Comic songs in the Occupation.
Songs offer us a fascinating insight into the culture and mentality of occupied France. Whereas the two hundred or more feature films produced during the Occupation were constrained by the censors of Vichy or the German Propaganda-Abtellung to avoid topics dealing with war, songs as a rule were far less policed (no doubt owing to their more ephemeral production and performance conditions). (1) As a result, even the comparatively small corpus of songs that survive in recordings illustrates a wide range of attitudes and behaviour. Certain songs clearly put a case in favour of ideological positions, conflicting organisms and groups, while others comment on the problems of daily life. A representative sample thus covers topics as diverse as marechalisme, the Resistance and rationing, and serves as informative historical documentation concerning both facts and attitudes. More problematic is the relationship between songs used as propaganda and songs used to entertain or distract their audience. Arguably, the seco nd category is just a more subtle form of persuasion; in practice, an ideological message can be read into nearly any song, as some performers found to their cost. Comic songs in particular only work if their apparently escapist or fantaisiste elements are actually motivated by some form of satirical or allegorical commentary on real events; what is crucial is the directness or obliqueness of this commentary. In addition, the most successful comic songs generally seek to subvert the pretensions of figures in authority and official institutions, while paradoxically needing the approval of officialdom if they are to reach a wide audience. Although comedy can be made to serve overt propaganda purposes and to conform to the political and strategic aims of government (for instance, by the production of satirical songs which deride the weaknesses of the enemy), more typically comic songs allow the expression of 'sanctioned disrespect' within the community mockery of the powerful effectively compensating for the pol itical powerlessness of singers and their audience, and creating a solidarity of the dispossessed. (2) The status of singers and performers is also problematic. Although most have no official, political role, on the other hand, stars enjoy immense social and financial privileges equivalent to or greater than those of ruling elites. At the same time, star performers clearly possess symbolic power over mass audiences, even if they use a different form of discourse from political leaders. Their popularity and durability, apart from the content or aesthetic interest of their songs, suggest it is perfectly reasonable to see singers as vehicles expressing forms of national identity (albeit an identity which, in the context of the Occupation, is fragmented and conflicting).
Before looking in more detail at how specific comic songs were used either for overt propaganda purposes or as indirect commentary on the anxieties caused by the Occupation of France, and studying the contrasting war-time careers of Maurice Chevalier and Pierre Dac as prime examples of the ambiguous, shifting posture of the star entertainer, it is worth briefly noting some further problems that confront the historian of this subject. One is that the corpus of material theoretically available for study is enormous, since over 30,000 song titles are registered annually with the Societe des auteurs, compositeurs et editeurs de musique, while during the 1940s up to 6,000 songs were published annually (usually as 'petits formats', that is as two-page sheets comprising the lyrics and a basic score, costing a tenth of the price of a 78-r.p.m. record). In practice, the few historians who have studied French songs produced during the Occupation tend to limit themselves to the titles which have survived in recordings. In an unpublished dissertation on 'La Chanson de variete en France sons l'Occupation' (Universite de Paris I, 1994), Sophie Dransart studied 406 songs produced between 1941 and 1943, while Ursula Mathis has identified 123 songs broadcast by members of the Free French over the airwaves of the BBC (88 of them written by Maurice Van Moppes or Pierre Dac). (3) She suggests that only three recordings survive, though in fact Pierre Dac re-issued recordings of twenty-seven songs after the war, which are still available, and the microfilm held by the Institut d'histoire du temps present of BBC 'Chansons et slogans 1942-1944' (B 175) actually contains hundreds of texts and documents. The Bibliotheque de documentation internationale contemporaine also possesses a large collection of Occupation songs, usually in the form of single sheets of words and music or printed anthologies.
Any short study is thus inevitably forced to be highly selective and may overlook interesting material, either accidentally or deliberately.
