Monday, April 25, 2011


"La Marseillaise" was composed today in 1792 by Rouget de Lisle. Words fail to describe the power of this piece of music (writing about music is like dancing about architecture, after all), but this little number has been stirring up emotions since the French Revolution, when it came to be associated with democracy and the power of the people. Its lyrics champion liberty and the fight against tyranny – and yet, even without a translation, English speakers can feel the power of the anthem.

This war song was written for the Rhine Army and soon adopted as the French national anthem in 1795. Throughout the 19th century, it was repeatedly adopted by people who considered themselves freedom fighters, in France and abroad. "La Marseillaise" was the anthem of those involved in the Paris Commune of 1871. Same in America, where it was commonly heard amongst the German anarchists who met in bars to discuss social inequality. Justus Schwab, New York saloon-owner, community leader and close friend to Emma Goldman, was known for his stirring rendition.

To me, this adds layers of meaning to the tremendous scene in Casablanca, wherein Rick shows his true colours and lets the unruly French patrons sing "La Marseillaise" over top of the Germans. It’s not simply Yvonne’s patriotic tears which gives me goose bumps in this all-time great bar scene (linked here). It’s the music itself.

Last little bit of trivia – In 1978 Serge Gainsbourg recorded a reggae version which raised a lot of people’s hackles. But that may have been the pesky Gainesbarre’s idea.

For more about anarchism in saloons and the French Revolution and, for that matter, just about every other political movement which took place in a bar, you might want to buy America Walks into a Bar: A History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog-Shops, available for pre-order on Amazon and Indigo.