Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1935: Édith Piaf


This week I'm thinking about “La java de Cézigue,” a 1935 recording by Édith Piaf.

My construction of what I call "vernacular pop" has been influenced by many sources, primary among them the 1988 study Popular Musics of the Non-Western World and the recent Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. Both of which ignore populist urban French musics like musette, java and chanson réaliste, for the excellent reason that France, as one of the European Great Powers of the nineteenth century and a major force of imperialism into the twentieth, cannot really be said to be "at the margins" culturally or world-historically; and since these musics have been commercial and theatrical powerhouses since at least the Fin-de-Siècle, they're not "new" or "from below" in the way that twentieth-century jazz, tango, or rebetiko are.

Against that, I'd argue that despite France's self-image as the birthplace of standardized democracy, intranational marginalization is still a major force (just ask the provinces), and every empire has an underclass. But beyond that, musette is as much a product of cross-cultural musical miscegenation as similarly venerable Western European musics like flamenco or fado: the Romani (not to mention the Jewish) strains in each are significant, as is the distaste with which the national bourgeoisie historically received each music, as illustrated by periodic bannings, the popular association of the music with sex work, and frequent police raids on the taverns and dancehalls where it was performed.

Édith Piaf's latter-day fame as the Soul of France, the torch singer whose unhappy life translated into achingly sad chansons that aristocrats and peasants alike could weep to, obscures her origins as one of the most original and sprightly voices of musette of the 1930s. The lyrics of "La java de Cézigue" (the B side of Polydor 524.158, recorded in December 1935 and issued in 1936) paint a slangy, sarcastic picture of an accordionist called Cézigue (an argot term which translates to the third-person singular, as mézigue means me and tézigue means you) whose playing of javas (modern, hopped-up waltzes) turns the dingy square into a beggars' paradise. Piaf is accompanied by brothers Jean and Jacques Médinger on accordion (they would be better known later for leading a French tango orchestra), but it's her deep, elastic voice, finding pockets of rhythm and bursting into sudden spatters of syllables, that is the star of the recording.

Compare her to a figure like Louis Armstrong, who is more famous among non-jazz heads for the sentimental, nostalgic records he cut late in life rather than for the fiery, inventive, paradigm-changing music he made as a young man. "Non, je ne regrette rien" might be a better record than "What a Wonderful World," but it's just as sentimentally self-indulgent, and both their younger selves would have scorned such maudlin fare, invested as they were in the wit and alacrity of a "Cézigue" or a "West End Blues."