Category Archives: Songs

Comments on songs and lyrics…

I did not have sexual relations with that woman

ma petite bretonne copy
Left: ‘L’affaire Steinheil‘ by Antonin Louis, published by Edition Musicale Française (Paris, sd). Right: ‘Ma Petite Bretonne‘ by Berniaux, published by Charles Mayol (Paris, 1907), illustrated by Pousthomis.

Last week we got a present from our friend Etienne: a tattered leaflet, folded  twice to fit in a pocket, ready to hand for an impromptu performance. On the backside of the leaflet are the words for L’Affaire Steinheil. No musical notation was needed as one had to sing it to the tune of a 1907 hit song Ma Petite Bretonne.

The Madame Steinheil of the cover was born in Alsace in 1869 as Marguerite Japy, the daughter of a rich industrialist.

meg steinheil
Marguerite Steinheil, posing as an ancient Greek aulos player.

The gorgeous Marguerite married the well-known but less gifted painter Adolphe Steinheil in 1890. The marriage was not a happy one but it allowed Marguerite to move in the highest social circles in Paris. She became the mistress of the French president, Félix Faure, often visiting him for assignations in the Elysée Palace. During one of their trysts Faure died suddenly. The salacious circumstances of the president’s untimely demise (in 1899) and the identity of his companion became widely known thanks to the tabloid press. According to some, presumably his political opponents, it happened while Marguerite was giving the president the Monica Lewinsky treatment, which earned her the nickname ‘La Pompe Funèbre’.

An artist’s impression of President Faure’s death, as seen by his supporters.

After the president’s death Marguerite continued to have a string of famous lovers. In 1908 Marguerite’s mother and husband were murdered in their bedroom. They both died by strangulation. Marguerite was found bound and gagged but otherwise unharmed. She told the police that a gang of four black-robed burglars had perpetrated the murders and stolen her jewellery.

An artist’s impression of the 1908 murders. Marguerite is found, gagged and bound on her daughters bed by a servant. In the adjoining bedrooms we get a glimpse of the bodies of her mother and her husband.

From the start the police suspected her of playing a part in the murders but couldn’t find proof of this. In an attempt to draw the investigation away from herself, the recent widow tried (unsuccessfully) to frame the male servant who had initially discovered her. She told the police that she had found some of the stolen jewellery in the servant’s possession, including a pearl. Alas for her, a jeweller recognised it as the gem Marguerite had asked the jeweller to dismount from her ring, after the murders took place. So she must have hid it in her servants wallet later on.

Being confronted with her lies, Marguerite at long last accused Alexander Wolff, the son of her old cook Mariette. Alexander Wolff, a horse dealer, called her a vile lying whore. Lucky for him, the police soon proved him entirely innocent.

alexander wolff
On the left: Alexander Wolff accused of the murders by Marguerite Steinheil. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Marguerite’s wild accusations and tampering with evidence,  heightened the suspicion against her and finally led to her arrest. She was charged with murder and sent to Saint-Lazare to await her trial.
At that time Saint-Lazare was a gloomy prison for women, housing mostly prostitutes and female thieves. None other than Toulouse-Lautrec (signing as Treclau) illustrated Aristide Bruant’s song ‘A Saint-Lazare’.

a saint lazare
Left: ‘A Saint-Lazare‘ by Aristide Bruant, published by himself (Paris in 1887) and illustrated by Treclau (Toulouse-Lautrec). Not in our collection, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Right: Madame Steinheil in Saint-Lazare (1909). Picture from her memoirs.

In contrast to Bruant’s reputation of singing with a thunderous voice, the wonderful Barbara gave a delicate enactment of the song:
“C’est de la prison que je t’écris mon pauvre Polyte
Et si t’aime bien ta petite souris réponds moi vite…”

The press covered every aspect of the Steinheil murders, the investigation, the arrest, the imprisonment and the trial. Conspirationists pretended that Marguerite had —almost a decade before— also poisoned president Félix Faure.

steinheil avocat
Marguerite and her lawyer during her trial. Le Petit Parisien, Supplément Littéraire Illustré, November 7th,1909.

