Robert Darnton, Professor and director of the Harvard University Library has been delivering a number of “cabaret lectures” in which he discusses how in mid 18th century France, information and political opinion was spread throughout the street of Paris through pop songs.
He is accompanied by renowned French mezzo-soprano Hélène Delavault who sings out many of these songs. (hence, the cabaret lecture)
In the mid 18th century over half the population was illiterate and newspaper were almost nonexistent to begin with. Current events and running commentaries upon them were transmitted orally, namely through song.
The tunes would be popular drinking numbers, popular opéra-comique numbers and even X-mas carols. Street singers would improvise new verses on scraps of paper, which they pulled out of their waistcoat pocket to belt out for friends or passersbies. Memorized by people of all social ranks, other singers would then compose new verses to old tunes nearly every day.
At lunch you might sing a few rowdy verses about some new taxes being imposed, making up a verse yourself to suggest a connection between this and a Duke’s need to pay for his new high maintenance mistress. That evening you would hear your verse sung and another verse on top of it adding or arguing with it.
Says Mr. Darnton: “The subject of the songs ranged from military operations to sex scandals and political schemes. One tune celebrated a French battle victory in the War of Austrian Secession; another lamented the taxes imposed after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Mme de Pompadour, the famous mistress of Louis XV, was an especially popular subject in many of the satirical songs.”
“Some of the more seditious verses made their way to police archives, after singers were arrested and frisked in the Bastille. Officials emptied prisoners’ pockets, seizing the scandalous scraps of lyrics as evidence of misconduct.”
By 1749, the practice was so widespread and effective, it provoked a political crisis and the police were ordered to crack down on certain songs and verses. They attempted to follow the evolution of certain tunes and spies would be placed in cafes to listen in and follow the presence of new verses.
One particular set of lyrics that began with the line “monster whsoe black fury…” was particularly sought after. The line was thought be a slander upon the King, and people singing it were “detained” in hopes of tracking down the author. “Fourteen people were detained, but the author of the lyrics was never found. The song, like so many others, was most likely a group composition, edited and modified by anyone who felt creative. The police couldn’t nab the author probably because he did not exist.”
Tres cool, no?