Popular Music and Everyday Resistance in WWII


Rue de Balleroy, Normandy, 1944. Image via Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA

by Mattie Fitch

Strains of Dissent: Popular Music and Everyday Resistance in WWII France, 1940-1945,
by Kelly Jakes,
Rhetoric & Public Affairs Series. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. 256 pp

In the 1940s, the French faced a series of threats to their national integrity and pride—first from the Germans and then from the Americans, who both wielded military dominance and a powerful cultural model. Simultaneously, the French engaged in a high-stakes internal struggle over national identity, as the collaborationist Vichy state attempted to establish their vision of a strong, traditional France based on Catholic duty and the values of work, family, and fatherland. Many different groups arose to contest Vichy’s ambitions for the French nation and assert France’s cultural status against foreign influence. As Kelly Jakes demonstrates in her monograph, Strains of Dissent: Popular Music and Everyday Resistance in WWII France, 1940-1945, many of these groups used forms of popular music to defend their idea of the French nation and establish their own identity as citizens. Using a broad definition of “resistance,” she investigates groups of “dissidents” and the ways they used musical symbols and performances to challenge the political and cultural power of Vichy, Nazi Germany, and the United States. Jakes, who is a scholar of communication studies, forwards a convincing and well-supported argument about “the significance of music as a rhetorical means of survival, resistance, subversion, and national identity construction” in wartime France and “music’s ability to make arguments, symbolize complex identities, and signify national belonging” during a period fraught with conflict over France’s future (pp. xxvi, xxvii). She thereby counters previous scholarship that “flattens music’s significance by treating it either as a means of escape from the realities of everyday life or as a tool of propaganda” (p. xix).

The book is structured around a series of case studies examining groups of dissidents who employed music as a means of defiance: resistance fighters who composed political songs; upper-class Parisian youths who embraced a zazou, or swing identity; prisoners of war (POWs) in German camps who composed and performed operettas; and postliberation jazz critics who argued for the essential Frenchness, not Americanness, of their genre. Each chapter begins with an illustrative anecdote that piques the reader’s interest and lays out the themes of the chapter. Her engaging writing, her clear argument, the balance between anecdotal description and reasoned analysis, and the concise chapters make the book a pleasure to read.

In a chapter investigating songs written and sung by participants in the resistance to German occupiers and Vichy collaborators, Jakes argues that resistance fighters used songs to fashion themselves as national heroes defending France and France’s revolutionary values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Simultaneously, they denied the Frenchness of Philippe Pétain and Vichy, who, they argued, had betrayed national honor and, in spite of their promises to protect the nation, facilitated a pillage of national resources. Resisters asserted their political legitimacy at a time when Vichy propaganda denounced their destructive acts as irresponsible and harmful to French civilians. She describes the tradition of political singing as a participatory, democratic activity of citizens, linked especially to the French Revolution, and demonstrates the ways songs constructed a republican national identity countering the one proposed by Vichy. Through lyrics emphasizing liberty and melodies reminiscent of national anthems, resisters portrayed themselves as inheritors of a national tradition. According to Jakes, songs unified a dispersed and fragile network into a community of brothers based on shared republican ideals.

The following case study explores jazz music and a group of young Parisian fans, the self-styled zazous. Drawing on denunciations of the genre as degenerate due to its association with black and Jewish musicians and promiscuous sexuality, these youths embraced this image to construct a subversive counterculture. In the context of Vichy’s accusations that the decadence of lazy, selfish youth had contributed to France’s weakness and defeat and the Nazi promotion of a racist and patriarchal social order, the zazous celebrated their violations of oppressive norms of gender and whiteness. Using “jazz cultural products” to build “collective identity,” Jakes argues that the zazous revealed race and gender as “social construct[s] rather than scientific truth[s]” (pp. 60, 58). They adopted a zazou “race” that she describes as a “symbolic métissage” (p. 67). Zazou songs, fashions, and behaviors demonstrated acceptance of “open sexuality,” “liberated femininity,” and effete men (pp. 71, 74). She reads zazou cultural choices, which included purchasing costly clothing on the black market, as a “political critique of Vichy’s economic policies” and thus a “rejection” of Vichy’s denunciation of “a capitalistic, republican government” (pp. 79, 80).