The trial revealed all her lies and tampering. However, because there was no motive and only indirect evidence of any physical involvement with the murders, she was unexpectedly acquitted and released.

lettre steinheil & procureur
Left: caricature of the attorney during the trial holding in his arms Marguerite’s husband and President Faure (only clad in his shirt). Right: ‘Lettre à Madame Steinheil‘ by Dalbret, published by Valentin Pannier (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Léon Pousthomis (source: MédiHAL).

Following her acquittal Marguerite got another nickname: La Veuve Joyeuse after Franz Lehar’s Die Lüstige Witwe (The Merry Widow). The first production of this operetta in Paris had been in April of the same year.

steinheil veuve joyeuse

veuve joyeuse
Heure exquise‘ from ‘La Veuve Joyeuse’ by Franz Léhar, published by Max Eschig (Paris, 1909) and illustrated by Georges Dola.

Nonetheless, Marguerite didn’t remain a widow for very long. She changed her name to Madame de Serignac, moved to England where she married into the British aristocracy in 1917 and became Lady d’Abinger.

Marguerite’s faithful cook Mariette stayed in France. She was an important witness at the trial and was described as follows: “Mariette looks an old peasant woman from one of Balzac’s novels. (…) Her nose is strong, and her eyes are terrible—but when she wants to, she can soften their expression. There is hardly any interval between the nose and the stubborn little chin, which reminds one of a dried-up crabapple.”

mariette wolff steinheil
Mariette Wolff, the cook of Marguerite Steinheil.

Notwithstanding that her mistress had accused her son Alexander of the murders, Mariette remained a very loyal servant. At the trial she had said nothing that could possibly harm her boss: “When one is a domestic, one must see everything but say nothing.” This allegiance was not reciprocal. In her 1920 memoir Marguerite wrote: “She had a terrifying appearance, the old Mariette, with her eyes that flashed angrily, her threatening jaw, and her big clenched fists.” Marguerite even hinted that Mariette was implicated in the murders…

Oddly, after the trial Mariette Wolff became a well-known billposter for the publicity firm Gabert.

wolf afficheuse1
Mariette Wolff as a billposter in december 1909. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Her new boss, monsieur Gabert, had astutely reckoned that her notoriety could well attract the best crowd…

Photo Mariette Wolff attracting a crowd in 1909.
Mariette Wolff as a billposter attracting a huge crowd in december 1909. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Apart from being an advertiser Gabert was also a keen supporter of feminism and women’s suffrage. He would support the right for women to vote in the elections of 1912. But back in 1908 he already made his point by hiring the first female billposter, until then a profession reserved for men.

premiere colleuse
The first female billposter in Paris. Le Petit Journal, 11 october 1908.

Soon onlookers and photographers would assemble around Gabert’s ‘colleuses d’affiches’. These controversial women in a ‘male’ profession first gave rise to surprise and incredulity. But soon they would turn into a spectacle, appearing on postcards as if they were a curio.

eerste colleuse 3 copy
Left: The first female billposter. Right: Paris-Féministe – New professions for women: the billposter.
Belgium had to wait for the first female billposter till 1916.
eerste colleuse belgie 1916
A new Brussels profession, January 1916. Royal Library of Belgium
But back to our story. The mystery of the two murders has never been solved. Though according to the lyrics on our leaflet Marguerite was guilty as hell: “Elle va bientôt lâcher le morceau, ou d’ venir marteau. Mais cett’ femm’ si belle, est bien criminelle!”
And as to her spot of bother with Faure well, presidents will be presidents, won’t they?
Front page of the French magazine Closer revealing the French president’s supposed secret trysts with Julie Gayet. (2014)

Volga(z)! Heave ho!

