Haunting Bird

There is a genre of music I will attempt to define that is somewhat hard to describe.  First, it is conflicted: haunting yet catchy.  But, second, it is not haunting the way that Tubular Bells (theme of The Exorcist is haunting), but rather that its melody (and words if there are any) suggests a powerful influence by an unorganized medley of life’s most painful experiences.

Some obvious candidates are the torch songs; the song tells an incomplete story of someone spurned by a lover, or of the loss of a budding or possible love.  Sinatra’s “One for my Baby” is good, but that’s too obvious.  So the third criterion is that is has to be subtle; it can’t be obvious.  Elvis Costello’s “Allison” is close: you know something is horribly wrong and there is an untold history; you just don’t know what it is.

The fourth criterion is that the tune must suggest a bigger story than just unrequited or lost love.  In movies we get a taste of this from the instrumental Lara’s Theme (theme to Dr Zhivago) in its odd mix of Balalaika with full stringed orchestral backing.  Despite people’s lives and loves getting completely crushed by the steamroller of history the melody is oddly jaunty, almost upbeat.  It is defiant; hopeful in spite of misery.  “I will survive.  Things will be better.”  Lara’s theme was set to words in Somewhere my Love, which captures that greatest of human emotions: hope.  Criterion Five: Defiant with unjustified hope.

Similar to Lara’s Theme is another movie theme.  Set at the awkward time mixing youth and world chaos – as we tried to make sense of a world gone hopelessly mad in global war – and cope with loss of life, and the loss of all manner of innocence, there was The Summer of ’42.  Haunting.  Complex.  Catchy.  Suggestive of pain, suffering and loss.  Yet, like Lara’s Theme, oddly upbeat.  Defiant.

[Unsurprisingly, each of these themes won Academy Awards.  Zhivago took 1965’s award; Summer of ’42 won 1971’s]

One song, somewhat movie related, that is haunted in this way for me is a sing-songy nursery rhyme, Risselty-Rosselty. That’s because this is the song the children of Bodega Bay School are singing on the playground as the blackbirds gather to swarm in Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s epic 1963 thriller, The Birds.  Every time I hear or think of that tune I can still see what those birds did to the beautiful Annie (Suzanne Pleshette).  And it is the word “Bird” leads us to this essay’s principal character.


It is a beautiful day at a café in Paris: a sensational August day in 1944. Paris has just been liberated.  A singer of some budding renown is inspired.  That afternoon, in that café  – in the reborn glow of Liberté – she composes the feature song for which she would forever be known … and famous.  The haunting yet catchy tune with words to match.  It is not obvious, but it is suggestive of a complex and painful life, rife with struggles.  It is somewhat bubbly, and yet there is that awkward juxtaposition of subdued melancholy with budding hope and expectation.  Buoyant with the possibility of love.  She wrote the song for herself to sing; to sing as if she were looking at the world through rose colored glasses.  And yet she was to sing it as if she knew all along that she wore those glasses. Of what she sings is not real.  Her whole life in one song.


Born to street performers in Paris in December 1915, Édith Giovanna Gassion was abandoned by her mother shortly after birth.  Called to fight in The Great War, her father turned her over to her grandmother, who raised tiny Edith in her brothel in Normandy.  She was always petite, even frail, and appeared sickly.  She ever remained a small creature, but grew to have a big, big voice.

Blind from age three to seven from a bout with keratitis, she remained with the prostitutes until her father fetched her as a young teen to work with him in his street performances as an acrobat.  She collected money after the act, and, at some point, he convinced her to sing as she collected the money in small boxes and hats.

Soon enough Gassion was being recognized for her own talents and at age 15 she struck out on her own, working menial odd jobs and singing on street corners.  She fell in love with a delivery boy, the first of untold many such love-life disasters.  At age 17 she had her only child, a girl named Marcelle. As a teenaged street performer and day laborer she was unable to care for the infant.  She abandoned the child and the child’s father, leaving him to raise the girl.  Unfortunately, Marcelle died of meningitis two years later: the sorrow of losing the same child twice only sweetened the magic of her performances.