For example, I am unaware of any female performers of comic songs during the period: this may well reflect the more conventional expression of romantic yearning and suffering to which most female singers were confined. (4) However, since the most subversive songs were rarely recorded or published, it is quite possible that the most interesting songs have vanished along with their creators. (5) Furthermore, such material that survives in archival form inevitably loses much of its impact, since songs consulted in written form are reduced to bare texts, denuded of their music and the performative skills of their interpreters. As Peter Hawkins remarks in his recent book on Chanson, songs 'are inseparable from the inflexion of the voice that sings them, the melody line and the orchestration, not to mention the public image of the singer. If there is, indeed, a text to be analysed, it is surely the complete recorded performance, not the printed lyric'. (6) To this we could add the emotional bond between public and performer created by a live performance, which can at best be evoked after the event at second or third hand. Nevertheless, given all these reservations, one can at least readily find compilations on CDs of several hundred titles recorded during the period. (7)
The authors of the Memoire de la chanson francaise assert that 'De tous temps, la chanson a accompagne les gestes les plus quotidiens de la vie, elle a appele au combat, celebre la rencontre des corps, provoque le rire, tente d'apprivoiser la mort'. (8) Peter Hawkins likewise argues that songs 'resemble a kind of poetic and musical journalism' and 'fulfil a very basic need for the stylization of our everyday experience'. (9) Songs, in other words, are central to the defining factors of life, rather than incidental entertainments, with war-time comic songs providing a particular form of emotional release during conditions of extreme pressure. Indeed, should one argue that such apparent distractions can be as significant as the grander abstractions of ideologies and politics? Montherlant wrote of the Munich agreement (whereby France and Great Britain avoided war in 1938 by abandoning the Sudetenland and subsequently all Czechoslovakia to the Germans) that 'La France est rendue la belote et a Tino Rossi': (10) a contemptuous reference from a right-wing authoritarian admirer of the Nazis to the fact that his compatriots preferred the distractions of card-playing or the famous Corsican tenor to the harsher realities of European power politics. For such commentators, Rossi's popularity (he recorded far more songs during the Second World War than any other French performer) signalled a woeful perversion of national identity and patriotic energy. While the schoolgirl Micheline Bood (whose family were anglophile Gaullists) rhapsodizes adoringly in her Occupation diary over 'ce cher Tino Rossi' and his voice 'combien suave et melodieuse', a proponent of the Vichy National Revolution like Alfred Fabre-Luce complained that 'Un eunuque fait rover les Francaises as opposed to 'un-chant viril de travailleur devant une terre en friche. (11) Mass singing of this healthier variety was incorporated into Vichy's ideological programme of national purification. The Chantiers de jeunesse were created in summer 1940 as a substitute for military service with the slogan 'Chanter c'est s'unir', with collective discipline overriding musical talent; the authors of a manual for trainees noted that 'Le fait n'est pas de savoir mais de vouloir chanter'. (12) Similarly, German soldiers had to learn a repertoire of marching songs to be performed on command.
In practice, however, although songs may well seek to promote the unity of groups (from the Milice to the provocative sartorial eccentricities of swing and zazous), such affirmation of group identity also exposes the profound division and antagonism between the groups which claim to speak for the nation. This can be illustrated by the two most famous songs of the Occupation, which are respectively hymns to Petain and to the Resistance: 'Marechal, nous voila!' and 'Le Chant des partisans'. The jaunty march 'Marechal, nous voila!' written by Montagard and Courtioux in 1941 effectively became the regime's unofficial anthem. It also spawned many imitations' (13) whose trite idolizing of Petain seems ludicrously blasphemous and grotesquely at odds with historical and biographical reality to anyone who studies their texts sixty years on. Thus Petain in 'Marechal, nous volla!' appears as sacred flame, patriarchal guardian, military saviour and unifier of the nation, offering work and hope in place of the ravages of war, although retrospectively we know that most of such promises were broken (Petain was a childless roue who sank into senility as his regime became a police state which abandoned much of its territory, economy and citizens to the Germans). As historical circumstances change, the hyperbolic veneration of the failed leader seems comically at odds with reality Nevertheless, to counteract such propaganda in the early years of the Occupation, with its infantilization of the nation and equation of Petain with France, required a powerful counterblast. A more derisive version is provided by Georges Milton's 'Nous, les Francais' (A. Courtioux and J. Payet, 1942), which subverts this idolization with the lines:
Nous n'aimons pas sans raison
Recevoir des coups de baton
Pourtant nous trouvons normal
Le baton d'un marecha1.
The criticism is of course directed at the nation which all too eagerly accepts the authority of the military chief, rather than the leader himself.