Sheet music (partition musicale) of 'Katanga', song by Hippolyte Ackermans & Charles Geuskens, lyrics by M. Roels, 1928, illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.
Katanga‘ by Hippolyte Ackermans & Charles Geuskens, lyrics by M. Roels, published by Mado Editeur (Bruxelles, 1928), illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.

Voici le style moderne: the Katanga Fox Trot! The forthright and powerful cover made by Alfred Bernier has the typical Art Deco marks. A purified theme, rendered with honest lines and shapes. The natural forms are geometrically stylised, they become streamlined. Repeated elements create a rhythmic tableau of colours, shapes and letters for the song about a man longing both for the faraway land and the woman who lives there.


We know next to nothing about Bernier. Having studied at the Académie de Bruxelles, he was active as an illustrator for Belgian music publishers during the end of the Twenties. He was born near Buenos Aires in 1888. We have two other covers in our collection, one of which is the black and white ‘Volga!’. This is thousand miles away from Katanga, but also a delicious Art Deco cover. The stark composition expresses the strength of the workmen and the violent wind. Again, repeated elements create a dynamic scene, frozen in time.

Cover for the sheet music 'Volga!' by Max Alexis and Charles Tutelier, published by Vergucht and illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier
Volga!‘ by Max Alexis and Charles Tutelier, published by Vergucht (Bruxelles, 1929) and illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.


The song by Charles Tutelier was probably inspired by the 1926 epic silent movie of Cecil B. DeMille, The Volga Boatman.

Volga boatman Poster Gablin

This big-scaled romantic melodrama, set in the 1917 Russian Revolution, was a shift from the usual anti-Bolshevik films, in that it also focussed on the oppression and the cruelty of the Czar’s regime and did not portray all the revolutionaries as just dumb and violent agitators. On the contrary, our hero is even susceptible to romantic entanglement. See for yourself in this short montage we made from the 2-hour classic of the silent screen.

The film gets an unintentional Dadaistic twist when the social order is being ‘revolutionised’ by the Reds.

The film was an international success and generated sheet music covers in many countries.

Two sheet music covers. Left: 'Le Batelier de la Volga' by Emile Liétard (Châtelineau, s.d.), unknown illustrator. Right: 'Song of the Volga Boatman' published by Keith, Prowse & Co (London, s.d.), unknown illustrator.
Left: ‘Le Batelier de la Volga’ by Emile Liétard (Châtelineau, s.d.). Right: ‘Song of the Volga Boatman‘ published by Keith, Prowse & Co (London, s.d.). Both unknown illustrator.
Two-Sheet-Music covers: Left: 'Wolga Lied' published by B. J. Smit & Co (Amsterdam, s.d.) illustration signed F.K. Right: 'La Canzone dei Batellieri del Volga', published by A. & G. Carisch & C. (Milano, 1929), illustrated by Bonfanti.
Left: ‘Wolga Lied‘ published by B. J. Smit & Co (Amsterdam, s.d.) illustration signed F.K. Right: ‘La Canzone dei Batellieri del Volga‘, published by A. & G. Carisch & C. (Milano, 1929), illustrated by Bonfanti.
'Burlaki (Lied der Barkenschlepper an der Wolga' published by J. H. Zimmerman
Burlaki (Lied der Barkenschlepper an der Wolga)‘ published by J. H. Zimmerman (Leipzig, s.d.)

One can wonder why in 1917 the title character had to work as a boatman on the Volga. For at least a few decades there hadn’t been any boatmen (Burlaks or barge haulers) working on the Volga. Cecil B. DeMille called this tampering with ‘details’ from the past, telescoping history. His reason was probably very Hollywoodesque: if the American audience knew one Russian song, then it undoubtedly was The Song of the Volga Boatman. Let’s take a minute to hear and see a poignant and primal rendition of the song by the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff.