The next chapter argues that French POWs in German camps wrote and performed operettas that allowed them to reclaim their “manly dignity and national pride” (p. 94). Jakes describes the German defeat of the French Army and the subsequent capture of millions of French soldiers as a personal and national humiliation and a loss of virility. Operettas reasserted male authority and individual self-worth by casting women as objects of desire pining for heterosexual love and intercourse and men as powerful actors who alone could satisfy their needs. Such narratives could alleviate fears that their nation and their wives continued to function without them. Because the female characters were performed by cross-dressing men, however, the operettas were accompanied by careful reminders of the illusion to stave off a potential destabilization of an “essentialized gender system” (p. 113).

The final substantive chapter examines the anxieties of French men facing an onslaught of young, wealthy American GIs. Using the concept of “gender damage,” Jakes analyzes responses to a power imbalance that allowed US soldiers to monopolize French women by providing them coveted material goods, such as chocolate, at jazz dances. Resentments experienced by French men toward GIs contributed to a defense of jazz as a French, not American, cultural product. Critics writing in the Jazz Hot quarterly upheld French culture as racially inclusive and thus able to embrace what they saw as true jazz, construing improvisational jazz as a product of “blackness.” They denounced American racism and consumerism, which promoted commercialized, largely white big bands. Painting the French as “ethical and cultural leaders” served as a way to rescue French prestige at a time when French international standing had been eclipsed by the rise of the United States (p. 129).

Jakes’s Strains of Dissent has much to offer communications scholars as well as historians of twentieth-century France. (I am a historian, and this perspective inevitably influences the present review.) The book is thoroughly theorized within the fields of communications, media, performance, and cultural studies, contributing to investigations of music as a tool for identity construction, especially for groups resisting dominant narratives. Focusing on songs within the categories of chanson, operetta, and jazz, Jakes considers the particular dynamics and history of each genre. Her methodology combines textual and musical analysis with an examination of performance practices. To achieve this, she marshals an impressive array of sources, conducting critical readings of fashion choices, dramatic and musical scores, cartoons, letters, memoirs, contemporary publications, and police records, among others. Situating her work among studies of rhetoric and performance, she highlights the creative possibilities of performance to call on tradition, transgress norms, and assert authority. Emphasizing individual agency, she scrutinizes “the lyrics, melody, and rhythm” of songs within an investigation of “the ways citizens enacted the discourse” (p. xxiii). By placing these enactments in historical context, she uncovers “the complex ways in which people interacted with music during the war” and the meanings they built through music (p. xix).

Cultural historians of France will appreciate her analysis of wartime cultural products within the historical contexts that helped determine the significance ascribed to them by different groups. Dissidents mobilized or modified for contemporary purposes the meanings that songs had accrued through previous performances and debates. Through songs, they laid claim to political legitimacy, rejected Vichy’s social norms, reasserted agency and virility, and countered American hegemony. Her multilayered methodology avoids the trap of relying solely on a reading of cultural output, which can reveal little of artist intention or audience reception. In addition to the texts of songs themselves, she also mines published writings of music critics describing their beliefs about the role of songs, descriptions of performances to investigate music as a speech act that can be inflected and interpreted in multiple ways, and letters and memoirs describing personal reactions to and interactions with music. This allows her to reflect authoritatively on the ways various individuals used songs to carve out spaces for themselves and their values against powerful prevailing forces. Given the difficulties faced by historians of resistance activity, as censorship, repression, and clandestine activity limited the records that can serve as a source base, Jakes has illuminated music as “a viable method that citizens could use to access the public sphere and express collective sentiment[s]” and thus as a useful archive for historians interested in uncovering them (p. xv).

Jakes continues a historiographical trend of analysis that crosses boundaries of traditional periodization to include the war years and the postwar period.[1] Instead of ending her analysis in 1944, and thus only considering musical resistance to Vichy and Nazi Germany, she also encompasses 1945 and the liberation in her scope. This allows her to discuss opposition to American cultural influence, which was often perceived as a tool accompanying a new invader who arrived on the heels of the previous occupying power. Given Vichy’s roots in prewar fascist and other antidemocratic parties, such as Action Française and the Croix de Feu/the Parti Social Français, she could also have extended her scope in the other direction, beyond the boundary of 1940 and the outbreak of war into the 1930s, when music featured as a key element of antifascist resistance to the rise of the radical right.[2] Among studies of wartime France, Jakes’s wide conception of resistance fits with other works highlighting everyday acts of ordinary people that situated them on a broad political spectrum. These works move beyond a sharply defined dichotomy of resistance and collaboration, expanding the definition of these commitments to encompass a large range of choices and behaviors.[3] Strains of Dissent also contributes to scholarship on race and gender as essential elements defining national identity, describing how POWs facing shame and emasculation because of their capture used song to reassert a comforting patriarchy and how jazz fans marshalled the image of jazz as a product of black American culture to refuse Nazi ideas of a racial hierarchy.[4]

