Last week our home town football club AA Gent crashed out of the quarter-finals of the EUFA Europa Conference League at the hands of West Ham United. The anthem of this London-based Premier League club is the American song Blowing Bubbles, originally written in 1918.
The music was co-authored by John Kellette and Jaan Kenbrovin, a collective pseudonym for James Kendis, James Brockman and Nat Vincent.
The song became a big hit in America and in the early 1920s made its way into European music halls where it was performed by major singers and bands.
If one would argue that graphical quality —or illustrative DNA— is very different for each country (or more simply said, that each region in the world has its own more or less unique illustration style) then the various covers shown here for the same song around the same period perfectly illustrate this point.
The official version of how West Ham fans came to adopt this song revolves around a schoolboy and a soap ad for Pears in the early 1920s. But this dubious claim cannot be proven as the first recording of West Ham fans singing Blowing Bubbles was not before 1940, when West Ham won the Football League War Cup Final.
In 1980 the English punk rock band Cockney Rejects reimagined the romantic Boston Waltz into a thuggish raw Oi!-version to celebrate their beloved club winning the FA Cup Final.
Their mimed performance for Top of the Pops with the lead singer clad in the West-Ham colours (claret and sky blue) ended with the teenagers running around the BBC building and causing mischief. Following this incident the BBC banned the group from performing, some calling it an unfair punishment.
The group was closely affiliated with the team’s notorious hooligan firm and they provoked violence wherever they performed. According to the Guardian a Cockney Rejects’ 1980 performance in Birmingham was “the most violent gig in British history“, which also meant the end of their career as a live band.
Anyway, I’m sure our Gent players, aka the Buffalos, were not happy to hear this song in the stadium… Oi, sorry mates!
I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air, They fly so high, They reach the sky, And like my dreams they fade and die!
The song V’la le Choléra qui arrive by Aristide Bruant is an ironic and anticlerical hymn to the cholera pandemic that scared Paris. The illustration is by Theophile Steinlen. We have no idea why he chose to dress this very contagious and devastating disease like a stereotypical Englishman. In a previous Bruant publication Steinlen had rather chosen for the image of the cholera as a travelling salesman or a polite caretaker.
And for a third edition Steinlen chose to represent the cholera as a murdering phantom hovering over the capital, the frightening sign of divine vengeance: “Here comes the cholera! From shore to shore, everyone will die. Here comes the cholera.”
Aristide Bruant created the song in 1884 when cholera was diagnosed in Toulon. Allegedly it had arrived by boat from Saigon and quickly spread to Marseille and Arles. People started to flee from the Midi to Paris. The memory of the huge epidemic wave of 1853-1854 —with more than 143,000 dead— was still vivid: the people from Paris, the municipality and the press panicked!
Quickly, prophylactic measures were prescribed. Special train wagons were reserved for travellers coming from Toulon and Marseilles. On arrival in Paris, at the Gare de Lyon, these travellers had to descend into a special waiting room where the floor was covered with sawdust impregnated with thymol and copper salts. Large containers with nitrosylsulfuric acid were left to burn, in the belief that inhaling the hazardous vapours could disinfect. Travellers had to stay there for half an hour, meanwhile their luggage was fumigated in another room.
A newspaper of the time tells the anecdote of a wealthy merchant, arriving from China, who lands in Paris with a collection of parakeets and turtles. The birds sat in an open trunk and the unfortunate animals were poisoned by the spreading vapours of the disinfection ( Le Matin 11 July 1884). Soon however the Academy of Medicine dismissed these disinfection practices as inefficient and illusory.
The press was stirring up the fear for a new murderous epidemic. But by then science had already rejected the old idea that miasma, or a noxious form of bad air, caused cholera and had accepted John Snow’s idea that cholera could originate in water. Louis Pasteur had demonstrated that microorganisms can cause diseases and he had discovered how to make vaccines from attenuated microbes. Robert Koch had determined the causative agent of cholera by isolating the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.(*) And a complex system of new sewers (Les égouts) were being constructed in Paris to sanitize the city.
By that time a cholera epidemic was thus no longer automatically synonym for a catastrophe. It is in this view that we must understand Bruant’s song:
Paraît qu’on attend l’choléra, La chose est positive. On n’sait pas quand il arriv’ra, Mais on sait qu’il arrive.
And indeed the epidemic would soon be under control and a very small number of cases would reach Paris. But according to Bruant, entrepreneurs, pharmacists and especially the clergy had made a profit from the anxious situation.
This is the 1935 version of the song by Stello.
The 1884 cholera outbreak was the last one to reach France. By then France had already been haunted by several more serious cholera outbreaks. The first murderous wave of cholera struck Paris in 1832. Hospitals were unable to keep pace with the volume of new patients and morgues were overflowing. Sounds familiar? It prompted the public authorities to clean up the capital, which was still simmering in its medieval juices. The fear for cholera would become a driving force behind urban planning.
