The London Sound Survey at work recording the babble of Yiddish in Stamford Hill, north London
I’ve just had an article in the New York Times about going “sound hunting” with some of the world’s leading field recordists: the London Sound Survey, Kate Carr and Chris Watson (you’ll have heard his work since he does the sound for David Attenborough’s documentaries).
Read it here, and scroll down to hear the sounds of the “carnage” of bats eating at night and a waterboatman smashing its penis against its stomach!
There were a few other people I’d have loved to get in, but didn’t have the space: Des Coulam, who does the amazing Soundlandscapes blog in Paris where you can find the noises of everything from hospitals to riots; Vladimir Kryuchev who runs the Oontz site from smalltown Russia; and Cheryl Tipp, who’s one of the British Library’s sound curators (and sometimes writes for its Sound and Vision blog).
Check them all out. No, this isn’t anything about national anthems – my usual subject – but I hope you enjoy the piece.
The Marseillaise has always been one of the world’s most contested songs. Within weeks of it being written in 1792, its composer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was thrown in prison suspected of being a royalist, a move that almost took the anthem down with him (he only escaped the guillotine by writing another song about Louis XVI having his head chopped off).
It was written as a call to arms to inspire people against an Austrian invasion – hence the chorus: “To arms, citizens … Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” But the interpretation of the lyrics quickly changed, and it would latterly be seen as dangerously anti-establishment and, paradoxically, a tool of the elite.
A few years after that, Napoleon disowned it completely, both because he had seen its power and did not want it inspiring a revolution against him, and, slightly more prosaically, because he hated its composer who had probably had an affair with his wife.
It had a brief recovery in 1830 after the then king, Charles X, was overthrown in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ uprising, but soon it sunk back into disrepute – a song you would only sing if you were old-fashioned and did not realise musical times had changed.
It did not really regain its initial meaning of defiance and unity – of a nation confronting “tyranny’s bloody banner”, to quote the first verse – until the First World War when it became a rallying cry once more. Back then, Rouget de Lisle’s remains were even paraded through the streets of Paris in an effort to inspire, ironically ending up in Invalides, the home of the French military, just yards from Napoleon’s tomb.
The Marseillaise meant everything to the French again during the Second World War (it was sung by the resistance having obviously been banned by the Vichy government). Afterwards it somehow kept that vitality, becoming a rallying cry to rebuild the devastated country, its chorus’s cry of “To arms, citizens” turning out to be just as useful in motivating bricklayers as it had been soldiers.
But since then, there is no denying that it has just become awkward, especially because of how often it was sung during France’s occupation of Algeria and its brutal, eight-year-long war of independence. The Beatles’s use of it in All You Need is Love and Serge Gainsbourg’s brilliant reggae cover – the hilarious Aux Armes et cetera – gave it a brief respite from that image, even for a few years making the anthem cool, but the fact French nationalists tried to beat up Gainsbourg for his cheek tells you more the real direction where things were heading.
If you want to understand the full extent of how controversial it became, you only have to look to football. In 2001, French-Algerians booed it in the first-ever match between the two countries. In 2002, Corsicans booed it at a cup final so loudly that the then president Jacques Chirac stormed out and the match was only allowed to restart after he calmed down. The booing has not really stopped since.
A couple of years ago, I spent a fortnight in France researching the anthem for a book I was writing about the history of these songs. I asked dozens of people what they thought of the Marseillaise, and that controversy – that uncomfortableness – was surprisingly what came through most. Everyone said they liked the music, of course – who couldn’t fall for a melody as stirring as that, one which has grabbed everyone from Tchaikovsky to Debussy? – but the words? That was a different matter. Everyone from teenagers to old women would bring up the chorus and its climax: “Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” They all knew when it’d been originally written, but they also knew it had been hijacked by both its colonial legacy and by the far-right – Le Pen’s National Front – people who seemed to hear the words “sang impur” – “impure blood” – and take it as referring to the country’s immigrants.
I got the strongest reactions from the French-Algerians and French-Tunisians I met. Most could only bring themselves to give the most dismissive answers when I asked them what they thought of the song. “It’s the national anthem,” they would say with a curt laugh, and that was it, no matter how many follow up questions I tried. “Why would you even ask me about that?”
I would point out all anthems are deep down like this, songs written at times of war with their meanings changing over time – Algeria’s at one point says, “Oh France, the day of reckoning is at hand” – but it did not change their views.
