The Troubadours of the Resistance
One of the significant tools of the French Resistance, yet one which has historically been overlooked partly because of the humility with which it was carried out, was the composition of many thousands of Resistance songs. Surviving letters by a number of their creators explain that the motivation of such compositions was to express fidelity to France, channel hatred and derision towards the enemy, unite those in opposition to Nazi Germany, and keep alive a faith in liberation. One of the composers, Suzanne Soulé, wrote in a letter of 1945:
My rhymes are not very complex, but I composed this song during the Occupation, so consequently it is a resisting song, and for me it was the only way I could express my hatred, but also my hope.
The largest surviving body of songs was collected by Paul Arma with his wife Edmée in 1945. Arma wanted to rescue from obscurity the numerous songs that were written as acts of resistance during World War II, and to recognise the efforts made and dangers faced by their creators.
The composers in Arma’s collection range from nurses and professors, to teachers, spies and prisoners. 178 men and 46 women are represented, ranging from WWI veterans such as Victor Rocca and Henri Gioan, who had edited 'La Chanson du pain' (The Bread Song) between 1914 and 1918, to the work of a 12-year-old child, Colette, who wrote the patriotic song 'La Bravoure d‘un colonel' (The bravery of a colonel) about Charles de Gaulle. At least 75 of the writers were Resistance fighters, either in the Maquis and FFI, or engaged as saboteurs.
Some of the composers were already established singers, such as Gabirle Cousinou, a singer and poet, Géo Gaillard, composer of 'Deux-Anes' (Two Donkeys) and 'Noctambules' (Night-Owls), and Jean Pinchon, who gave concerts throughout WWII to prisoners of war. Others were professional composers, such as music copyist Achille Coevet, conductor Paul Mariton, organist Eugene Carpentier, and Arma himself. But the rest were amateurs who were keen to use whatever skills they had at their disposal to express their resistance to the occupation of France.
One third of the poems in Arma's collection were written to original melodies. The rest used pre-existing melodies, which had two advantages. First of all, it made it easier for people to remember the melodies of the songs. Secondly, it meant people could sing them without attracting too much attention. Roger Tabar, a prisoner in a stalag (German prisoner of war camp) during WWII, explained that on the day he learned of the Allied landings he wrote a song to the tune 'Maréchal, nous voilà!' (Marshal, here we are!), a patriotic song about Pétain, but with the lyrics changed to ‘Aujourd’hui, les voilà , les voilà !’ (Today, here they are, here they are!) so that he could hum it without fear of being caught.
A number of songs were simply revivals of WWI popular songs, such as 'La Madelon' (Madelon), by Louis Bousquet and Camille Robert. It was translated into Spanish and into English as 'Madelon: I’ll be true to the whole regiment.' It was also sung by German-born Marlene Dietrich on 14 July 1939 to commemorate the storming of the Bastille fortress during the French Revolution, and it went on to become a Resistance favourite. Madelon came to be revered in a similar way to the Virgin Mary: as a symbol of France.
Other songs were adapted from cabaret and café-concert repertoire, such as the tune 'J’attendrai' (I will wait) of 1937 by Dino Olivieri, sung by Rina Ketty. It was appropriated by Gisele Boutrie in the forbidden coastal zone in June 1941 and sung by Tino Rossi and Jean Sablon. The lyrics describe the war situation: radio jamming, rationing, collaboration, and the wait for Allied landings. It was also sung by wives, fiancées, and mothers of soldiers in France and became the lucky song during the return of one and a half million prisoners from Germany.
Others still were drawn from the earlier 1930s, which became a sort of Golden Age according to resistance fighters. Many of these were popularised by the cinema, and in fact a number of films themselves became a tool of the Resistance.
Texts of songs tended to focus on topical issues, condemning Vichy, Pétain, the Milice, Laval, the Nazis, and Hitler, but showing appreciation for the Allies, in particular England, but also America, Russia, Greece, and Australia. A number of songs alluded to past French military successes, such as the Revolution, the Empire, or the First World War, whilst others referred to French heroes such as Charlemagne, Saint Louis, Henri IV, and Richelieu. Above all there is a presiding love of France, with recurrent patriotic symbols, such as the flag, the Cross of Lorraine and 'La Marseillaise'.
Many of the songs were sung clandestinely in intimate groups of friends and passed around orally. This was an act of resistance in itself, as the Nazis made the simple possession of a Resistance text an illegal act. But others were written down and transported secretly in bags, posted in letter boxes, placed on public transport, or published in clandestine newspapers in order to publicise Resistance efforts. For example, the clandestine newspaper Les Crans (The Notches) published a different Resistance song in every one of its editions. Louis Petiot, one of the composers, had his song reproduced 2,000 times by a Resistance comrade in Reims and circulated around Occupied France. It even reached London where it was broadcast on the Resistance radio station Radio-Londres on the programme Français parlent aux Français (The French speak to the French). At the same time, some songs written in England were broadcast on Radio-Londres in order to transmit them to France, as happened with one of the most famous songs of the French Resistance: 'Le Chant des Partisans' (The song of the party member). This system of circulation became known as le principe de la chaine (the chain principle) and involved some notable people, such as the blind pianist Charles Humel, who took it upon himself to distribute Resistance songs to every town he visited. He also wrote a document called Chaine de la Libération which explained in detail how to have success in transmitting Resistance songs and expressed hope that the creation of an immense chain would ‘liberate the world from torment’.
Success stories included the song 'Chant de guerre du maquis' (War song of the Resistance fighters) by Maurice Vovard, which was transmitted throughout the Dordogne, and 'La Marche des maquisards' (March of the Resistance fighters) by Georges Adet, which circulated from Vendée to Poitiers. From 1944 onwards, these songs were adopted by the FFI and battalions of the French army, helping their transmission and preservation.
Resistance songs also played an important part in the liberation of France. Charles Humel’s song 'Liberation' was sung in one of the suburbs of Marseille on 26 August 1944 to calm the street fighting which broke out, and subsequently over 20,000 copies were published. In Vichy, the same song was played on 17 August 1944 by an orchestra of 140 musicians and in the park bandstand on 27 August as the town was liberated. In Nice, 20,000 people watched Marguerite Constantin-Fortin sing 'Le chant héroique de la Résistance' ('Heroic song of the Resistance) by Blanche Gabrielle on 11 March 1945 as the town was liberated, accompanied by a fanfare for peace. The fanfare was later taught to all the children in the Cote d’Azur. After the war, many of these songs were published or recorded, and the FFI employed a number of the songs as patriotic symbols of the new French army.
Chimello, Sylvia La Résistance en chantant (Paris, 2004).
Ferrari, Aldo ‘French Resistance Fighter and Member of the FFI’, Interview with author 16 July 2011, Saint-Maurice-les-Chateauneuf, France.
Marly, Anna Mémoires (New York, 2000).
Mathis, Ursula ‘Honte à qui peut chanter: le neuvième art sous l’Occupation’ La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy, ed. Chimenes, (Brussels, 2001).
Meadel, Cecile ‘Pauses musicales ou les éclat ants silences de Radio-Paris’ La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy, ed. Chimenes, (Brussels, 2001).