Ey, ukhnem!’ is the Russian title of the well-known traditional folk song. In 1866 it was published for the first time, with only one (disconcerting Boy Scoutish) verse:

The firm stance of Christoff calls to my mind the posture of the gentleman singer drawn by Jules David  for the song ‘Ténors et Basses’.

Detail from the sheet music cover for 'Ténors et Basses' (Air Bouffe) , by Paul Henrion, lyrics by Emile Barateau, published by Colombier (Paris, s.d.)
Detail from the sheet music cover for ‘Ténors et Basses‘ (Air Bouffe) by Paul Henrion, lyrics by Emile Barateau, published by Colombier (Paris, s.d.)

In 1873 Ilya Repin finished his iconic (almost 3m wide!) painting of burlaks along the longest river of Europe, in Tsarist Russia. It both condemns inhumane and harsh working conditions, while also saluting the dignity and long-suffering of the exhausted working class.

Painting by Ilia Efimovich Repin (1844-1930): Volga Boatmen (1870-1873)
Ilya Repin: ‘Volga Boatmen’ (1870-1873), State Russian Museum, St Petersburg (131.5 cm × 281 cm)

It was not only in Russia that ships were pulled by manpower along a tow path. Wherever it was impractical to sail, human force was used to drag the vessels. In the second half of the 19th century it apparently was a favourite theme for painters.

Painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman in 1875: Towing on the Nile.
Frederick Arthur Bridgman: ‘Towing on the Nile’, 1875.
Painting by Telemaco Signorini: L'alzaia, Cascine di Firenze, 1864
Telemaco Signorini: L’alzaia, Cascine di Firenze, 1864

We found unsettling photographs of this human labour.

Burlakwomen photographed on the Volga, 1900s (Wikipedia)
Burlak women photographed on the Volga, 1900s (source: Wikipedia)
Photograph: On the towpath along the river Po, around 1920-1930. (source: G. Giarelli, La cultura del fiume: i barcari del Po, 1986/1987).
On the towpath along the river Po, around 1920-1930. (source: G. Giarelli, La cultura del fiume: i barcari del Po, 1986/1987).
Een man en een vrouw trekken samen een trekschuit door een binnenkanaal. Plaats onbekend, 27 mei 1931.
Man and woman towing a cargo-boat through a ship-canal. The Netherlands, 1931 (source: Nationaal Archief).

Later vehicles and beasts of burden replaced the human pullers, before the work became obsolete when ships were fitted with engines. Towing paths now offer pleasant walks and tourist rides.

Photograph Canal du Midi: chemin de halage (2014)
Canal du Midi: chemin de halage or tow path (2014)

One more thing. Volga also was the name of a car manufactured by GAZ in the USSR from 1956 on. The Soviet nomenklatura chose the Volga as their favourite car to commute between the Kremlin and their dacha. For many Russian generations the brand became the symbol of style and success. The first model was the GAZ-M-21. But then, that’s a completely different hobby…

(credit: Youtube’s Ramzis123)

Yes, We have no Bananas

no bananas
‘Yes! We have no Bananas‘ by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, published by Salabert, Paris in 1923 and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

A newspaper article on the threat of a banana shortage brings to mind the song Yes! We have no Bananas. The origin of the song is not clear. Allegedly it was inspired by a shortage brought on by the Panama disease, a soil-based fungus which attacks the roots of the plant. As the banana is a monoculture crop, this means that if something goes wrong, the whole crop can be lost. The earlier and more tastier banana variety Gros Michel (or Big Mike) was thus completely wiped out in the 1960s. Today the Gros Michel is replaced by the Cavendish, but it is still a monoculture and it is no longer resistant to a more virulent strain of the Panama disease. About 10 years ago this new strain started to destroy plantations in Asia and Australia, threatening the Cavendish banana with the same fate as its predecessor.
Roger de Valerio, an illustrator with a vivid imagination, apparently didn’t read the original lyrics before illustrating the cover of the French version of Yes! We have no Bananas. He simply associated bananas with the stereotype of the black mammy and black people. To my dismay, this old stupid cliché is sometimes voiced on our soccer fields. For the cover of the original American sheet music Sol Wohlman straightforwardly illustrated the story: a Greek American greengrocer who tells his customers, in broken English, that he has no bananas to sell.

