anger, rage, indignation, frustration, commiseration... even boredom. Songs are so evocative of Paris that they seem to grow out of her cobblestones. Easily identifiable, they wail out of street organs, bounce to accordions, sway to guitars, pour out of hearts, burst out of the guts. Some spill over international borders and into foreign languages; and although George Gershwin celebrated Paris in music only, he did claim that songs could have only two topics — Paris and love.
Songs are nurtured in France as cultural heritage. Exhibitions around well-known singers and song writers are held in Paris every so often — Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Georges Brassens have been celebrated in recent years for several months each... But now, for the first time, it is Paris herself that is placed centre stage, in the heart of the Marais— "Paris en chansons". The exhibition was was co- inaugurated by the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë and Juliette Gréco, the patron of the exhibition. An exceptional collection of sound and audiovisual archives, photos, engravings, record sleeves, posters, music sheets, are on display, not to mention rare recordings. Alongside a selection of hundreds of song, this makes for an exciting immersion in the history of Paris and the daily life of its people, both the reality and very much the myth, going back to Clément Janequin's Les cris de Paris (circa 1520), the oldest song to have reached us.
For the most part, this is the Paris of ordinary people, le Paris populaire and city's bloodlife, vociferous, rebellious and passionate, already demanding from the top of barricades the departure of Mazarin, back in 1648, storming the Bastille in 1789, raging once more in 1848, and once again in May 1871, that "bloody week" of the Commune, when Paris was all aflame and 20,000 or more of her people, men, women and children, lay massacred in her streets. The bulk of the songs, however, starts only in the 19th century. Our perception of them as organically inherent to the city is, as usual, a myth. In effect, they were the products of the new entertainment industry that catered to the new leisure society, and often performed at the café-concerts as immortalised by several painters. Be that as it may, they did become one with the city and do ring true.
At the forefront was bourgeois bashing Aristide Bruant with his broad-brimmed black hat and red scarf, his sartorial trademark that has long been recycled into a commercial commodity. Lesser known are the actual lyrics of his songs. Take the time to listen and be drawn into the derelict and seedy faubourgs and their underworld — Montmartre, Pigalle, Batignolles, rue de Lappe..., a Paris now gone but recorded in black-and-white print by the likes of Eugène Atget and Charles Marville, a dangerous Paris most of us would have avoided, operating after dark in the shadow of the guillotine. For a comparative stroll into the sanitised future, detour to the nearby Pavillon de l'Arsenal, on the eastern edge of the Marais, where a scale model of the renovation project of Batignolles is currently on display, a comparison made all the more illuminating when one keeps in mind that Batignolles was the home ground of the Impressionists!
Stroll through the moveable feast of the 1920s/30s in the company of Josephine Baker, Charles Trenet, Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett and many others. By now the leafy gas-lit open-air caf'conc' will have made way for the music halls and their dazzling reviews whose success was made by their star singer(s). Electric recordings, the commercialisation of the radio and the arrival of the talkies will have altogether revolutionised the industry. The cinema became the "dream factory" of ordinary people and films were being produced for the sole purpose of offering star singers a platform. Yet, in the Paris of the faubourgs people still sang in the streets, prompted by a group leader who would sell them music sheets for a penny. Such music sheets are on display, and you can also enjoy a delightful extract of René Clair's Sous les toîts de Paris. Or make your way to rue Mouffetard on a Sunday morning for a similar experience. Perhaps elsewhere too; I wouldn't know.
Stop at post-war Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an explosion of joy to jazzy rhythms, blown by the likes of trumpeter Boris Vian. La chanson française, as inherited from Bruant, now struck roots here big time, down in the basements underground. Donning her iconic black dress, Juliette Gréco interpreted the songs of poet Jacques Prévert, occasionally Sartre's. Hang on here into the 1950s — Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara, Guy Béart... a golden age, spilling into the 1960 with additional voices, not least Jean Ferrat's, the social conscience of the 1968 generation, also known for putting to music and interpreting the superb poetry of Louis Aragon.
Paris has changed a lot in the last forty years; its city centre has been gentrified; the faubourgs have been taken over by the bobos. Yet the tradition of la chanson française persists; it has simply shifted quarters, from Pigalle to Barbès for example, and adjusted to new times. Interactive terminals connected to a virtual map of the city, enable visitors not only to pick and choose among some 200 songs and countless singers, but also to situate them in their street or neighbourhood. It is amazing to discover that so much of Paris has been covered in song! even little side streets, both remote or in central Paris. It is equally amazing to what extent the city's monuments are ignored, other than the Eiffel Tower! Instead, it is the metro, the corner cafés, the night life, the hardships of daily life that are celebrated, even the boredom of a 9 to 5 job, proof if need be that the paths trodden by the dwellers of this city seldom cross those taken by tourists. If you love music, if you wish to increase your grasp of Paris and capture its atmosphere, take a plunge into this heartwarming exhibition.
Paris en chansons
Galeries des Bibliothèques
22 rue Malher Paris 4e
Open daily except Mondays from 1 to 7pm, till 9pm Thursdays.
Through July 29th, 2012
*Thirza Vallois is an expert on all things Parisian and is the author of the internationally acclaimed Around and About Paris series, Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia. A long-time Parisian, Thirza contributes to television, radio and the international press and lectures on Paris and France to art societies and educational organisations throughout the world. More information can be found at:
www.thirzavallois.com and www.aroundandaboutparis.com