Edith Piaf, “My Legionnaire” (1937); Serge Gainsbourg, “My Legionnaire” (1987)

“My Legionnaire” was originally written in 1936 by Raymond Asso and Marguerite Monnot, and recorded by Marie Dubas in 1936. Edith Piaf picked it up in 1937 and incorporated it into her repertoire. It was, I believe, her earliest big hit. It’s a pretty lovely song about a woman’s one night stand with a French Foreign Legion solider, whose name she never learns. The French Foreign Legion was originally formed in the late 19th century, unique for the fact that all of its soldiers were foreign nationals, led by French commanders. They have played a part in almost all of the wars France has been involved in since then, and they were particularly instrumental in protecting France’s colonial interest in Africa. The legion’s “spiritual home” and base was in Algeria, where it was particularly involved from the conquest of Algeria in the 1830s and 40s to the traumatic Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s. The Foreign Legion nowadays is considered an “elite” group of soldiers, since they receive very rigorous military training as well as intercultural training (due to the mixed nature of the legion). Nevertheless, the Foreign Legion is popularly imagined as being full of scoundrels, men who leave their wives to start “a new life,” and vagabonds. This is the image that Piaf touches on in her song: the Legionnaire as a tough, solitary, nomadic sort of man. The kind that leaves you with a broken heart.

When Serge Gainsbourg covered it for his album “You’re Under Arrest” in 1987, he did an amazing job. Gainsbourg spent his career thumbing his nose at authority figures, being deliberately provocative (sometimes in extremely poor taste, like his duet with his daughter Charlotte, “Lemon Incest”). He was the kind of artist who was provocative just to be provocative. “For me, provocation is oxygen,” he said once. The subversiveness and shock of his version of “My Legionnaire” comes from the fact that he sings the song perfectly straight (no pun intended), which gives it a distinct homoerotic tone. The lyrics are such that they can be sung by a man or woman without changing a single word. Even though the French language has masculine/feminine gender (and so men and women will speak slightly differently), the lyrics (as sung) are wonderfully ambiguous. Since the song spends so much time describing the legionnaire, there’s hardly a reference to the legionnaire’s lover. The only place the gender of the legionnaire’s lover is revealed is the line, “He loved me through the night” (Il m’a aimée toute la nuit), where aimée (loved) shows that it is referring to a feminine direct object (i.e. the “me” is feminine). If the “me” were male, it would read aimé. But the fun in this is that both are pronounced the same. It’s a distinction that can be only seen in writing.

The homoeroticism in Gainsbourg’s version is deeply subversive. Let’s assume the image of a soldier is a nationalist symbol of masculinity/nationalism/violence, of the French establishment. Add to that, Edith Piaf herself in 1987 was definitely part of the French establishment, of the national image. By covering “My Legionnaire” and giving it a distinctly homoerotic spin, Gainsbourg is subverting nationalist rhetorics of gender/sexuality. Nationalist rhetorics in the Western world, especially at times of empire and colonialism, have often been expressed through articulations of gender and sexuality. What I mean is, like Edward Said noted 40 years ago, the West imagines itself a masculine and the East as feminine, in order to justify and naturalize its domination. The French Foreign Legion was composed of a large number of Moroccans, Algerians, Syrians, etc., who have traditionally been considered “effeminate,” due to their “Eastern” origins. (North Africa has a long history of being a haven for Western gay men.) Oscar Wilde and André Gide slept their way through Algeria, William Burroughs met boys in Tangiers, etc. So there’s this image of the gay man in North Africa that Gainsbourg is playing with. The idea that the image of French nationalism is a gay man is hugely subversive, especially during the 1980s, a time when Gainsbourg’s reggae’d version of the national anthem was the cause of a military demonstration (and nearly a riot) at one of his concerts.

Anyway, this hasn’t been terribly coherent. But there it is.

Piaf’s Legionnaire: YouTube
Gainsbourg’s Legionnaire: YouTube

He had had big, bright eyes
That sometimes flashed bolts of lightning
Like storms passing across the sky
He was covered with tattoos
That I never quite understood
On his neck: “Unseen and untaken”
On his heart, it said: “No one”
On his right arm, one word: “Reason”.

{Refrain:}
I don’t know his name, I know nothing about him
He loved me through the night
My legionnaire!
Leaving me to my destiny,
He left in the morning
Full of light!
He was slim, he was handsome,
He smelled like hot sand
My legionnaire!

There was sunshine on his face,
Brightening his golden hair!

Happiness has gone, happiness has fled.
I always think about that night
I’m haunted by my desire for his skin
Sometimes I cry and then I wonder
If, when his head was on my heart,
I should have shouted my happiness to the heavens
But I didn’t dare say a word to him–
I was afraid to see him smile!

{Refrain}

They found him in the desert.
His beautiful eyes were open.
Clouds were passing across the sky.
He showed them his tattoos.
He smiled,
showing them his neck, and said: “Unseen and untaken.”
Showing them his heart, he said: “No one here.”
He had no idea… I forgive him.

Nevertheless, I dreamed that destiny
Would bring him back to me, one beautiful morning,
My legionnaire,
That together, all by ourselves, we would go
To some distant land
Full of light!

He was slim, he was handsome,
They buried him in the hot sand,
My legionnaire!

There was sunshine on his face,
Brightening his golden hair!

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