Bastille Day is the best holiday of the year—sort of. It comes in the middle of summer, unlike Midsommers Eve and other such holidays, and demands nothing beyond a celebration of freedom, pleasure, and fellow-feeling. It’s like everyone having their birthday at the same time, without the onus of being in the limelight all alone.
Though the holiday is French in origin, it has long since taken on universalist connotations. No one today (outside of France, anyway) associates it with the storming of the Bastille in 1789—a rather dreadful event that ended with an angry mob decapitating some poor souls who were defending a worthless and largely unoccupied fortress prison in the middle of Paris.
Bastille Day is a day not for guillotines but for accordions, the instrument of gayety, of the streets—the instrument of the people. It’s also a day for eating and drinking. Part of the beauty is that Bastille Day has no form, no real traditions, no protocol. Yet it rises above mere hedonism through its emphasis on the right of all women and men to enjoy themselves publically, en masse, from time to time.
We are reminded daily by current events in Egypt, Russia, and elsewhere, that many people don’t actually possess such rights. Yet Bastille Day (at least outside of France) is not a day for issuing demands, beyond those of “Garçon, another glass of Chablis!” or “Let’s dance.”
Americans also seize upon Bastille Day as a celebration of the European sources of our arts, mores, and traditions. The ideas that went into the making of the American republic are largely European, of course, as are the languages we speak. The dialectic between American and European values and ideas is a source of unending fertility, intermittent and sometime acrimonious though it may be. From Franklin to de Tocqueville, from Henry James to Jean-Francois Revel, from Thomas Jefferson to Jean Baudrillard, the transatlantic scrutiny is never ending.
For an overview, only slightly dated, let me recommend Not Like Us: How Europeans have loved, hated, and transformed American culture since World War II, by Richard Pells.
But on Bastille Day we probably won’t be reading such reflections, which don’t go well with croissants and orange marmalade. Better, perhaps, a few lines from the Breton poet Guillevic:
Prenez un toit de vieilles tuiles
Un peu après midi.
Placez tout à côté
Un tilleul déjà grand
Remué par le vent,
Mettez au-dessus d’eux
Un ciel de bleu, lavé
Par des nuages blancs.
Denise Levertov translates it as:
Take a roof of old tiles
A short while after midday.
A fullgrown linden
Stirred by the wind.
Above them put
A blue sky washed
By white clouds.
Let them be.
You may be wondering what’s become of the “freedom, pleasure, and joyous fellow-feeling” I spoke about a moment ago. Give it time, give it time.
Michel Foucault once remarked to Bernard Henri-Lévy that the question “Is the revolution possible?” had given way to a different and perhaps more troubling one: “Is the revolution desirable?” To which the answer, according to Henri-Lévy, a committed Leftist, is a clear “No.”
What does this mean? It doesn’t matter. On Bastille Day, such interchanges are no more (or less) amusing that an Edith Piaf chanson (though if you’re interested you can follow the argument in Henri-Lévy’s Left in Dark Times: a stand against the new barbarism).
Which brings me to the subject of music. Yes, it’s music that gives Bastille Day its panache. It’s a sign of our cultural development that the Twin Cities boasts at least six or seven accordionists of remarkable talent. But if, as is likely, you can’t make it to the fete put on by the local chapter of the Alliance Francaise at the Sofitel on Saturday, or the more raucous street party on the streets of Uptown outside Café Barbette on Sunday afternoon, here’s a suggested playlist, guaranteed to bolster the earthy, transatlantic, feel of the day.
Richard Galliano/Eddie Louis: Face to Face. The best accordionist with a great French organist. Together they sizzle.
Café de Paris: 18 accordion classics from 1930-41 with occasional vocal by Piaf, Gabin, etc.
Lo Jai: Acrobats et Musiciens. One of the pioneering modern French electronic folk-pop albums.
Gilles Chabenat: Musique por viel a roué. Hurdy-gurdy takes the place of accordion here. French folk music has never sounded lovelier. Chabenat’s more recent electronic hurdy-gurdy CD, Mouvements Clos, starts out with three great numbers but soon dwindles into New Age weirdness.
Les Nubians: Princesses Nubiennes. A French North-African sister act with an R & B lilt.
Reinhardt/Grappelly: Souvenirs. Django made lots of recordings in the 40s, but few, if any, measure up to these tracks with the Hot Club of Paris recorded in 1938-9.
Kepa Junkera: Bilbao 00:00. A Basque slant on the accordion, with an array of international stars to spice up (or water down, depending on your point of view) the collection.
Ritmia: Thus the Sea. This brilliant Italian LP has never been digitalized, as far as I know, except by my brother-in-law Jeff. A decent alternative would be the 2-CD set called Trio: Accordion-Mandolin-Clarinet featuring some of the same musicians.
I’d like to say that these items represent the best of my collection. Alas, leaving aside some French Canadian, Cajun, and Tejano stuff, that’s virtually the entire collection. Party on!