Lily Lian (née Liliane Lebon), the last chanteuse on the streets of Paris, died on May 24th, aged 103
The first of May had a special place on Lily Lian’s calendar. It was her birthday, to begin with. It was also May Day, the workers’ holiday, when she would sing revolutionary songs at the Communards’ Wall, the Mur des Fédérés, in Père Lachaise cemetery. Her father, a fighter in the Resistance, was buried close to it with other communist heroes. She felt proud to salute him, even if her view of him was scarred by bitter rows. And May Day was the fête du muguet, when strolling vendors sold lilies-of-the-valley to passers-by. These sprang up in the woods, and so had she, a love-child conceived in some mossy corner near Versailles.
She and the flower-sellers often found themselves together by the Wall. The Mur des Fédérés was a fine place to sing, though she had others. La Madeleine drew wedding crowds and glowing-after-mass congregations. Railway stations were good, especially if they had arcades for shelter when it rained, though a rainy day was a washout, generally. Her favourite pitch was the Barbès-Roche-chouart metro station, by the grilles where passengers changed from the surface to the underground line.
There she would stand with her group—two or three musicians, with a friend to hawk the scores—and sing through her tin megaphone the people’s favour- ites. These hardly varied over the years: “Le chant des Partisans”, “Le petit vin blanc”, “On boit l’café au lait au lit”, time and again to the crowd until they all joined in. It was not a grand living, but it was decent. She was not begging, which was important, since begging was not allowed. The trade was strictly regulated by the préfecture de police, with a permit needed to sing, and by the groups themselves, who drew numbers out of a hat each week to allocate their pitches.