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Sunday, January 12, 2020

The I'm from Chicago Polka (for piano)

     Maybe Al Capone did us a favor. 
     Chicagoans wince at having their international reputation tied to a 1920s gangster, still, after all these years. Or Michael Jordan. Or whatever shard of Chicago urban culture washes up on a distant shore (if that metaphor can even be used in the digital age. Though it sounds so much better than "flashes on a distant screen.")
     But this? Regular readers know that I routinely make use of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's vast online collection of free, downloadable images to illustrate my efforts here. The Met is useful but, I've found, has limits. It doesn't have everything, and sometimes the site is a dry well. So when I saw that a consortium of 14 Paris museums had opened up their own image portal, I had to take a look.
     What to search for? I could have plugged in "Renoir" or "automobiles" or "Notre Dame." But being provincial myself, I plugged in "Chicago"—let's see what images of us they harbor—and was rewarded for my local pride with this sheet music.
     The "I am from Chicago Polka." For piano. With the image of one of the more ridiculous one-man-band rustics ever engraved That's when I sudden felt a flash of gratitude to Scarface. Is this how the French saw us? Is it how they see us now? Is it who we are?
Charles Lecocq
 Plenty of information on the artifact to unpack. "Ch. Lecocq" is Charles Lecocq, a French composer of light and comic operas in the latter half of the 19th century, little remembered today.
     "La Vie Mondaine"—"Social Life" or maybe "Worldly Life"—was an three act opera of Lecocq's, first performed at Paris' Théâtre des Novelties on Feb. 13, 1885.
     The large "Arban" at the bottom refers to Jean-Baptiste Arban, a big-deal composer and conductor at the time.
    That'll do. I probably shouldn't go too far into the weeds in dredging up the history of 1880s French musical comedy, except to note that the polka had indeed been a craze in France—in the 1840s. Lecocq evoking it in the mid-1880s reflected his slide into irrelevance that began decades before his death in 1918.

     But what is the explanation of the yokel illustrating the song? Chicago's reputation as an ethnic enclave? Perhaps it reflects French hostility toward America in general and our cities in particular. 
     "The city was pitiable, ugly and boring," Philippe Roger writes, in "The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism," referring not specifically to Chicago, but to the French 19th century view of American cities. "It was banality incarnate, quintessentially parochial."
     Chicago certainly was a cow town, a hardship post.
     "Bread is almost unknown in Chicago," French diplomat Francois Bruwaert wrote, recounting the joy of discovering a French bakery at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  Lacking proper bakeries, Chicagoans attempt to produce bread at home and do so "badly."
      Bruwaert's visit, reproduced in the classic "As Others See Chicago: Impressions of Visitors 1673-1933" (edited by  Bessie Louise Pierce) is a delight of contempt and self-reference. The World's Fair is worthy only to the degree it celebrates France. Bruwaert tries "toasted corn," aka popcorn, and finds it "detestable," while allowing "it suffices to occupy the youngsters." In his defense, he does eventually suggest something that will "most surprise the foreigner who is enterprising enough to come as far as Chicago" is that the city is "beautiful," and he marvels that it could rise from a swamp in the span of 50 years.
     I had hoped that the lyrics to the song would offer fresh wonders. But when I finally found the entire 11-page score online I discovered that, alas, it is an instrumental. Probably just as well. If there were lyrics, my hunch is they would not be an ode to Chicago's splendor.
     No need. We supply that ourselves. Continually.

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