You could see that awkwardness even after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. In January, the Marseillaise was sung by France’s politicians just like it was this week, but when they got to the chorus, they seemed to look at each other as if to say, “Are you sure we should be singing this?”
But today, now, something has changed. This moment somehow seems different. As the anthem has been sung around the world, played so much it is almost inescapable, it is as if all those past associations have disappeared, as if the song is being reinvented and reclaimed before is. It is like everyone, in France as much as outside it, is once again seeing it for how it was originally written.
You only have to look at the French parliament’s rendition of the anthem this time to see that. The volume never dropped; the words were never anything but punched out. Tonight at Wembley everyone will sing too, with joy and fun as much as respect and solidarity (you can’t not have fun while singing the Marseillaise). And it’s because of that this moment marks a genuine chance to take the song back from the far-right and make it a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny both within its own borders and without.
The Marseillaise could one again become an example to all countries of the importance anthems can have, of being able to inspire people to act in extraordinary ways, something remarkably few anthems achieve (could you imagine people turning to God Save the Queen in a similar moment here?).
But I admit this feeling could only be fleeting. How the Marseillaise will be viewed in a month, six month’s, a year’s time will be entirely dependent on whether French politicians see this as a moment to unite or whether they clampdown on the country’s Muslim population in a way that will only be further divisive. If they do the latter, the Marseillaise will revert to being a contested symbol, one for the far-right only and no one else. You could soon find the Marseillaise being booed again, its current status as an icon of global unity gone in an instant, and everyone who sings it tonight wondering what on earth went wrong. That may fit the song’s history, but it shouldn’t – mustn’t – happen.
[Apologies for that being quite heavy reading. I did a far more to-the-point and celebratory piece for the BBC here. I suggest you read that too even if I clearly wrote it too quickly as there’s far too many ‘but’s!]
I recently made this last while cycling the historical route of the Marseillaise, from Marseille to Paris.
I was interviewing people about the song along the way, and it seemed fun to get them to sing too.
If you want to know the words, click through to the Youtube clip. They’re in English and French in the description box. And for a diary of my trip, including an explanation of why I did it, click here.
I recently tried to cycle from Marseille to Paris, following the route 600 soldiers marched in 1792. Those soldiers spent the whole journey singing the song that was to become the French national anthem. That’s why it’s today called the Marseillaise.
To find out why I’d do something so stupid, read part one here. Otherwise, join me about to leave the town of Avignon in south France.
It’s only 30 kilometres from Avignon to Orange, which is why I intended to cycle there in about an hour, passing through Châteauneuf-du-Pape along the way, the home of some of France’s most famous vineyards (that’s one of them being picked in the photo).
Unfortunately, to get there you have to enter the Rhone valley, home to the mistral, a wind that reaches 80km-an-hour.
You’d have to be an idiot to march into it; you’d have to an even bigger idiot to cycle into it. It’s good to know that the Marseillaise soldiers and I have something in common!
It was somewhere along this journey, probably when the wind was trying to blow me into a truck, that I tried singing the Marseillaise for the first time. ‘This will help me along,’ I thought. ‘It kept those soldiers going all the way to Paris.’
Unfortunately it didn’t, largely because I had to keep on staring at a piece of paper with the words on, and it’s pretty hard to do that when you’re trying to avoid cycling into grapepickers.
Plus, you get incredibly strange looks in France if you’re cycling along singing, “Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons”. I must have looked like a member of the Front National.
When I did eventually get to Orange, several hours later than expected, I immediately got a train to Valence, 100km north, in a effort to get away from that wind. It didn’t work, dammit.
The next day I decided to take a detour to the village of Hauterives. It has nothing to do with the Marseillaise, but is home to the Palais Idéal, an insane building carved by a postman in the 1880s. The place features elephants, camels, a mosque, a Hindu temple, giants…
The postman, Ferdinand Cheval, dreamt of visiting Asia and Africa all his life, but as he couldn’t, brought them to him.
The place is well worth a visit; inspiring as much as it is bizarre. The journey there was hell though, three hours into that damn wind, into rain, uphill…
I left Hauterives, decided I’d had enough of cycling for a while and promptly got a train to Lyon.
Go to Lyon and eat! The food’s amazing.
What else can I say about the place which I’m not saving for this book I’m meant to be writing? Er…don’t spend a day trying to ask its large immigrant community about the French national anthem; you’ll just get angry responses. But then asking French-Algerians ‘What do you think about the Marseillaise?’ is a bit like asking them, ‘Prove you’re French’, so that’s not much of a surprise.