As one of the first solutions, Paris sought to supply its inhabitants with uncontaminated water. Therefore the City Council decided in 1833 to drill the first artesian well. Artesian wells are named after the French province of Artois where the first drilling of its kind was undertaken by monks in the 12th century. Water flows from artesian wells under natural pressure without pumping. However to get to the layer that contains enough water, one had to drill extremely deep in Paris. It was not before the 1830s that technical progress made deep boreholes possible.
The engineer Louis-Georges Mulot undertook to drill the first artesian well in the courtyard of the Grenelle slaughterhouse, just outside of Paris. It would take almost eight years of effort, slow progress, setbacks and a borehole of 548 meter deep, before water finally squirted out of the well in 1841.
On opening their newspaper the next day, the Parisians learned of the successful end of this scientific and technological adventure and thousands of them rushed to see the new curiosity.
A poster was made to show how deep the borehole was, comparing its depth to the height of the Strasbourg Cathedral, Notre Dame of Paris, the Dôme des invalides and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
A rumour soon circulated, amplified by a press campaign, and scaring Parisians that their city would be engulfed in a landslide or that the waters of the Seine would seep through some crack and disappear completely into this chasm. Fake news is not a recent thing…
The water that came out of the well was lukewarm and alas somewhat muddy. Decanting was therefore necessary before it could be used.
To that purpose a three-storey cast iron regulator tower, 43 m high, was built outside the slaughterhouse. This tower looked somewhat like a mini Eiffel tower. It is said that it also functioned from time to time as a fountain. I couldn’t find a reliable source to corroborate this, only an engraving which makes me dream that this splendid fountain truly existed at one time…
At the start of the 20th century the aquatic construction deteriorated due to problems of water quality, pressure and silting. In 1904 the tower was —aptly— replaced by a statue of Louis Pasteur.
(*) Although Robert Koch isolated the vibrio the same year, the miasma theory of cholera transmission was still dominant in Marseille. In 1884, Koch went to Toulon and Marseille, where he isolated the vibrio bacillus in the stools of patients to convince the sceptics and to support two local biologists. Koch gave prophylactic advice and insisted in particular to not consume any uncooked food.
At the beginning of the 20th century a lot of popular music genres were created, all over the world. Spain saw the birth of a characteristic genre, influenced by French cabaret songs: the cuplé, coming from the French word couplet.
Augusta Berges is said to have started this genre: with La Pulga (The Flea), in 1893 in Madrid. While singing, Augusta was looking for fleas in her clothes as an excuse for a bit of demure stripping. It was a huge success. Other singers followed suit with their own versions, frantically searching a flea, an ant or a spider under their frock, to the lascivious excitement of the whole male audience. Sara Montiel, a Spanish actress who achieved Hollywood-stardom, re-enacts such a Pulga song in the sixties film ‘La reina del Chantecler’. Chantecler being a Madrilenean theatre before the first World War.
La Pulga was the starting point for a profusion of more or less erotically explicit songs with simple, short and repetitive lyrics. But always with a lot of gesture. The performers, almost exclusively women and transvestites, told a story in three or four minutes with a large dose of theatricality and a load of double entendre and erotic allusions. An ample and voluptuous body was sometimes a better key to success than a good singing voice. Showing their ankles and clad in tulles that left little to the imagination, the cupletistas became sexual objects in seedy variety theatres.
The cuplé was part of the sicalipsis,a Spanish neologism of unclear origin to designate the trend of erotic manifestations in literature and the press, as well as in the visual arts, and in variety shows. Being part of this sicalipsis certainly added to the popularity of the cuplé, at least in its beginning.
The profession of cupletista was popular among women, many of them illiterate, trying to escape poverty. It was also frequently a stepping stone to the world of prostitution. A trigger to that was that the cupletista had to perform in ever smaller and cheaper salones, bringing the woman teasingly close to the male public.
While at first the cuplé was a frivolous, provocative and even erotic song with a lot of humour and spice, from 1910 on it became more ‘decent’ and sentimental. It became even considered as a higher quality art form. The cuplé reached a larger middle class public with an increasingly female audience. It became more of a sentimental love song. The singers abandoned their playful outfits and tended to dress in black and to wear a Mantilla.
The first one to bring this new kind of cuplé was La Goya (Aurora Jauffret, 1891-1950). She performed in well reputed theatres and changed her dress with each song to match the lyrics, taking care of the theatrical part of her performance.
In the Twenties, the cuplé had become a sentimental song mentioning contemporary social, cultural or political issues. Gone was the flea and the spider, no more bawdy undertones. The most famous cupletista was Raquel Meller, an international star who launched world hits like La Violetera and El relicario, both written by José Padilla Sánchez.
The cuplé was forbidden during Franco’s reign until it resurged in a nostalgic way, with the boom of SaraMontiel in the cinema. In the film El ultimo cuple, she plays the role of a cupletista struggling with her rise to fame and her subsequent downfall. Let’s listen to Sara Montiel —in real life a passionate cigar smoker— singing Fumando espero. This tantalizing cuplé by Joan Viladomat is the song we started with.
Now, enjoy Montiel reclining on her chaise longue, just like the lady on the sheet music cover.
Fumar es un placer
al hombre a quien yo quiero