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The power of popular songs

By Saartje Vanden Borre and Elien Declercq


1883. In Tourcoing, a French industrial town right on the border with Belgium, the local celebrity and writer of Flemish origin Jules Watteeuw published Le marchand d’oches for the first time. His song about a Flemish rag-and-bone man who had migrated to Northern France to make a living but kept dreaming about his hometown as the Garden of Eden, was a huge success. It was reprinted numerous times in the following decades; the song would influence the Northern French understanding of Flemish migrants for almost a century to come. Even in 1995, when inhabitants of the city Roubaix were asked for their earliest recollections of Flemish migrants in their town, some started to sing this very song.

Premier couplet
Quand ze l’a venu en France,
Ia, ze l’avais de çagrin;
Ze l’avais pas eu de çance
Dans mon butique à Menin.
Z’avais in bruette
Et mon femm’ rien de tout,
V’la qu’ z’ai in carette,
Un’ baudet et de sous:

Refrain
Ze suis de petite marçent
Ze agne beaucoup de l’arzent
Z’acett’ tout sort’ de çosses
Vela de merçant d’osses… hi!

4e couplet
Ze suis connu dans le ville,
Par lé petit et lé grand,
Tout de femme et tout de fille
Connaît bien de roux flamand.
Après me l’ouvrasse,
Moi ze rentre à me maison,
Ze manç’ de potasse
Et ze zoue de cordéon.

5e couplet
Quand ze l’aura fait feurtune,
Moi z’irai à ma pays
En Belzique à Lechterwune
Ze serai en Paradis.
Z’acét’rai de terre,
Et ze mettrai dans de çamps
Tout de pomm’ de terre
Pour moi et mes p’tits l’enfants.

The Centre for the History of Intercultural Relations (CHIR) in Kortrijk/Courtrai, Belgium, studies the integration of Flemish newcomers in Northern France in the second half of the nineteenth century. An important part of the research project centres on the identificational dimensions of this integration process: how did the Belgian Flemish migrants and Northern French inhabitants, both living in the same border region, relate to each other? This so-called history ‘from below’ requires adequate sources to grasp the actual experience of identification and confrontation between individuals and groups. A popular song such as Le marchand d’oches seems to offer some interesting insights – but only when interpreted with careful attention. Popular sources are indeed often regarded by historians as mere representations of the life and ideas of the writer and his environment. This approach denies the sources a part of their actual importance in history: similar as to literary texts, these apparently innocent popular songs had the power to influence the cultural conceptions of an entire society.

Peasants conversing, David Teniers, the younger (1610 – 1690)

Living in the industrial Tourcoing around the turn of the century, Watteeuw’s destitute Flemish peasant was an easy recognisable personage. As a poet and a writer, Watteeuw had only collected and magnified what he thought were the typical characteristics of a Flemish migrant. He thus created a stereotype which everybody knew, but nobody identified with – certainly not himself, a second generation Belgian migrant. Watteew’s personage was a peculiar character: a red-haired rag-and-bones man (stereotypic physiognomy), who spoke a hybrid Franco-Flemish language (stereotypic language), ate typically Flemish dishes such as potatoes and buttermilk (stereotypic alimentary habits), and played the accordion (stereotypic cultural expression). Of course, this Flemish migrant cherished the stereotypic dream of returning to his village in Belgium once he had made his fortune in France. Not surprisingly, the marchand d’oches planned to cultivate potatoes there. The potato as a culinary predilection of the Flemish functioned as a metaphor for the real cultural belonging of this character. It highlighted the gap between the French urban audience, that didn’t dream of growing crops on the fields, and the newcomers, that didn’t manage the give up their roots.

Of course, the personage of the Flemish migrant had already made his appearance in popular culture before the publication of the marchand d’oches. But while many authors imitated Flemish migrants in their songs by using funny language to mock and stigmatize them, it was Jules Watteeuw’s sketch of a Flemish migrant that set the standards fort the popular personage. From then on, every Flemish character and even every migrant that appeared in popular culture, turned out to be someone who dressed like a peasant, spoke an unbearable language, and abundantly referred to his alimentary habits. By the end of the nineteenth century, this stereotypical personage was adopted as a regular character in song repertoire, and emerged in local newspapers and puppet theatre in the French northern department. This omnipresence of the Flemish personage in popular culture produced a comic effect on all listeners – Flemish as well as French. The stereotypical characteristics were exaggerated to the point that not even Flemish migrants identified with them.  More importantly, the fact that Flemish migrants were staged in all parts of popular culture indicates that their presence was gradually accepted. We dare say even more: the integration of Belgian-Flemish people in Northern France partially occurred by means of such discursive practices. In other words, their integration process was also a matter of discourse , in which the use of stereotypes metaphorized in some way the physical integration of Flemish migrants.

In 1883, Jules Watteeuw created a naïve, rather brute but courageous rag-and-bone man that would influence an entire sociological process of integration. For decennia to come, the Flemish migrant in Northern France would be regarded as an uncultivated peasant who did not speak any French – although he thought he did. The stereotype affected the relations between Northern French and Flemish Belgians until well into the twentieth century. Still, despite the Flemish being an object of derision, their absence from the daily scene was unthinkable – just as it was in popular culture.

Saartje Vanden Borre & Elien Declercq are employed by Centre for the History of Intercultural Relations (KU Leuven Kulak, Kortrijk, Belgium). Their article “Cultural integration of Belgian migrants in northern France (1870–1914): a Study of Popular songs” in French History is available to read for free for a limited time. Dr. Saartje Vanden Borre is a member of the research group Cultural History since 1750 of the University of Leuven and of the Centre for the History of Intercultural Relations (CHIR) at KU Leuven Kulak. Her research interests include migration history, educational history, and memory studies. She previously published on the history of Belgian migration to France in journals such as Socialist History, French History, and Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis. She is a member of the editorial board of De Leiegouw. Dr. Elien Declercq, research fellow of the Centre for the History of Intercultural Relations, has published on literary discourse analysis, migration literature and intercultural transfer in border regions in journals such as Revue de Littérature Comparée and International Journal of Multilingualism. In 2012, Academia Press in Ghent published Vreemden op vertrouwd terrein (Foreigners on Familiar Ground) by Saartje Vanden Borre and Migrants belges en France by Elien Declercq.

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Image credit: Peasants conversing by David Teniers, the younger. Public domain via wikimedia commons

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