While the cult of Petain now inspires surprise or derision, on the other hand, 'Le Chant des partisans' (co-authored by Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon in 1943, with music composed by Anna Many) still retains its sacred status as a sombre evocation of Resistance, although it relies on equally stereotyped images. This is largely because the moral credit of Resistance has grown as that of collaboration has diminished. While the outcome of the struggle remained unclear and petainisme retained its credibility, the Resistance in fact attempted to appropriate some of the musical charm of 'Marechal, nous voila!' by producing parodic versions, either reversing its idolatrous terms to make Petain an enemy (thus 'Malgre toi, nous sauverons la France,/Nous jurons qu'un beau jour/L'ennemi partira pour toujours') or transferring his virtues to de Gaulle as 'General, nous voila!' (14) Louis-Jean Calvet has shown that recycling famous songs like 'La Marseillaise' for diverse ideological purposes was common practice througho ut the nineteenth century; one early nineteenth-century reference source in fact enumerates 2,350 'timbres', that is 'des airs destines la parodie' ('parodie' here meaning the use of existing music with new words, without necessarily implying satirical distortion). (15) Such an interpretation also suggests how inevitably songs tend to be fitted retrospectively into an ideological agenda, as much dependent on subsequent historical and political developments as their actual music and text.
These ready adaptations indicate how untypical explicit ideological commitment is in popular songs, which generally aim to be all-embracing rather than limited to narrow sectional interests. Indeed, most songs produced during the Occupation fall into a fairly neutral category, of entertainment or what might be called oblique commentary on issues of daily life. Nonetheless, certain songs, despite their apparent neutrality or blandness, can evoke attitudes and feelings which produce a surprisingly hostile response in commentators for whom they represent symbolic but negative values. Thus while most listeners today probably find the comic songs of the phoney war period at best anodyne exercises in nostalgia, or at worst vainglorious expressions of optimism in an Allied victory over the Germans, which the defeat of 1940 was to render nugatory, Andre Gauthier is enraged by the French version of 'On ira pendre notre hinge sur la ligne Siegfried' (1939: adapted by Paul Misraki from jimmy Kennedy and performed by Ra y Ventura and his band): 'ce refrain qui eut son heure de celebrite nous semble aujourd'hui l'un des meilleurs exemples de bourrage de cranes et de cretinisation de la masse! (16) After the fall of France, the song was played by German military bands in occupied Europe as a mark of derision.
A less well-known example of short-lived comic triumphalism is Georgius's derisory portrait of Hitler in 'Il travaille du pinceau' (Georgius and H. Akermans, 1940), which also recalls an equivalent British song about the Fuhrer's missing parts; this song illustrates a form of open mockery that the armistice would soon make impossible:
Les peintres en batiment
Sont des bons gars generalement
Ils chantent en barbouillant
Leurs murailles en jaune ou en blanc
Parmi tous ces braves gens
Y en a un cependant
Qui a bien tout du fou
C'est un grand mechant loup
Oho, oho, il travaille du pinceau
Il a comme dirait ma sceur
La folie des grandeurs
Oho, oho, il travaile du pinceau
Il se gonfle, il se prend pour Attila
Bien sur qu'il en crevera
Tra la la la la la sous les roses
Il ne boit que de l'eau
Il ne mange que des haricots
Il n'a pas de parents
N'a pas de femme, n'a pas d' enfants
Il lui manque l'honneur
Il lui manque le cceur
Il lui manque, on dit
Meme autre chose aussi
Oho, oho, il lui manque le pinceau
Enfin quoi il n'a pas d'amis
En bref il n'aime que lui
Oho, oho, il lui manque le pinceau
Ben malgre ca il se trouve beau
Moi je prefere Charlot
Oh ho ho ho ho ho sous les roses
Although the humour of this song is hardly subtle, it is worth noting that as a satirical enumeration of Hitler's failings and likely end, it works to some extent by suggestive innuendo and implicit cultural references. The Fuhrer, for instance, is never explicitly identified, the audience being expected to know the legend of his past career as house painter and perhaps to recall Chaplin's recent incarnation of The Great Dictator (1940). His megalomania will eventually bring his ruination and is linked to the absence of normal human appetites and emotions: excessive abstinence, no friends, family or wife (the missing paint brush, the phallic 'pinceau', suggesting his mania is an extreme form of compensation for failure as lover and artist).
