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April 8, 2021

Terri Simone Francis's Playlist for Her Book "Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism"

Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism by Terri Simone Francis

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Terri Simone Francis's book Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism is a masterfully told examination of the icon's history and influence in Black cinema.

The Root wrote of the book:

"Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism explores Baker's celebrity and ability to have such a hold in the Black film industry even while working almost exclusively with white directors, actors and crew in white―specifically European―spaces. Francis examines the dialogue between Baker and the characters she portrayed, particularly those whose narratives seemed to undermine the stardom they offered. Expertly crafted, Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism illustrates the most prominent links between Black cinema, conflicting opinions of Baker in the popular press and the broader aspirations for progress towards racial equality."

In her words, here is Terri Simone Francis's Book Notes music playlist for her book Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism:

Josephine Baker’s Introspective Songbook: Minor Liner Notes

Writing Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism was largely a silent endeavor where for many hours a day I was alone with my soundless thoughts. Sometimes a soft solitude enveloped the time warmly. Other times the silence was aggravated as when you abruptly shut the radio off when parking your car seems to require absolute quiet. Now that the book is published, I find myself reveling in Baker’s sonic prism.

J’ai deux amours, 1953 version

Josephine Baker’s breakthrough performances in 1925 took place in the realm of dance and theatrical entertainment but starting in the early 1930s, she created a whole new dimension to her career when she recorded her first album. Baker’s signature song for the whole of her career was “J’ai deux amours,” or “I have two loves.” It captures her internationalism as an African American French entertainer. At times she seems to sing “mon pays et Paris” or my country and Paris. At others I hear my country is Paris.

Voulez-vous de la Canne à Sucre?, 1930

A fox one-step duet by Josephine Baker and Joe Alex, “Voulez-vous de la Canne à Sucre?” (“Do you want some sugar cane?”) was the opening number of “Paris Qui Remue,” which was performed at the Casino de Paris and I love the way this song illuminates multiple dimensions of Baker’s music. It was a dancing song set within a French stage musical production. Its song sheet, collected and preserved by the National Museum for African American History and Culture, includes Louis Gaudin’s illustration of Baker looking back over her shoulder at a friendly cheetah.

C’est Lui, 1934

Josephine Baker performs “C’est Lui” in her role of Zouzou in the 1934 film of the same name, directed by Marc Allégret, who is known for Voyage au Congo. This largely observational nonfiction film was first released in 1927, the year of Baker’s film debut in Siren of the Tropics. In “C’est Lui” Zouzou declares her love for Jean, played by Jean Gabin who has feelings for someone else. Despite bona fide filmmakers creating the project, the nonsensical rejection of luminous Josephine Baker by her nothing-special love interest undermines what might have been a delightful romantic musical comedy of mix-ups, songs, and dancing. Cute song though!

Rêves, 1935

The film Princesse Tam Tam (1935) features introspective ballads as well as vivid dance numbers that showcase Baker’s capacious talents. In “Rêves,” Baker’s character Alouina contemplates her own desires as she sorts through a bizarre and thoroughly colonialist manipulation by white French writer Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean). She sings of the ocean as a road to happiness giving emotional shape to the film’s migration story.

Paris Paris Paris, 1949

Baker’s distinctive voice was cited and employed in a number of artistic works from novels to films. This song, which pays homage to the city that made her an international star, recurs hauntingly in the film Touki Touki (1973) by Djibril Diop Mambéty. It’s evocation in the film captures the lure of migration to Paris, which shines in the ever-vanishing distance as an el dorado.

La Vie en Rose, 1968

Beginning with a spoken citation of French singer-songwriter, cabaret performer and film actress Edith Piaf, Baker sings one of the chanteuse’s best-known songs. More than just a song, the chanson is a particularly emotional lyric-driven French song that often recounts regret and unrequited love. It’s remarkable to me how Baker manages to show her respect for the French 1930s chanson tradition of which became such a treasured vocalist while maintaining her own distinct style which drew upon Cuban and Brazilian as well as American influences. Baker is a quintessential Parisian chanteuse here.

The Times They Are A-Changin', 1973

I marvel at the close rhyme between the words time and change that Baker creates here. Her prismatic sound, sweet and light in the 1930s, warmed and deepened over time and, honestly, of all the singing Josephines I love this one the most. In this track, Baker covers a well-known Bob Dylan song, one that is very nearly an anthem of social change. In English, live at Carnegie Hall in 1973, she wowed everyone, “singing in a voice that was strong and sure and richly textured” wrote the New York Times. To me her breath and slightly raspy tone in places conveys the power and vulnerability of the lyrics, which echo the message she delivered in her address to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom ten years earlier. She told the "salt and pepper" crowd of civil rights demonstrators and human rights activists “You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.”

Terri Simone Francis is Associate Professor and Director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University.

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