Category Archives: Songs

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The Spanish Cuplé: from rogue to bourgeois

 

Fumando Espero‘ by Tragan, Viladomat & Felix Garzo, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, s.d.)

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.

El baile y el amor – Couplets‘ by Clifton Worsley and Margarit, published by Manuel Villar (Valencia, 1917) and illustrated by Pouo.

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.

‘Sicaliptico’, Spanish erotic magazine (1904)

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.

Postcards of Cupletistas to promote their career.

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.

La Goya (Aurora Jauffret)

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.

‘Por tus caricias’ by E. Burrull & Pedro Puche, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, sd) and illustrated by Pol, with a picture insert of La Goya.

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.

Left: ‘La Violetera’ by José Padilla & Eduardo Montesinos; Right: ‘El Relicario’ by José Padillia. Both published by Salabert (Paris, 1918) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

The cuplé was forbidden during Franco’s reign until it resurged in a nostalgic way, with the boom of Sara Montiel 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
genial, sensual.
Fumando espero
al hombre a quien yo quiero

Smoking is a wonderful,
sensuous pleasure.
Smoking, I wait
for the man I love
behind the glasses
of gaily-colored windows.
And as I smoke,
my life does not burn away
because, on the drifting smoke
I tend to get sleepy…
Lying on the chaise-longue
smoking and loving…

Der Dienstmann: a Jack of all trades

‘Dienstmann nr. 10’ by Rudolf Mälzer, published by Otto Teich (Leipzig, sd). Illustrator unknown.

A Dienstmann or a porter in Germany and Austria, was a freelance worker, state-licensed and officially registered. We’re talking 1830 until WW2. The Dienstmann wore an official uniform with his licence number on his cap or on a medallion. Often, the street corner was his ‘office’.

Tired porter on Radetzkyplatz, Vienna, around 1905-1914, photographed by Emil Mayer, source: wikimedia

The Dienstmann would not only carry luggage. He could also be hired for errands or be engaged as a messenger. Some were equipped with writing props enabling a client on the street to write a few lines and then have the Dienstmann deliver the note.

Sometimes a Dienstmann was hired for small domestic duties or as a temporary replacement for an indisposed servant. The man could also obtain your theatre or concert tickets, or even help you home after a night out, as the cover below suggests.

‘Ich hab’ mir für Grinzing ein’n Dienstmann engagiert…’ by Bruno Uher, published by Edition Bristol (Wien, 1936) and illustrated by H. Woyty-Wimmer.

The noticeable figure of the Dienstmann was frequently used for stage or film. We can see this in the 1952 comedy of errors, ‘Hallo Dienstmann’ wherein two of these characters sing a comical duet. At that time, the last Dienstmann had already disappeared from the streets. The title song of the film, played by two of Austria’s leading actors, became one of the big hits of the fifties in Austria.

Sing along in your best German. Take the flowers to Amalie, perhaps you’ll get a tip and she will fall in love with you…

Hallo Dienstmann! Hallo Dienstmann!
Nehmen Sie hier diese Dahlie!
Hallo Dienstmann! Hallo Dienstmann!
Geh’n Sie damit zur Amalie!
Hallo Dienstmann! Hallo Dienstmann!
Aber wirft man Sie dort raus
Trag’n Sie hundertmal die Dahlie
Zur Amalie
Ins Haus
Bis man Ihnen dort ein Trinkgeld gibt
Und Amalie mich liebt!

Oh, these forgotten professions of yore!

Bumper Cars: You’re Driving Me Crazy!

You’re Driving Me Crazy (What Did I Do?)‘ by Walter Donaldson, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1930) and illustrated by Florent Margaritis.

The cover for the Parisian Francis-Day sheet music doesn’t sparkle with happiness and joy. It rather illustrates the miserable yearning in the song’s lyrics.

You left me sad and lonely
Why did you leave me lonely?
For here’s a heart that’s only
For nobody but you!

Walter Donaldson probably didn’t have exquisite poetry in mind when he wrote these verses. But happily he transformed the persistent melody in his brain into the song You’re Driving Me Crazy that became an instant hit in 1930. Later, any jazz singer or crooner —from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra— had to have that song in their repertoire.