Such overt criticism of the Germans or collaboration was evidently forbidden in songs performed or recorded in occupied France, given the rigorous censorship imposed on publications and the entertainment industry. Occasionally, satirical references escaped notice, by accident or design. For example, Radio Montpellier was suspended for a week in May 1941 for playing Chevalier's 'Prenez le temps d'aimer', which contains a spoken, veiled criticism of Hitler -- typically, Chevalier complained about the broadcast rather than the ban. (17) In her unpublished study of 406 songs produced from 1941 to 1943, Sophie Dransart has found only one critical reference to Petain (in Georges Milton's 'Nous les Fracais', which was quoted above). The risks for infringement were too great: the unfortunate cartoonist, Bernard Aldebert, who produced a drawing which the touchy German censors saw as ridiculing Hitler, ended up in Buchenwald, even though no such ridicule was intended. That being said, however, more indirect criticism o f the living conditions produced by Occupation (such as shortages, the black market, bureaucracy) is in fact a common feature in many songs, the best of which are often memorably inventive in a humorous or fantaisiste fashion, 'sur le mode grotesque, de l'exageration, des jeux de mots ou du ridicule'. (18) The situation described in such songs is often recognisable, with an upbeat moral ending added. Thus Andrex's 'Monsieur Jo' (1943) recounts the exploits of a notorious profiteer until his final downfall (the parallel with the infamous scrap metal dealer Joanovici seems inescapable, although the latter escaped retribution till well after the Liberation).
Another striking example is provided by Georgius, dubbed by one admirer the 'Daumier de la chanson', (19) in 'Elle a un stock' (1941), which recounts the hoarding and bartering exploits of a femme de menage in an increasingly surreal inventory:
Mme Duschnock est d'un age
Ou l'on fait ce que l'on doit
Elle est femme de menage
Chez de bons petits bourgeois
L'autre jour elle entend son maitre
Dire bobonne j'ai appris
Qu'on va manquer d'allumettes
De tapioca et de riz
Les chaussures vont faire defaut
Rares seront les haricots
On ne trouvera plus d'pieds d'veau
On va manquer de billets d' metro
Cette brave Mine Duschnock toc
En a recu comme un choc toc
Et comme elle est n'est pas loufoque toc
Elle s'est constitue un stock toc
Elle a du sucre et de l'essence
Du yaourt et du beurre rance
Et de l'huile gomenolee
Pour mettre darts sa chicoree
Cette brave Mine Duschnock toc
Au besoin sait faire du troc toc
Un camembert contre un bock toc
Et elle augmente son p'tit stock toc
This litany of absurd juxtapositions, triggered both by the demands of rhyme and the incongruous effects of bartering and shortages which it accurately depicts, not only gives the song its comic force (as beans collide with metro tickets, petrol with rancid butter, razor blades with suppositories) but also drives the hapless protagonist crazy, as her hoarding frenzy dominates her existence and leads to her imprisonment. In this sense, the song both portrays a common phenomenon and offers a moral lesson about its excesses; its humour derives from the combination of authentic observation and verbal fantasy.
Such insistence on essentially domestic woes is seen by many commentators as a form of avoidance of wider and harsher political and military realities. Georgius in fact was radical only in his verbal inventiveness: for most of the Occupation he remained the directeur artistique of the Theatre de L'Etoile, his complicity with the occupying forces earning him a year's suspension after the Liberation. Hence Peter Hawkins' conclusion that his comedy was essentially consensual, more concerned with the mechanics of comic effect than the expression of a personal view'. (20) As Dransart says, 'La chanson, de par sa nature, est un moyen d'evasion', (21) a point reinforced by the significant rise in attendance at cinemas and other public shows during the Occupation. This is to ignore the fact, however, that at least for French audiences, immensely popular singers like Maurice Chevalier do have a genuine consolatory function; they encapsulate and express feelings and attitudes which are widely shared by their public.
In many respects, the career of a singer like Maurice Chevalier is typical of entertainers during the Occupation and thus deserves fuller discussion. Self-serving opportunism and a reluctance to quit the spotlight of public attention, even when temporary invisibility might be a better survival tactic, could be seen as his main characteristics. Thus Jean Galtier-Boissiere noted caustically in his journal on 21 November 1941: 'Au Casino de Paris, Chevalier fait son tour de chant devant un parterre de feldgrau, venus uniquement pour voir des fesses'. (22) In fact, Chevalier was fond of admitting his ignorance of political issues with a rather complacent disingenuousness which overlooks the influence exerted by popular entertainers:
Qu'on nous laisse tranquillement ... faire nos metiers de distrayeurs. Que ceux qui font ceuvre politique, que ceux dont c'est la raison de vivre, l'idee ou l'interet prennent leurs responsabilites et que ceux qui ne peuvent etre que de simples artistes soient laisse leur industrie de sourire et de grace ... Deux denrees bien necessaires la Sante francaise. (23)
However, as this last reference to the nation's well-being suggests, Chevalier considers singing to be more than a frivolous or superfluous distraction:
C'est travers les chansons que chantent et qu'ont chante les peuples, que se retrouvent les sentiments et les emotions du pays, aussi bien dans le maiheur qu'aux epoques ensoleillees. (24)
He clearly sees that popular art can have a therapeutic function and the star performer can act as a vehicle which expresses and comments on the feelings of his audience.
