Madame Jeanette, the Song and the Singing
By Kathy Warnes
Mr. Charles Sweet, our choir director, out did himself this time, I thought to myself that day back in the late 1950s when he told us that we had to sing Madam Jeanette in our annual concert in the auditorium of Ecorse High School in small town Ecorse, Michigan. I didn’t dare to admit to any of my peers, some who downright sneered at the song, that it inspired me to wonder if such love and loyalty existed outside of the song and about Madame Jeanette herself.
Several unusual features of the Madame Jeanette made it stick in my mind and vividly recall it these many years later. We had to sing the song a cappella which almost always produced a chorus of nervous throat clearing when it was next on the agenda. Mr. Sweet usually made us repeat Madame Jeanette several times and carefully watch him for changes in tempo. He advised us, usually with the same well chosen words, that if we dragged tempo or kept it the same tempo it would drip sentiment or tears, but if we varied the tempo and inflection, Madame Jeanette would be very moving.
We must have heeded Mr. Sweet well, because every time we performed Madame Jeanette, we could hear the audience breathing, punctuated by a few sniffles here and there. Madame Jeanette was and is very moving. Now I admit that Madame Jeanette is moving no matter who sneers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, choirs across the United States and probably around the world, sang Madame Jeanette, memorializing the song for countless amateur and professional singers. The song resounded in places like Calhoun High School in Hardin, Illinois, Freeport, Pennsylvania, and west to California. Madame Jeanette, performed by the Dartmouth College Glee Club can be found on the Dartmouth College Website.
The memory of Madame Jeanette hasn’t faded for many of those singers and neither has the words of the song. These are the words to Madame Jeanette:
Madame Jeanette when the sun goes down
Sits at her door in the rush of the town
Waiting for someone each close of the day
Someone who fell at St. Pierre they say.
Madame Jeanette when the stars shine bright
Sits at the window and looks through the night
Listening for someone to pass down the way
For someone who sleeps at St Pierre they say.
Madame Jeanette she will wait there I know
'Til her eyes have gown dim and her hair's white as snow
Wait there and watch there 'til one of these days
They take her to slumber in Père-Lachaise
The images of its English creators are not as vivid as the words and music of Madame Jeanette and the other songs that they wrote. Edward Lockton , lyricist, and Alan Murray, composer, published Madame Jeanette in London in 1936. Edward Lockton lived from 1876-1940, and he wrote the lyrics for many other songs besides Madame Jeanette. He sometimes published songs under the name Edward Teschemacher. Alan Murray lived from 1890-1952, and also wrote many other music compositions besides Madame Jeanette. In 1936, Alan Murray and Edward Lockton collaborated on another popular song I’ll Walk Beside You. John McCormack recorded the song in November 1939 and it was included on the lists of the notable songs of that year.
During World War II, Alan Murray was stationed in the coastal holiday resort of Nairn, Scotland. A World War II memoir by Iain C. Macpherson opened a small window into his story. Iain Macpherson remembered that when he was a child during the war a large contingent of Indian troops including a mounted regiment occupied the local agricultural society’ s show ground with their horses. Often the troops organized a gathering and invited the local people in to enjoy curries, rice, and Naan bread, all cooked in the open air. Sometimes they staged a show in the local cinema on Sunday night with singers. They always included the song I’ll Walk Beside You, which they pronounced I’ll Valk Beside You, in honor of Major Alan Murray, the composer of the song. Iain Macpherson well remembered that Major Murray who was also billeted in Nairn, often was in the audience. He organized ENSA parties and traveled nightly from the town to the surrounding airfields and barracks.
I wonder if Alan Murray and Edward Lockton, while creating Madame Jeanette in 1936, shuddered at the dark war clouds gathering over Europe and wrote some of the tragedy of war into her story. Madame Jeanette’s song and her story are in some ways a bridge between World War I and World War II, the wars that some historians consider one war with a twenty year armistice in between.
The Allies originally intended the Somme in the Picardy region of northern France to be one of the several simultaneous offensives against the Central Powers in 1916. They attempted to break through the German lines along a 25 mile front north and south of the River Somme, but the Germans attacked first resulting in the Battle of Verdun. As Verdun dragged on, the Somme campaign’s purpose shifted from striking a decisive blow against Germany to drawing German forces away from Verdun and relieving the Allied forces there.
