Articles de La Guinguette - 2004 - janvier - culture

Titre Chantons sous l'occupation
Année 2004
Mois janvier
Catégorie culture
Traducteur Alistair Mills
Dernière mise à jour01 February 2010

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Let's sing during the occupation

The colonel used to be in finance
The major used to be in industry
The captain used to be in insurance
And the lieutenant used to be in groceries
The sergeant-major used to be a porter in the Bank of France
The sergeant used to be a master baker
The corporal used to be in ignorance
The second lieutenant used to be a man of leisure.

And all of them, they make
Excellent Frenchmen
Excellent soldiers
Who march in step
They did not have the habit any more
But it's like riding a bike, you don't forget

And all the lads
Who for the main part
Have kids who have the school leaving certificate
Yes all these brave men
Have gone off willingly
To do their duty as before
It's what their fathers did for their sons.

Song by G van Parys and J Boyer

We are in September 1939, Germany has just invaded Poland, and the Second World War has started. Maurice Chevalier [1] the star of cabaret has used his talents for the service of the nation.

This is the starting point for "Let's sing during the occupation", a very nice look back at the role of singers during the Second World War. Isabelle Doré-Rive is its director:

In 1939 they were trying to galvanize the moral of the troops. They were going to try to do it, as if it were... The reference, that's obviously 1914. They were thinking of the Sacred Union [2], of all French people united in a national effort, and that's "They make excellent Frenchmen"[3] by Maurice Chevalier who tells us simply that all the Frenchmen are different, that they have their little concerns, their little pains, but in the end that leads to an excellent nation of soldiers. So we are persuaded, personally persuaded of having the best army in the world, an army which is going to be defeated in six weeks in a brilliant way with eighty thousand deaths and one million, eight hundred thousand prisoners. So that was really the worst defeat in the history of the French army. There was total silence about the defeat. It was never talked about. So we can see it talked about in a much toned down form for example when they talked about the absent, when they talked about prisoners, they talked about... There were many women who were waiting for their husbands or their partner. They sang a lot about that in their songs. So that's why we can see that something had happened, but there is not a single song which ways "we suffered the worst defeat in our history". That wasn't possible.

I've just closed my window
The fog is very icy
Right into my bedroom
Our bedroom where the past died.

I'm alone tonight
With my dreams
I'm alone tonight
Without your love
Day falls, my joy is complete
Everything is breaking in my heavy heart.
I'm alone tonight
With my pain
I've lost the hope
Of your return
And for as much as I will still love you forever
Don't leave me alone without your love

Words: Paul Durand. Music: Rose Noël, Jean Casanova

I believe that the word is self-censor. No one prohibited the artists from making songs about the defeat, but no one wanted to hear one either. So the variety song is a hiding place because it talks about love about the exotic. It is something completely removed from the reality of every day life; that's good. And then there were songs which allowed people to escape from the difficulties of the time; that means the restrictions notably. They were pretending to be mocking their difficulties so that they are easier to tolerate.

Madame D is at the age when we do what is right
She's a housewife in a home of the lower middle class
The other day she heard her husband say: My dear, I've heard
That there's to be a shortage of matches, of tapioca and rice.
They'll be out of stock of shoes, beans will be hard to find
We won't be finding beef, we won't get tickets for the metro!
The nice Mrs D heard this with a shock
As she wasn't crazy, she decided to build up her stock
She has some sugar and some essence, some yoghurt and rancid butter
Some olive oil [4] for putting on her chicory.
This brave Mrs D knew how to barter
A camembert for a bowl and she built up her stock.

Georgius 1941.

It is true that the radio helped a lot by playing what we call hits now, songs which went well, remember that the radio was a recent phenomenon then. That got started in the 1920s. That was well established by the end of the 1930s. That made it possible to get new things around quickly. There were of course also records. The amount of equipment was not colossal but in the end it made it possible for people to come together around the radio or a record player to listen to songs. Then there was also the distribution of sheet music. That's what we are showing in the exhibition. It was not that people really knew how to read music but well they saw, there were the words printed. You can see where it goes up and goes down. So you can fairly easily follow the melody and they sang a lot more than today. There was community singing which was much more common than in our time.