Maurice Chevalier certainly had no hesitation in continuing his national mission through the first three years of the Occupation. Unfortunately, in so doing he displayed a somewhat blinkered conformism and opportunism; after the event, his attempts to exculpate himself by references to unavoidable pressures and obligations which forced him to carry on performing also sound unconvincing. The issue is not so much one of overt commitment to either Resistance or collaboration, as one of the moral responsibility of the celebrity who can choose to exert influence in a positive or negative sense, to appear courageous or craven. Like the great majority of French people, he tells us, je croyais a Petain au debut de son regne. (25) Nevertheless, although he was denounced over the airwaves of Radio-Londres by the satirical singer Pierre Dac in February 1944, Chevalier was rapidly cleared of all blame (like the majority of entertainers briefly detained at the Liberation). But whatever the huge sums earned by stars and th eir rather unappealing mercenary zeal, their performances of songs or works of art can hardly be equated with the political pronouncements of Nazi propagandists, unless one can find an explicitly pro-collaborationist message or ideological bias in these songs. How should one interpret the commentary on defeat, occupation and liberation which one finds in Chevalier's best-known songs from the period?
The song Ca fait d'excellents Francais' (Boyer and Van Parys, 1939), offers an amusing and perceptive satirical account of the failings of the French army during the first months of the war, the drole de guerre. The three verses describe the divisions caused by the inequality of classes, illnesses and different beliefs, while the refrains attempt to counteract this dismal picture by emphasizing more positively the unifying effect of patriotism and the republican spirit. But the French troops emerge as a malingering, quarrelsome band of individuals whose inadequacies leave little scope for real martial virtues:
Le colonel avait de l'albumine,
Le commandant souffrait du gros colon,
Le capitaine avait bien mauvaise mine,
Et le lieutenant avait des ganglions;
Le juteux souffrait de coliqu's nephretiques,
Le sergent avait le pylore atrophie,
Le caporal, un coryza chronique,
Et l'deuxiem' class' des cors aux pieds.
With only 'le pinard et le tabac' as remedies, little wonder that these sickly warriors came to grief. Although the documentary value of such a comic piece should not be exaggerated, the picture it paints goes a long way towards explaining the debacle of May 1940: the obvious defeatism of its final lines, for example:
Et tous ces gaillards
Qui pour la plupart
N'etaient pas du meme avis en politique
Les v'la tous d'accord
Quel que soit leur sort
Ils desirent tous desormais
Qu'on nous foute une bonne fois la paix!
Perhaps this is why the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who experienced the drama of 1940 at first hand, finds this song 'insupportable', while acknowledging its accuracy. (26)
'Ca fait d'excellents Francais' merits a parenthetical detour, or rather a return to the issue of songs being used for overt propaganda purposes. This is because its popularity made it a prime target in 'La Guerre des ondes', that is the use of music for propaganda purposes in radio broadcasts. About half of the daily output of Radio-Paris (the German-controlled station which broadcast over the whole of occupied France) was devoted to music, including a programme called 'Au rythme des temps' which adopted famous songs for propaganda. Their adversaries, the team who produced the celebrated 'Les Francais parlent aux Francais' for the French section of the BBC in London also 'font assaut d'esprit "chansonnier" pour ridiculiser l'adversaire', their main innovation being 'd'organiser une emission politique comme un spectacle'. (27) The humorists Pierre Dac and Maurice Van Moppes produced a stream of parodic songs deriding collaborators and the Nazis, including Dac's version of 'Ca fait d'excellents Francais', whic h targets the opportunism of stars like Maurice Chevalier, who were happy to accept large sums to perform on Radio-Paris (the second stanza then contrasts such self-serving behaviour with the sacrifices of true patriots):
Le createur de cette chansonnette
Passait jadis pour un vrai chevalier.