Jakes’s background as a scholar of communication studies (rather than history) results in several notable issues that will raise flags for historians, as they derive from erroneous or thin contextualization. Some of these mistakes are minor and do not affect the analysis. For example, she evokes “revolutionary soldiers who sang [the ‘Marseillaise’] while storming the Bastille,” when the song had not yet been written (p. 43). However, others are more problematic. She writes, “Among the most popular melodies chosen [by resistance fighters] are those of ‘L’Internationale,’ ‘La Carmagnole,’ ‘Regiment de Sambre et Meuse,’ and ‘Alsace-Lorraine,’ all of which originated during the Revolution” (p. 44). “L’Internationale” in particular did not originate during the French Revolution. The lyrics and music were written in the later decades of the nineteenth century, and in the early years of the twentieth century it became the hymn of the workers’ movement. Therefore, the song had a different complex of meanings than the ones Jakes asserts. This poses a problem for a work whose methodology relies on the accrued historical meanings evoked by performances of songs.

In other instances as well, her description of the relevant political context is overly simple and her evidence is unconvincing. She presents the alternative to Vichy’s vision as singular, liberal, and republican. Though many liberal republicans did embrace an oppositional position toward Vichy, the alternative to Vichy was not solely republican or liberal. Resistance was a politically broad phenomenon, including some participants who opposed the German occupiers and the Vichy state that collaborated with them from a position of conservative nationalism rather than republican zeal. The evidence Jakes uses indicates that the resistance was not always promoting a republican vision. She writes, “evidence from the personal memoirs of resistance fighters demonstrates that they intended to safeguard republican traditions. For example, Alban Vistel wrote that his decision to participate in the resistance had been a ‘reaction of individual honor’ and a ‘victorious refusal of any historical determinism’” (p. 35). Jakes may know of Vistel as a republican from other evidence, but those lines from his memoir do not necessarily communicate republican commitment. Even explicit references to the French Revolution do not necessarily indicate the values she ascribes. Jakes states that a song appealed to equality by referring to 1793, “the year that a poverty-stricken French citizenry brought Louis XVI to the guillotine [and] lower-class citizens mobilized to overthrow a corrupt government.” However, the class content assumed by Jakes is not necessarily salient: given the accompanying references in the lyrics to “a people of soldiers” who “suddenly appeared … to take their place in combat” against the “looters,” 1793 seems more likely to refer to the levée-en-masse, the draft that produced the mass army needed to repulse a foreign invasion (by the German states of Austria and Prussia, no less) (p. 47). Additionally, the presence of many communists in the resistance demonstrates that not all fighters defended the philosophy of “liberal individualism” she attributes to resistance songs (p. 35). Communists’ use of French revolutionary symbols, as shown by their contributions to the antifascist Popular Front prior to the war, promoted left-wing French values they viewed as consistent with socialism. I also found unconvincing Jakes’s claims about the republicanism of the elitist zazous. The countercultural youths clearly rejected Vichy’s values, but that rejection in itself did not mean that the upper-class zazous held republican sympathies. This argument largely stems from Jakes’s characterization of the Third Republic as capitalist and Vichy as anti-capitalist, which requires more nuance.[5]

Along with subsuming all resistance into republicanism, Jakes also fails to recognize the diversity of the resistance by privileging male resisters.[6] Although the book uses a broad definition of “resistance” to include activity beyond armed resistance, such as singing, in the chapter on songs of the resistance she falls into the pattern begun by resistance fighters themselves of excluding women by only including certain actions in the category of resistance. She writes, “whistled over the clanking of tools while sabotaging trains, sung in secrecy while hiding in caves, hummed to fight despair while interred in German prison camps, French folk songs sustained resistance fighters.” In the French resistance, it was primarily men who sabotaged trains and lived in clandestine groups, while women gathered and provided food, information, and false papers. This gendered assumption affects her musical analysis as well: songs “appealed to soldierly masculinity” in order to construct resisters as national heroes (p. 28). For me this raises the question, did women resisters not sing? This may be an issue of the available source material, but scholars should not accept at face value the assertion of male resisters that resistance was a male activity. Curiously most of the book focuses on men; except for the female zazous, women are either absent or present primarily as objects of male desire.