Random men in cafes are far more likely to talk to you about the song. They’ll even sing it for you (you have my permission to click that link now)!
I would like to write that after Lyon, I got back on my bike and cycled 500km to Paris. I’d like to, but I got the train.
Would anyone have the guts to march that far today? I doubt it. I only met one person in France who said they would, and he was a hippy who said he’d do it to promote free love.
That guy also told me France should replace the Marseillaise with Edif Piaf’s La Vie en Rose (sample lyric: “Nights of love no longer finish”). “The Marseillaise is a war song,” he said, “but we’re not a war nation anymore; we’re a nation of love and sex.” He has a point.
On my final day in Paris, I got the train out to the suburbs and then cycled back in, ending up along the Champs-Élysées aiming at the Arc de Triomphe (see photo). I must have looked like the worst rider ever to enter the Tour de France as I creaked up that road, but I was happy to have got there.
If you’re ever thinking of cycling in France, remember to go north to south; it’ll save you a lot of pain!
A couple of weeks ago, I tried to cycle the route of the Marseillaise – 800 kilometres from Marseille to Paris.
In 1792, 600 soldiers marched the route to defend the French revolution. They bizarrely spent the whole, month-long journey singing the song that was to become the French national anthem, which is why it’s called the Marseillaise.
Cycling their route seemed like a good idea since I’m writing a book on anthems. It stayed a good idea for – gosh – about three days!
This is what Marseille looks like when you walk out of the city’s train station, covered in oil having just tried to put a bike together. It’s pretty stunning.
But enough sights! My only real stop in Marseille was a trip to the Mémorial de la Marseillaise, a great museum dedicated to the anthem, slap bang on the road where the song was first sung.
There I met Frédéric Frank-David, the museum’s director, to learn about the marchers. They were recruited by the town’s mayor, who simply put a notice out for ‘men who can read, write and kill’, telling them they had to go north and stop the French king from taking power back from the people.
“Do you know they marched at night?” Frédéric said at one point. “I mean, you’d have to be an idiot to try it in the daytime, in this heat.” Ten minutes later, I left and cycled 40 kilometers up a hill. Frédéric was right.
When the soldiers arrived in Aix at 7am on their second day of marching, they demanded all the food and drink the town had to offer, got drunk and started a massive fight. Because of that, most of France started praying they didn’t turn up in their town.
I didn’t manage to start a fight in Aix – it’d be hard to, it’s a pleasant university town filled with cheese markets – but I did manage to get some girls in a bakery to sing me the Marseillaise.
They had to read the words first.
The route from Aix-en-Provence to Avignon is like entering a Disneyland version of France: all vineyards and orchards and lonely houses sitting at the end of tree-lined driveways.
Cycling through it made me realise just how unsurprising it is the soldiers left a huge impression on France. Imagine what it would have been like for people sleeping in those houses when one night 600 men marched past shouting the Marseillaise, flaming torches in hand.
It’d have been terrifying, like a Napoleonic version of The Wicker Man.
Most people in Provence wouldn’t have spoken French at the time, so wouldn’t have even known what the soldiers were singing about. Although that was probably for the best given the bloodthirsty lyrics.
What else did I learn on the way to Avignon? That if a road looks too good to be true, chances are it is, it’s a motorway.
Avignon is a nice stop for a day, the former home of the Popes (they lived here after a Frenchman was elected Pope and refused to move to Rome). The picture above was taken in the papal palace.
Today, the town’s filled with German exchange students getting drunk in vodka bars. I’m sure the Catholic church would approve!
Part II of this diary, where everything goes wrong, is here!
In 1792, 600 soldiers marched 500 miles from Marseille to Paris. For the entire journey – one long, hot month – they sung the French national anthem.
That singing explains why the song’s today called the Marseillaise. It probably also explains why when they got to Paris they immediately stormed the royal palace and killed nearly everyone inside. If I’d just spent a month singing the same song over and over, I’d have wanted to kill someone too!
Next week, I’m going to be cycling their footsteps. I expect I’ll only sing the Marseillaise once a day, but if you shortly read about an Englishman being arrested for storming the French National Assembly, you’ll know what’s happened!
I may post updates on Instagram (@asmarshall) but as they’ll probably just be photos of my bloody knees after a horrific crash, maybe not…