D'autres encore parmi tant de grosses tetes
Ont dans l'epreuve completement perdu pied.
On les croyait tres bien, ils etaient moches,
Et c'est ainsi qu'ils se sont reveles,
En preferant faire des sourires aux Boches,
Par calcul ou stupidite!
Et tout ca, ca fait de mauvais Francais,
Pour lesquels il n'est que le porte-monnaie ...
It is interesting to compare Dac's career with Chevalier's, since both are exemplary in their different ways, even if Dac's brand of parodic, circumlocutionary humour limited his celebrity to the French-speaking world (whereas Chevalier's ability to perform in English brought him international fame, Dac's punning aphorism that 'il vaut mieux passer heriter a la poste qu'a la posterite' illustrates his untranslatable obscurity for non-French speakers). Like Chevalier, Dac was of proletarian origin: he was born as Andre Isaac in 1893 and his father was a Jewish butcher. Like Chevalier again, Dac saw action in the First World War and was wounded (his brother Marcel was killed), and like Chevalier he carved out a career in the Parisian music-halls in the inter-war years, first appearing as Pierre Dac with his surreal stage monologue at La Vache enragee in 1922, and also achieving success in comic films and radio shows. However, he ceased to perform on the radio from 1940, though he gave live performances in the S outhern Zone and North Africa until July 1941 (he was banned in the Alpes-Maritimes for mocking the Italians). His eventual arrival in London in October 1943 (at the cost of spending some eighteen months in French and Spanish prisons for his unsuccessful attempts) was a propaganda coup for the Free French broadcasting team (even if his fellow chansonnier Maurice Van Moppes had been performing his own parodic songs since 1940). Dac's willingness to commit himself to Resistance shows that the entertainer can if he wishes join in the propaganda battle: in fact in the closing weeks of the Occupation, he engaged in a virulent war of words with Vichy's Minister of Propaganda, Philippe Henriot, cut short by the latter's assassination: hence his closing words that 'Henriot est mort pour Hitler, fusille par les Francais'. (28) After the Liberation, he claimed that he helped save Chevalier from further persecution, seeing him as a 'victime de sa celebrite', though Chevalier counted Dac as one of his main persecutors. (29)
But despite the undoubted personal courage of a satirist like Dac, which distinguishes him radically from so many other entertainers, and despite the propaganda value of his texts, the problem with such parodic songs is their ephemeral and parasitic nature. Not only do they require their audience to have a good knowledge of the original version which they distort, but also they seem rather crude in comparison. Thus Dac's simple contrast between bad and excellent Frenchmen is much less subtle than the ironic awareness of social and ideological divisions revealed in Chevalier's original version. Similarly Van Moppes' reworking of standard numbers like 'Prosper' or 'Tout va tres bien, madame la marquise' shows none of the wit and inventiveness of the original versions, limited as they are simply to poking fun at Hitler. The 'Couplet 1944' added by an unknown author to 'Ca fait d'excellents Francais' in an anthology of Resistance songs published in 1945 does no more than offer sycophantic praise of the FFIs, com pletely losing the tone of affectionate derision that makes the original so telling. (30) At best, all that distinguishes such songs is their overt commitment to the cause of Resistance.
Given that 'La chance de Maurice Chevalier est de s'etre trouve en harmonie parfaite avec l'air du temps', (31) the fact that he supported Petain in 1941-42 is hardly astonishing. Is this a reason to condemn him or accuse him and other singers of betraying their mission as representatives of French culture? The authors of a history of French song observe rightly that:
Chevalier s'est toujours inscrit dans le cadre des idees, des normes dominantes ... Socialement, il etait lui-meme une reussite du systeme et, par son personnage ... et par l'ideologie de ses chansons, il servait de caution populaire a l'ordre etabli. (32)
In other words, a Chevalier prepared to protest against or resist the system would not have been Chevalier. Nonetheless, does this explain or justify the accusations of collaboration or moral weakness levelled against the singer and other entertainers who continued their careers during the Occupation? For example, when reviewing Rene Chateau's book on Le Cinema sous l'Occupation in The Guardian (16 March 1996), the journalist Paul Webster writes of 'France's greatest film stars ... hand in hand with the Nazis', of the 'compliance, cowardice or cupidity' shown by national heroes like Charles Trenet, Tino Rossi, Jean Marais and Louis Jourdan, among many others. Even if one accepts the need to simplify complex issues in newspaper coverage, the anachronistic nature of such facile condemnation does not really aid readers to understand the Occupation. Casually referring to collaboration or even collaborationnisme when describing the behaviour of entertainers who obstinately pursued their vocation to entertain is to confuse categories of responsibility, influence and power which justice and respect for historical truth demand that we keep separate. It could be argued that the egotism and weakness displayed by celebrities like Chevalier or Guitry (who ultimately did no harm to anyone) should not be confused with deliberate acts of criminal treason, which can be defined in a literal, juridical sense, of surrendering the country, its people and resources to the enemy. Such a definition is illustrated unequivocally by acts of political, industrial, bureaucratic, paramilitary or intellectual collaboration committed by individuals like Laval, Renault, Bousquet, Darnand and Brasillach.
