Echoes of the Past – Song in the History of Paris

The Historical Society blog has published a very interesting interview with Robert Darnton about his new book, Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris. He talks about how popular song became the means by which 18th-century Parisians – starved of all but heavily censored printed news sources – shared news, rumour and gossip. Popular tunes would be married to topical lyrics and sung on street corners. Darnton claims these songs could be highly influential – one particularly malicious ditty about Louis XV’s mistress Madame Pompadour even causing a government crisis in 1749, and precipitating a very serious and, luckily for us, revealing police investigation.

I begin the book with a sort of detective story because the head of the Parisian police received an order from the top person in the government: Find me the author of the song that begins with, and they just had the first line: “Monstre dont la noire furie” (Monster whose black fury). That’s all they knew. The monster was Louis XV. They had to somehow find the author to this song. So they had spies in cafes and they fanned out and eventually one of the spies actually found a student who had recited this song/poem and he is arrested through a kind of ambush. It’s very amusing to see how they staged the arrest, because they didn’t want the word to spread that they were cracking down. They wanted to find accomplices, other people who were connected. So his name was François Bonis. He was interrogated in the Bastille. He said where he got the song. That person was arrested; so A got it from B, B got it from C, C got it from D, then D says “yup, I got it from E,” but meanwhile I got three other songs or poems from X, Y, and Z. And they’re all arrested. And they got poems and songs from other people so soon the police were trailing six poems and songs through overall networks of diffusion in Paris. And you can map the way the songs work into Parisian society with tremendous precision. So it’s possible, thanks to this police force, to actually do a very serious sociological study of oral diffusion.

Marvellously, it’s possible to piece together not only the lyrics of these songs, but also the tunes, and good old Darnton has done just that – making them available to listen to (sung by Parisian Cabaret chanteuse Hélène Delavault) at this web site. Listening to them is a little like holding a shell to your ear and hearing the sea – a magical opportunity to recover a lost dimension of history, and food for the imagination of anyone who’s ever wondered what it would actually have felt like to be in Paris in those heady days.

Which reminds me, song also has much interesting light to shed on the revolution, and there’s an excellent resource dedicated to French revolutionary song here. Most intriguing has to be Ça Ira, one of the most popular songs of the period, which marries steely lyrics about hanging aristocrats from lampposts to a jaunty, upbeat jig of a tune. Listening to it, you have the eerie yet electrifying sensation that you’ve just plugged your brain directly into the mentality of the period.

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