I’m burning like a flame, dear
Oh, I’ll never be the same, dear
I’ll always place the blame, dear
On nobody but you.

Not familiar with the tune? As a reminder, here is the delicious, sexy version by Betty Boop in the cartoon Silly Scandals:

Another copy of the sheet music in our collection, is most likely the original American one. Frederick Manning designed a large passionate hart, blazing in a fire of love. Somewhat pompous in my opinion.

‘You’re Driving Me Crazy (What Did I Do?)’ by Walter Donaldson, published by Walter Donaldson (New York, 1930) and illustrated by Frederick Manning.

Yes, you,
You’re driving me crazy!
What did I do? What did I do?
My tears for you
Make everything hazy,
Clouding the skies of blue.

For the Francis-Day cover at the top, illustrator Florent Margaritis chose another approach. He took the title and lyrics quite literally and drew a couple: she regretful but displaying resolve, he apparently thinking What did I do?  They share their romantic agony on a cloudy bumper ride in a weird electric car of the type that I’ve never seen before. My perfect excuse to start digging into the history of the bumper cars or dodgems.

The New Yorker, James Adair, was the first to receive a patent for an electrically propelled vehicle in 1890. His patent drawing shows a tricycle connected to the ceiling by a trolley pole. This idea, which was never built, became the basic concept to build the first bumper cars thirty years later: a conductive (metal) floor and ceiling, each with a separate power polarity. Contacts under the vehicle touch the floor while a pole-mounted contact touches the ceiling, forming a complete circuit. I remember my childhood fairs, looking fascinated and thrilled at the sparks produced by the car’s poles grating the ceiling’s wire mesh. Electricity was literally in the air.

Drawing for the patent filed by James Adair for an electrically propelled vehicle, 1890.

The first patent for an electrically powered bumper car was issued in 1921 to father and son Stoehrer from Massachusetts. They had invented a novel amusement car that “in the hands of an unskilled operator will follow a promiscuous, irregular path to not only produce various sensations but to collide with other cars as well as with portions of the platform provided for that purpose. It requires the utmost skill of the driver to cause the car or vehicle to dodge other vehicles.” Hence the name of the company that the brothers created: Dodgem. Dodgem is also the generic name for what they call in the US a bumper car, in France auto-tamponneuse and in Belgium auto-scooter.

Similar to the bumper car illustrated by Margaritis on our cover, the first Dodgem cars were round and seated two people. Between and in front of them a horizontal steering wheel was mounted on a vertical post.

Dodgem cars, source: Lusse Auto Scooters website.

These cars equipped with large bumpers indeed drove crazy because they were rear-steered. According to a test in 1921 by Scientific American these first bumper cars were highly unmanageable and only allowed erratic steering.

Bumper cars in the Bumper Car Pavilion – Glen Echo Park, Maryland – 1924

Lusse Brothers from Philadelphia spent nine years solving the unsteady steering problems that plagued Dodgem cars. By the 1930s, new front-wheel drive bumper cars were introduced: the Lusse Auto Skooter. They could easily reverse backward and the drivers could now target who they wanted to collide with.

The Skooter Bumper Car Pavilion in Glen Echo Park, Maryland

In France electrically powered bumper cars were not produced before the 1930s. But I found two pictures from primitive precursors. Both show auto-tamponeuses that look like a wicked or wooden seat attached to a thick board on wheels. In front there is a crude steering wheel. I imagine that the fair attraction’s track was slanted so that the cars glided or rolled down from their own. The first photograph was taken around 1900 at the Neuilly Fair near Paris. The second one shows us Battling Siki, a French-Senegalese boxer sitting in a bumper car at a Parisian Lunapark in 1922.

La Fete a Neuilly, ca. 1900.
Training of boxer Battling Siki, sitting (left) in a bumper car at the luna park, Avenue de la Grande Armée 1922 – Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

Another forerunner of the bumper cars was one of the most popular attractions at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London. I confess that I haven’t the faintest idea how this entertainment device works…

Dodge’em cars at the British Empire Exhibition – 1924

What a coincidence. The fun fair is in town. Really, they are. I went to the autoscooter stand, to check some of the above facts. And guess what, they are still playing our tune ❤️

Yes, you!
You’re driving me crazy!
What did I do to you?