Music quickly became an instrument of propaganda. In London, the BBC used to use song to send out its messages, the government in Vichy [5] too:

I have a pal who is a journalist
Ah yes?
He works in five or six newspapers in Paris
So that must be quite a job!
Ah, not too fast, the German Military Command sends him his articles all written out
Mr Hitler has newspapers which preach to the French about the new order
The press under the orders of the Nazis is quite spoiled
It's try really that some French people are Germans
Don't waste paper. Don't waste your money. You don't ever have to buy a single pro-German newspaper


Marshall, here we are!
Before you, the saviour of France
We swear, us, your lads
To serve and to follow your footsteps
Marshall, here we are!
You have given us back hope
The nation will be born again!
Marshall, Marshall, here we are!

A.Montagard. Music: A.Montagard, C.Courtioux 1941

But it's true that in France most of the singers submitted passively to the occupation. The same Maurice Chevalier who sang for the moral of the French went on to sing for the German officers in Paris, as did Charles Trenet [6] and Edith Piaf [7]. At the time, most French people accepted the Vichy government of Marshall Petain [8] as a necessary pain. But they had their own interests to look after.

There were some people who positioned themselves on the arts scene, meaning they pretended not to be politicians, they pretended not to be involved and they claimed the right to sing whatever the audience. That was defensible except that all of a sudden their image was taken by French-German propaganda which very much wanted to present the image of cultural collaboration between the French and the Germans and the most surprising thing is that there were visits to Germany arranged for all the artists, just like for the writers and the painters and of course the singers, and well, those not wanting to get involved, not wanting to take part, there were people who are clearly not playing the game, well of the Vichy government and the occupier. They did not really sing up, rather it was cowardice, really to keep their careers. So in order to continue singing, knowing that if they stopped, others would take either place.

There were people who refused, that guy Henri Salvador [9], Jean Sablon [10] but to refuse and to continue as a singer, they were going to have to go into exile. There were people who had to leave for south America. Not everyone had the courage to do that however. In general, not everyone had the courage to resist.

On the artistic scene, it was a period when jazz made inroads into popular culture. They saw the arrival of hedonist ideas such as zazous [11]:

The hair all frizzed out
The collar as high as eighteen feet
Ah they are the zazous
A finger like that in the air
The jacket trailing on the ground
Ah they are the zazous
They have incredible pants
Which come up to a bit below the knee
And when it rains or it's windy, they have an umbrella
Big dark glasses and then of course
They look disgusted
All these disgusted folks
Ah! They are the zazous.

Johnny Hess and Maurice Martelier, 1942

They could present the Zazous as resistants. Well that's an expression of resistance, however rather distinctive. But it was only for the minority. The Zazous, they were dandies from privileged backgrounds, rather Parisians, who had a way of life; it is true, off-stream. So was it an adolescent prank or a form of resistance? We can argue about that. Still that was the glorious time for jazz during the war because it was not forbidden as such. They banned American and Jewish composers but not jazz as a form of music, and well, of course it found its greatest popularity during the liberation with the arrival of the Americans and their music and their musicians.

In 1944, there was the liberation:

So then, everyone took to singing about the resistance and at the same time there were people who followed all the highs and lows of French public opinion. Maurice Chevalier, for example, Maurice Chevalier sang for the Germans, it's true, in 40-41, he stopped in 43 for various reasons one of which was very personal was that his wife was Jewish and she was faced with the racist laws of Vichy, and well he had to think about that. In general, public opinion joined in less with the Vichy government in 43, than in 40, that's something that we know. So Chevalier had some problems during the liberation, that said, he went on to sing however and to be one of the great singers of the liberation. He went on to sing, well "There's a flower in Paris" which said that each French person was going to keep a little flame of resistance at heart. It was an argument which was to be taken up after the war. When you know somewhat the reality, it was a lot greyer.

My grocer kept it in his counter
The tax man looked after it in his drawer
The flower so beautiful of our hope
The pharmacist cosseted it in a jar
The former corporal used to talk about it to the former general
Ah that was it, our ideal.