Jakes’s description of Vichy’s National Revolution is also puzzling from a historian’s point of view. She characterizes it as a “radical departure” that attempted “sweeping changes to French nationalism” and uprooted “traditional norms of national belonging” (p. xxi). Vichy was certainly a rejection of French republican heritage, as Jakes states. However, this assertion ignores the deep cultural and political roots of the radical right in France. As Herman Lebovics demonstrates, there were multiple traditions at war with one another in France in this period.[7] Vichy’s vision for France did not come out of nowhere. In competition with the republican tradition, a national doctrine of blood and soil articulated by the likes of Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès established another “traditional [norm] of national belonging,” which served as a progenitor of Vichy (p. xxi). Jakes’s view of Vichy echoes one side of a charged postwar debate that painted Vichy as a historical parenthesis between Republics, which represented the true France. She uses the term “traditional” to characterize both republicans and Vichy yet does not explain how they could simultaneously view themselves as guardians of tradition and one another as polar opposites. On one page, she writes, “In the context of Vichy’s attempts to radically refashion French national identity, chanson stood as a powerful tool with which French citizens could express continued devotion to the traditional order” (p. 18). On another, she states, “In the attempt to reverse the ‘disastrous’ effects of modernity, Vichy paired its rearticulation of French political philosophy with the aggressive promotion of traditional values” (p. 22). Who represented “the traditional order” and what tradition was depended very much on one’s point of view.

Providing a more complete description of developments in the 1930s would have helped Jakes clarify the multiple strands of tradition at work in wartime France. Her historical background chapter does not mention the fierce cultural contest between the antifascist Popular Front and radical right-wing groups during the 1930s. This would have strengthened her book, especially given the way these disputes over national identity played out through song: songs were sung by crowds at demonstrations on both sides, music hall performers appeared at political events, and music associations discussed the role of music in French national life and politics. This omission may have occurred because for the 1930s Jakes relies on Charles Rearick’s The French in Love and War: Popular Culture in the Era of the World Wars (1997), which does not focus on cultural politics.[8] Mining scholarship more broadly would have revealed the important debate about Frenchness occurring through cultural practices, and music in particular, that characterized the period directly preceding Vichy and influenced the cultural outlooks of Vichy officials.

Similarly, the chapter on zazou culture would have been improved by references to scholarship on race and French imperialism.[9] She highlights Vichy and Nazi racism and acknowledges that jazz proponents also racialized jazz but does not take into account the inherent racism of many French republicans, whom she presents as Vichy’s primary opponents. She describes the normative vision of race rejected by the zazous and embraced by Vichy as “a social hierarchy that relied on a universal whiteness at its center,” but this could also describe the colonial attitudes of many Third Republican politicians and citizens (p. 70). The subversive zazou vision of race did not place these youths in opposition only to Vichy and the Nazis. Although the racial point of reference for jazz in France was largely African Americans, according to Jakes, the lack of a discussion of imperialism in a chapter on race in France weakens her analysis.

Piece first published at H-Net Reviews under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


[1]. See, for example, Gisèle’s Sapiro’s investigation of writers’ political engagement during the German occupation and the liberation. Gisèle Sapiro, The French Writers’ War, 1940-1953 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). Another example is Philip Nord’s France’s New Deal: From the Thirties to the Postwar Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), which traces developments from the 1930s, through the war years, and into the postliberation period.

[2]. See, for example, Christopher Moore, “Socialist Realism and the Music of the French Popular Front,” Journal of Musicology 25, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 473-502; and Jane Fulcher, The Composer as Intellectual: Music and Ideology in France, 1914-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[3]. See, for example, Philippe Burrin, France under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise (New York: Norton, 1998); and John Sweets, Choices in Vichy France: The French under Nazi Occupation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[4]. For an example of recent scholarship on race, gender, and culture in France, see Jennifer Anne Boittin, Colonial Metropolis: The Urban Grounds of Anti-imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

[5]. See Robert Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

[6]. Paula Schwartz draws attention to the problem of resistance fighters, postwar commemorations, and historians ignoring the crucial place of women in the French resistance in “Redefining Resistance: Women’s Activism in Wartime France,” in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, ed. Margaret Randolph Higonnet, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel, and Margaret Collins Weitz (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 141-53.

[7]. Herman Lebovics, True France: The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994). Though Jakes cites one of Lebovics’s other works, she does not cite True France. See also Henry Rousso, Le syndrome de Vichy: De 1944 à nos jours (Paris: Seuil, 1990).

[8]. She could have referenced Jessica Wardhaugh, In Pursuit of the People: Political Culture in France, 1934-9 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[9]. See, for example, Alice Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).