So she moved to the better side of town, in the Pagalle area, where a high-end tourist and cabaret district intersected with the sex industry. Performance of all kinds!; here she felt comfortable.  And here she was spotted as a potential winning performer by a small time impresario named Louis Leplee, who ran a night club.

Leplee truly appreciated Gassion as a musical performer – not as a potential lover: he was a homosexual –  and developed her potential.  He became a genuine and kindly father figure – the “father she never had” – by day and her boss by night.  He counseled Piaf to moderate her proclivity to mingle with the darker elements of Parisian culture; and he had her singing in his nightclub until 3AM – with rave reviews at age only 19.  Shockingly, a year later, Leplee was shot in a murder that was never solved.

The petite Gassion was a suspect in the case, detained for questioning.  Released, her prospects were clouded by her association with Leplee; other club owners were reluctant to hire her.  She soon caught on with Raymond Asso – as a lover as well as business partner.  A performer and composer as well, he turned her toward music writers who could mix Gassion’s powerful voice in a tiny body with her dark, street-gutter past; who could mix music with her love of tragic, melodramatic themes, in a concoction with elements of blues and jazz.  He knew that this consonance, with a real-life story of “misery of the streets” would play on the hearts of those who still had money (this is now 1937, in the Depression).

But her name had to change.  Gassion would not do. She was tiny, yet she flitted around with tremendous nervous energy.  Just like a sparrow.  Piaf.  And so Edith Gassion became Edith Piaf.

Things went well for Piaf and Asso until 1939, when he was drafted into the next Great War.  Asso had given her a bit of polish, and Piaf’s career continued to bloom — she even began to star in theatre.  When France was overrun in 1940, Leplee was sent away to Germany to entertain the French POWs.

Meanwhile, for Piaf, presently alone, she continued performing in cabarets, but now mostly for the occupying Germans.  She was sometimes accused of fraternizing and collaboration, charges that were never substantiated.

When the war ended, Piaf was soon again on top of the French entertainment industry.  She set her sights on America.  And she fell in love with the one whom she called “the one true love of her life”, World Middleweight Boxing Champion, Marcel Cerdan.  In classic Piaf disaster, Cerdan was already married with three children.

With a revamped tour going well for Piaf in the US, her Cerdan had just lost a title bout wherein he sustained a career-ending shoulder injury.  Still famous today as the most successful French boxer ever, Cerdan flew off to join her in New York.  The plane would stop in the Azores en route.  And there it crashed, taking Cerdan and all 47 others.  Piaf learned of the disaster shortly before that evening’s show.  She performed anyhow, the tragedy of loss adding to the delivery of her classic haunted, yet catchy style, evoking great emotion.  “The greater life’s blows, the more powerful and magnificent her voice!”[1]

Piaf had several more star-crossed romances and marriages.  None went well.  She was also involved in three severe auto accidents, all causing critical injuries in those days before seat belts.  At least once she was ejected from the car by a high speed collision. These led to a dependency on morphine, an addiction that she fought the rest of her life by turning to an old affliction: alcohol.

Professionally re-living her life’s sorrows, she toggled between addictions, switched from lover to lover, and pushed herself to perform and record songs at a withering pace for such a frail, sickly woman.

In 1958 she caught on with a very young, intriguing and talented writer who would rejuvenate her career.  Georges Moustaki (born as “Moustacchi”) was a most unusual blend of direct Egyptian, Greek and Italian descent.  He spoke Italian, Arabic, Greek and – as a fourth language – French.  All these tragic cultures he blended into his compositions for Piaf.  Her tours were tremendously popular; her health continued failing.  Naturally, they become lovers.

Piaf’s and Moustaki’s lives and careers separated after a few years.  He would go on to be one of France’s most beloved composers and entertainers. [2] She continued performing and falling in love.

