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Singing the news

I’m reading Robert Darnton’s Poetry and the Police, a fascinating history that uses the Affair of the Fourteen — which resulted in the downfall of an important government minister — as a way to explore the social networking of news in pre-Republic France.

In 1749, the police cracked down on citizens reciting particular popular poems that were considered seditious. Prof. Darnton has done prodigious research exploring how the poems moved through the culture, being altered along the way. It’s the basic folk movement that we see on the Web now, albeit the Web speeds things up a wee bit.

Here’s a paragraph about how these poems/songs spread news:

By the time “Qu’une bâtarde de catin” reached the Fourteen, it included a little bit of everything that was in the news. It had become a sung newspaper, full of commentary on current events, and catchy enough to appeal to a broad public. Moreover, the listeners and singers could adjust it to their own taste. The topical song was a fluid medium, which could absorb the preferences of different groups and could expand to include everything that interested the public as a whole.” (p. 78)

This is a reminder of two things: the most basic elements of human sociality change less than we think, and deep experts who write beautifully are a treasure.

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