There’s a fruitshop down our street,
It’s run by a Greek,
And he sells good things to eat,
But you should hear him speak,
When you ask him anything,
Never answers “No”,
He just yesses you to death,
And as he takes your dough he tells you:

Yes! We have no bananas,
We have no bananas today…

no bananas original
Yes! We have no bananas‘ by Frank Silver & Irving Cohn, published by Skidmore Music Co., Inc, New York in 1923 and illustrated by Sol Wohlman (not in our collection, Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection)

Wohlman himself falls into the trap of stereotyping when, for another sheet music cover, he caricatures a typical Italian person. Notice the similar exotic mustachios, earrings and mischievous eyes.

A typical Italian man drawn by Sol Wohlman (partition musicale - illustrated sheet music), 1923
Caricature of an Italian man drawn by Sol Wohlman for the cover of ‘When it’s Night-time in Italy It’s Wednesday Over Here‘ published by The Lawrence Wright Music C°, Leicester, 1923.

Back to our song. After Eddie Cantor used the novelty song in one of his Broadway revues in 1922, it topped the charts in America and became a smashing  success all over the world.

bananas europa
Left: ‘Si, non ho piu banane!‘ by Frank Silver and Irving Kohn, published by Carlo Lombardo, Milano (s.d.) and illustrated by Roveroni. Right: ‘Bananen’, by Frank Silver and Irving Kohn, and translated by Fritz Löhner (Beda), published by Wiener Bohème – Verlag, Vienna in 1923.

The song inspired a follow-up song “I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues”.

bananas blues copy
Left: ‘I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues‘ By Lew Brown, James Hanley & Robert King, published by Shapiro, Bernstein & C°, New York in 1923 and illustrated by Politzer. Right: The same song published by Salabert, Paris in 1923 and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Again, Roger de Valerio gets the wrong end of the stick about the song’s content. It is obviously a mockery about a man who cannot stand the earworm, nicely illustrated by Politzer. Although de Valerio is to me the better illustrator, he once more gets his inspiration from a black people stereotype, palm tree and all.

In France the song spawned spoof versions, emphasising that the chauvinistic French didn’t suffer a banana shortage: Chez nous y a des bananes (We have bananas!). For illustrator Clérice, selling bananas is not a Greek merchant business, but a job for shrewd African vendors.

les bananes
Left: ‘La Marche des Bananes‘ by Vincent Scotto, published by Salabert, Paris in 1923 and illustrated by Jacques Boullaire. Right: ‘Chez nous y a des bananes‘ by René de Buxeuil, published by La Parisienne, Paris in 1923 and illustrated by Clérice frères.

The great Maurice Chevalier performed another parody: We have pineapples! (Nous avons des ananas!).

les ananas
Les Ananas‘ by Fred Pearly & Max Eddy, published by Salabert, Paris in 1923 and probably illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

This in turn was an inspiration for the silly song ‘Nana n’a pas d’ananas’ (Nana has no pineapples).

Nana n’a pas d’ananas‘ by Dior & Delly, published by Dior, Paris s.d. and illustrated by Jean Chevalier.

Time to listen to the song. Mind you, it will stay with you for the whole day and slowly drive you mad as a box of frogs. I prefer the version by the Pied Pipers from the 1948 musical film ‘Luxury Liner’.

And because I adore Billy Wilder, I include a German version of the song from the Cold War comedy ‘One, Two Three’. The film features James Cagney as Coca-Cola’s head of West Berlin operations trying to get Coca-Cola into the Russian market.