At age 46, still pushing herself to perform at a dizzying pace while struggling with dependency, she met and fell in love with a handsome Greek singer twenty years her junior.  Piaf and Theo Sarapo were married … her third.

But she was so ill. And she drank. A lot. Her liver became cancerous, and the harried, haunted life of the sparrow came to an end in October, 1963; aged only 47.

Even in French (which I don’t like very much) the song La Vie en Rose that Piaf penned in that Parisian café in 1944 has captured the essence of my newly created musical category, specifically: Catchy with overtones of being haunted by history; yet subtle, with a touch of melancholy, defiance and hope

Enjoy this classic recording of Piaf singing La Vie en Rose. [Anglicized lyrics below].

Joe Girard © 2013

[1] From History Channel’s short biography of Edith Piaf

2] This essay partly inspired by the recent death of Piaf’s songwriter Georges Moustaki, May, 23, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/25/arts/music/georges-moustaki-french-singer-and-songwriter-dies-at-79.html

Notes A)

Anglicized lyrics to La Vie en Rose (as Translated by Edith Paif herself)

With eyes which make mine lower,
A smile which is lost on his lips,
That’s the unembellished portrait
Of the man to whom I belong.

When he takes me in his arms
He speaks to me in a soft voice,
I see life as if rose tinted.

He whispers words to declare his love to me
Simple every day words.
And that does something to me.

He has entered into my heart.

A piece of happiness
the cause of which I know full well.

“It is him for me, me for him” in life
He said that to me, he swore to me “forever”.

And as soon as I see him
So I feel in me
My heart which beats

May the nights on which we make love never end,
A great joy which takes its place.
The trouble, the grief are removed
Content, content to die of it

When he takes me in his arms
He speaks to me in a very soft voice,
I see life as if it were rose-tinted.

He whispers words to declare to me his love
Words of the everyday
And that does something to me.

He has entered into my heart
A piece of happiness
the cause of which I recognize.

“It is him for me, me for him” in life
He said that to me, swore to me “forever.”

And as soon as I see him
So do I feel in me
My heart which beats

JG note: I think when she says “rose-tinted” it is the French equivalent to “seeing through rose colored glasses.”


B) Notes:  Lyrics to Summer of ’42; which I don’t think has any lyrics in the movie

“Theme From Summer Of ’42”

The summer smiles, the summer knows
And unashamed she sheds her clothes
The summer smoothes the restless sky
And lovingly she warms the sand, on which you lie

The summer knows, the summer’s wise
She sees the doubts within your eyes
And so she takes her summertime

Tells the moon to wait and the sun to linger
Twists the world round her summer finger
Lets you see the wonder of it all

And if you’ve learned your lesson well
There’s little more for her to tell
One last caress, it’s time to dress, for fall

And if you’ve learned your lesson well
There’s little more for her to tell
One last caress, it’s time to dress, for fall


C) Lyrics to “Somewhere my Love” (Lara’s Theme) ;
which I also don’t think has any lyrics in the movie

Somewhere, my love,
There will be songs to sing
Although the snow
Covers the hope of spring.

Somewhere a hill
Blossoms in green and gold
And there are dreams
All that your heart can hold.

Someday we’ll meet again, my love.
Someday, whenever the spring breaks through.

You’ll come to me
Out of the long ago,
Warm as the wind,
Soft as the kiss of snow.

Till then, my sweet,
Think of me now and then.
God, speed my love
‘Til you are mine again.

2 thoughts on “Haunting Bird”

  1. Eleanor Rolfe

    Thank you Joe, I never knew you as such a romantic. I have loved those songs, as I loved the film about Edith Piaf. Probably the only film I wanted to see twice. Both the love and the sorrow in her life affected me much.

    1. Joe Post Author

      From Casablanca
      Inspector Renault (Claude Raines): I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man; It’s the Romantic in me.

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