There's a flower from Paris
From old Paris which smiles
For it's the flower to come back
To come back to good days
For four years in our hearts
It kept its colour
Blue, White, Red in the hope that it would blossom
The flower of Paris.

Words Maurice Vaudair, Music Herni Bourtayre.

After the war the singers who flirted with the Vichy Government escaped very severe punishment:

There was a purge, during which Maurice Chevalier was left out in the cold, but well, he wasn't really wicked, he had some good points; I think that a few days of, maybe prison. But in the end it was a long drawn out business. But the purge largely spared the singers because they paid attention to the politicians, to people who really had served the regime while really aware of its intention. I am thinking of Robert Brazillach [12], for example, the writer. The singers, no. They were just dupes. They were a bit outside of all that. And then, you know, the memory of the Vichy period, which was something quite recent. There were about to bury all that carefully over twenty or thirty years and create the rite, the myth of a French resistance. So what we can see in the exhibition are the songs of the glory of the resistance which flourished by chance in 44, or of the glory of the allies, or of the glory of De Gaulle [13]. Well that's people but it is true that it makes you think about peoples' sincerity.

What moral can we take from songs during the occupation? Is there something we can learn from today?

That's difficult. History does not repeat itself, by definition. I have the feeling that singers today are more aware and more careful and that there's a sort of public test of singers, a test that did not exist maybe at that time when song was somewhat in an artistic ghetto, well, a ghetto, that's without doubt an unpleasant term but a rather protected world, a bit apart from the demands of reality.

If you go to Lyon before March 2004, don't miss the exhibition oat the Museum of the Resistance:

It allows us to take note of the vitality of people, in the end; it's really the wish to survive at any price. That is something which appears on every line and every note, I would say. Then, well, seeing that in spite of all the difficulties, life goes on even in the worst conditions, even in concentration camps, the analysis of people, it is something very interesting. It is even powerfully optimistic at its base because we can see even in the worst of the worst, things happen which are positive and which push people towards life. It's on a human level; it's something that we can take away from the exhibition and it's something very special.

Friend, do you hear the dark flight of the crows on our land?
Friend, do you hear the heavy song of our country in chains?

Oh freedom fighters, workers and farmers, to arms!
This evening the enemy will know the price of blood and of tears.
Come up from the mine, come down from the hills, comrades
Get the guns from the straw. The bullets. The grenades;

Oh killers, to the dance where the knife kills quickly!
Oh people of sabotage, take care of your charge of dynamite
It is we who are breaking the prison bars for our brothers,

The hatred in our kitbag, and the hunger which pushes us, misery
There are places where people in their beds are dreaming
Here, we, you see, we are working, killing, puncturing

Here each man knows what he wants, what to do when it happens;
Friend, if you fall, a friend will come from the shadows to take your place.
Tomorrow fresh blood will be drying in the sunshine on the roads

Whistle, my friends, into the night, freedom awaits you.

The song of the resistance.

[1] Maurice Chevalier (1888-1972) was a popular entertainer.

[2] The Union Sacrée was a political party at the time of the First World War.

[3] This is a reference to the song above.

[4] Gomenol is a place in New Caledonia and the name is used for a brand of olive oil.

[5] Much of France was governed by a governed in Vichy during the war.

[6] Charles Trenet (1913-2001) was a popular French entertainer.

[7] Edith Piaf (1915-1963) was a popular French entertainer.

[8] Marshall Petain (1856-1951) was Commander in Chief of the French during the First World War and the head of the government in Vichy during the Second World War.

[9] Henri Salvador (1917-2008) was a popular French jazz artist.

[10] Jean Sablon (2906 -1994) was a popular French singer.

[11] The zazous were young jazz singers in France during the occupation.

[12] Robert Brazillach (1909-1945) was a French writer executed at the end of the Second World War.

[13] Charles De Gaulle (1890-1970) was the Commander in Chief of the French forces during the Second World War and later President of the Republic.

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With questions or for more information, please contact Alistair Mills (alistair.mills@btinternet.com)
Updated 01 February 2010

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