But would not silence have been preferable, to avoid any suspicion of complicity? This is essentially the thesis put forward by Andre Halimi in his book Chantons sous l'Occupation, one of the few studies devoted to popular culture during the period. (33) As his copious documentation shows, 'A ne lire que les pages-spectacles des journaux, on pourrait ignorer totalement que la France est occupee'; hence his observation that:
Pendant quatre annees, sous l'Occupation, des millions d'hommes en France ont ri, joue la comedie, bu et mange. II faut le dire avec force: des millions de Francais ont chante sous l'Occupation ... Le dossier est accablant. (34)
Since eating, drinking and laughter are basic human needs, Halimi's sententious, moralizing tone and his facile juxtapositions are difficult to understand. Pointing out that the Gestapo was committing atrocities when theatres were packed out does not really demonstrate the guilt and decadence of the French nation, but rather the paradoxical coexistence of areas of oppression and liberty during the Occupation. The fact that three times as many French people went to music-hall shows in 1943 as in 1938 mainly reveals an urge to 'Quitter l'horreur du monde reel pour les rivages de l'imaginaire', however ephemeral this escape may be, to quote Serge Added. (35) And the reader who has any sense of historical objectivity should heed Todorov's warning, in Les Abus de la memoire, that pious denunciations of the iniquities tolerated by French citizens under Vichy merely expose the accusers to charges of complacent hypocrisy for ignoring the iniquities of their own age. (36)
Our present-day cult of stars and celebrities makes us forget that it is foolish to expect entertainers, whose success depends on inventing and selling a largely fictional, fantasized personality to a paying audience, to behave like real heroes, leaders, or guardians of moral values. Yet neither should we underestimate the cultural and social value of songs because of the inadequacies of their performers. The distractions of song are more than egocentric frivolity; by creating a parallel universe (which comments indirectly on the real one and contains its horrors), the singer undertakes a form of cultural resistance in which his or her audience participates and achieves a brief moment of liberty. In the particular case of comic songs produced during war-time, they essentially offer relief from intolerable stresses, the solidarity of shared experience, and insofar as they usually assert positive moral values, a 'well-needed optimism' that normality can be restored. (37) They may not subvert the official order , but they counteract its totalitarian tendencies by offering an alternative satirical or parodic commentary on the strategies necessary for survival in times of national crisis.
Christopher Lloyd is senior lecturer in French at the University of Durham. He is the author of many publications on major figures in nineteenth- and twentieth-century French literature and culture, including Marcel Ayme and Maurice Chevalier. He is currently completing a book on images of collaboration and resistance in occupied France in journals, fiction, films and songs.
(*.) Address for correspondence: School of Modern European Languages, Elvet Riverside, New Elvet, University of Durham, Durham DH1 3JT. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1.) This was not the case earlier in the century, since although censorship of newspapers and books ceased from 1881, songs were censored until 1906. The potentially subversive nature of songs is shown by the fact that, in 1889, as many as 60,000 songs had been banned from public performance. See Elisabeth Pillet, Cafe-concerts et cabarets', Romantisme, 75 (1992), 43-50.
(2.) See Les Cleveland, Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture (Westport: Praeger, 1994), 59.
(3.) Ursula Mathis, 'La Chanson de Ia BBC dans le contexte de Ia production chansonniere de I'Occupation et de la Resistance', in Dietmar Rieger (ed.), La Chanson francaise et son histoire (Tubingen: Narr, 1988), 307-46.
(4.) Rina Ketty, Lys Gauty, Leo Marjane and Piaf all recorded songs on the themes of loss and deprivation, for example.