When the Somme campaign was finished 95,675 British soldiers had died, along with 50,756 French soldiers and 164,055 German soldiers.
British historian Sir James Edmonds stated, “It is not too much to claim that the foundations of the final victory on the Western Front were laid by the Somme offensive of 1916.”
The battle where Madam Jeanette’s lover fell took place in November 1916, as the final stage of the Somme campaign. Called the Battle of the Ancre – a tributary river of the Somme- the British Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Hubert Gough launched the campaign on November 13, 1916. By November 16, 1916, the British Fourth Army had finished its operations and the French sector performed its final maneuvers on November 14, 15, 1916, in St. Pierre Vaast Wood. Both sides settled in for winter on the Somme where the weather posed as serious a threat as the Germans. Edward Lockton memorialized both St. Pierre and Madam Jeanette with his lyrics and Alan Murray with his music.
Even after our choir stopped singing about her, Madam Jeanette’s story stayed in my mind, sometimes in the back of it, but still there. Singing about her at made her so real to me that I tried to imagine what she looked liked. She had to be a little older than my high school best friend Jeanette, but she could have had the same long brown hair, and blue eyes, and steady spirit. She would not walk with dejection and hopelessness, rather her step would spring with purpose and determination. Madame Jeanette lived in eternal hope bordering on fantasy – modern psychiatrists would probably call her delusional- waiting day and night for her lost soldier love to return. She probably was realistic enough to know that her soldier was never coming back, but she couldn’t forget him or push him to the back of her heart far enough to resume a normal life or to remarry. She probably didn’t want to do either.
The last verse is where the song could turn from haunting to maudlin. Madam Jeanette waited and watched until her eyes grew dim and her hair turned white as snow. She didn’t give up until they took her “to slumber in Père-Lachaise.”
Pere Lachaise is one of the oldest and most famous cemeteries in Paris. The more than 70,000 inhabitants of Pere Lachaise include another pair of ill fated lovers, Heloise and Abelard and countless composers, writers, artists, and singers. Three World War I memorials can be found in Pere Lachaise and over 5,000 trees. Much of the cemetery is a park, a place of peaceful green vistas. It seems fitting for Madame Jeanette to rest among the World War I memorials and the green peace of the trees and tombstones.
The line between touching and sentimental and maudlin is nearly as thin as the line between life and death in war. The line between reality and fantasy can be just as thin. I have to keep reminding myself that Madame Jeanette isn’t real, although the title on one of the original pieces of sheet music from her song says it is “from the French”. Perhaps Edward Lockton crafted his lyrics based on a true World War I story that he had heard from France.
Why is Madame Jeanette so hauntingly beautiful? I think one of the reasons it haunts me is that it speaks so much about the depths of joy and sorrow, love and loss that the human soul can reach. It is a decades old commentary on the losses of war that is as contemporary as today.
Those many years ago when Mr. Sweet conducted Madame Jeanette, I thought Madame Jeanette romantic although a little misguided. Why couldn’t she move on with her life and perhaps remarry after a suitable and intense period of mourning. Across the years I have come to better understand the depth of her love and mourning, and to realize that people aren’t interchangeable – you can’t replace a lost person in your life by substituting another. There will always be an empty chair in your heart where a unique love once sat.
Yet, the words of the Madame Jeanette and Madam Jeanette’s actions imply hope. She is waiting and listening and watching with the hope and expectation that she will see her soldier again someday in a world where there is no war. The song reminds me that while it is necessary and healthy to move on with hope when you lose someone, it is equally as necessary to visit the empty chair in your heart as often as needed to heal.
Madame Jeanette is the symbol of love and faith and the hope of reunion with people we love and it is a mind’s eye song. Every time I hear Madame Jeanette and sing along, in my mind’s eye I see Mr. Sweet conducting the song with precision and hope.
Other pieces about Madame Jeanette
Music, Musicians Madame Jeanette
The New York Times – Strike Up the Choir