(Bee Wilson’s article appeared in the London Review of Books, 5/19.)
In 1957, six years before her death, Edith Piaf added a new song to her repertoire, ‘La Foule’ (‘The Crowd’). It wasn’t actually new, having been composed in 1936 in Spanish by Angel Cabral, an Argentinian, using the form of a vals criollo, a dance favoured by the Peruvian working class. Piaf heard it and asked one of her librettists, Michel Rivgauche, to compose new French lyrics. It isn’t hard to see why it appealed to her, musically and thematically. She had always been good at milking nostalgia – ‘chanson’ itself is a wistful genre – and the plaintive, rhythmic accordion and piano introduction recalls her prewar youth, when she sang in the Paris cabarets. The song is about a woman whose destiny is in the hands of the crowd – Piaf had been making a living out of crowd hysteria since she was a child in the 1920s, singing in Belleville and Pigalle. The heroine of ‘La Foule’ is jostled by a jubilant crowd celebrating a feast day. She is pushed into the arms of a stranger, with whom she falls in love, only to be dragged away from him again by the crowd, ‘who dance a mad farandole’ that drowns out the sound of her beloved’s voice. She ‘clenches her fists’ and curses the crowd for having stolen her love.