(5.) Many popular songs existed in alternative versions, which were often parodic and/or obscene. A famous British example is 'Hitler has only got one ball', to the tune of K. J. Alford's 'Colonel Bogey' (1914). Such rude versions were never broadcast by the BBC, which took a heavily censorious attitude towards any songs deemed to sap morale or morals. See Steven Seidenberg, Maurice Sellar and Lou Jones, You Must Remember This: Songs at the Heart of the War (London: Boxtree, 1995).
(6.) Peter Hawkins, Chanson: the French Singer-Songwriter from Aristide Bruant to the Present Day (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 11.
(7.) For example: Pierre Dac, Las Chansons de Londres (EPM, 1994); La Chanson sous l'Occupation (Music Memoria, 1994); La Resistance: ses chants et ses poetes, 2 CDs (Ades, 1975, 1988); Original Best of Retro, 4 CDs (EMI Music France, 1997); La Vie quotidienne en chansons 1939-1944, 6 CDs (Forlane, 1995).
(8.) Anne-Marie Duvemey and Olivier d'Horrer, Memoire de Ia chanson francaise depuis 1900 (Paris: Musique et Promotion, 1979), 7.
(9.) Hawkins, Chanson, 4, 57.
(10.) Quoted in Richard Cannavo, Monsieur Trenet (Paris: Lieu Commun, 1993), 290
(11.) See Micheline Bood, Las Annees doubles: journal d'une lyceenne (Paris: Laffont, 1974), 69 and Gerard Miller, Las Pousse-au-jouir du Marechal Petain (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1988), 150.
(12.) Quoted by Miller, Las Pousse-au-jouir, 145.
(13.) For some examples, see the third CD in the collection La We quotidienne en chansons. See also Nathalie Dompnier's excellent study, Vichy sous chants (Paris: Nathan, 1996).
(14.) Quoted by Dompnier, Vichy sous chants, 46.
(15.) Louis-Jean Calvet, La Production revolutionnaire: slogans, affiches, chansons (Paris: Payot, 1976).
(16.) Andre Gauthier, Les Chansons de notre histoire (Paris: Pierre Waleffe, 1967), 200.
(17.) See Helene Eck (ed.), La Guerre des ondes: histoire des radios de langue francaise pendant la Deuxieme Guerre mondiale (Paris: Armand Colin/Lausanne: Payot, 1985).
(18.) Sophie Dransart, unpublished dissertation, 91.
(19.) Jean-Jacques Chollet, Georgius, l'amuseur public no 1 (Paris: Christian Pirot, 1997), 7.
(20.) Hawkins, Chanson, 74.
(21.) Dransart, unpublished dissertation, 137.
(22.) Jean Galtier-Boissiere, Journal 1940-1950 (Paris: Quai Voltaire, 1992).
(23.) Maurice Chevalier, Tempes grises (Paris: Julliard, 1948), 51.
(24.) Ibid., 10.
(25.) Ibid., 108.
(26.) Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Memoires I: la brisure et l'attente (Paris: Seuil, 1995), 76.
(27.) Eck, La Guerre des ondes, 9, 67.
(28.) Pierre Dac, Un Francais libre a Londres en guerre (Paris: Editions France-Empire, 1972), 232.
(29.) Ibid., 282. See Jacques Pessis, Pierre Dac (Paris: Editions Francois Bourin, 1992) for further details. Dac died in 1975.
(30.) See La France nouvelle: chansons de la Resistance (Paris: Editions Salabert, 1945).
(31.) Chantal Brunschwig, Louis-Jean Calvet, Jean-Claude Klein, Cent ans de chanson francaise (Paris: Seuil, 1981), 94.
(32.) Ibid., 94-5.
(33.) Halimi also directed a documentary film with the same title in 1976, which is actually much more informative and less biased than his book.
(34.) Andre Halimi, Chantons sous l'Occupation (Paris: Olivier Orban, 1976), 136, 9.
(35.) Serge Added, 'L'Euphorie theatrale dans Paris occupe', in Jean-Pierre Rioux (ed.), La Vie culturelle sous Vichy (Paris: Editions Complexe, 1990), 315-50, 342.
(36.) Tzvetan Todorov, Las Abus de la memoire (Paris: Arlea, 1995), 54.
(37.) Seidenberg et al., You Must Remember This, 29.
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|Publication:||Journal of European Studies|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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