A Song Maybe Ghosts Know

What mental images come to mind if you listen to this song?

For me, despite the happy tune, I associate this with a haunting memory. I first encountered this song in my childhood. My restlessness had me channel surfing. As I was flipping through TV scenes and repeatedly pressing the button, I stopped when I realized what was happening: stones floating by themselves and building a bridge, ghostly crowds with transfixed gazes moving in circles. They seemed to be dancing to a song. But, to the kid that I was, it seemed wrong to dance to a funeral march. Then again, it sounded like it was played by Lurch of the Addams Family.

Now, fast forward to this year, when I began to remember that song and TV show again.

Thankfully, my search validated my memories. What I saw years ago was an episode of “The Real Story of…”, a cartoon series created by CINAR Animation and France Animation. It aired in the Philippines during the early 90s. Unfortunately, I cannot find any copies of the series, much less the episode anywhere online. There are a few individuals who are on the same search as me but came up empty-handed as well.

What is the song about?

Sur le Pont d’Avignon
On y danse, On y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
On y danse tous en rond

Although “The Real Story of Sur le Pont d’Avignon” is a work of fiction, the setting is real: Pont d’Avignon, also known as Pont Saint-Bénézet, is a bridge found in Avignon in southern France. Its namesake is, according to legend, a young shepherd instructed by God to build a bridge between the years 1177 and 1185. Upon its completion, it connected Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. During the Albigensian Crusade or Cathar Crusade (1209–1229), Louis VIII besieged Avignon and brought ruin to the original bridge. When Pont d’Avignon was rebuilt, it had 22 new arches. The river Rhône, which the bridge spanned, would sometimes overflow and the floods destroyed the bridge. The repairs were costly and the wooden sections were continuously washed away by high waters. So when another catastrophe hit the bridge in circa 1668-1669, it was decided to leave the bridge unrepaired. All that is left of it now are four of its arches. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has classified it as a World Heritage Site.

Français: Pont Saint-Bénézet vu du Rhône; Author: KIWILY; Source: Wikimedia Commons
Français: Pont Saint-Bénézet vu du Rhône; Author: KIWILY; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the song that immortalized the bridge,  “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, was written some centuries later; different sources put its creation between the 15th and 17th century. Like Pont d’Avignon, the song now is different from what it was then. The melody of the song first appeared in Ottaviano Petrucci’s Harmonice Musices Odhecaton; Pierre Certon took the same melody and reworked it as a mass, bearing the title “Sus (sic) le Pont d’Avignon”, translated as “Under the Pont d’Avignon”.

Comparing the original and modern versions is like looking at night and day. The modern version appeared sometime in the 19th century. Historians credit Adolphe Adam and the opéra comique Le Sourd ou l’Auberge pleine (The Deaf Man or the Full Inn) for spreading the version that most people know, as well as the title most people associate with it: “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (“On the Pont d’Avignon”).

One small word – a preposition – gives the song a world of difference, resulting sometimes to argument.

Pont d’Avignon is only 2.5 meters/8 feet wide. The bridge was meant to transport donkey- and horse-drawn carts; it doesn’t offer large space for a round to happen. But, beneath the expanse of the bridge is an island named Île de la Barthelasse, a place for people’s picnics, meetings, and dances. My guess is that, with current state of the Pont d’Avignon no longer reaching far as it did, the change of the title is the way to cope with the times: carts and animals don’t pass along the bridge but people still gather on what they now resembles a pier, still with a song that maybe even ghosts know.

Now if only I could see the whole episode and put some of my questions to rest.

Français: Sur le pont d'Avignon, lithographie coloriée, papier (matière); Author: imprimerie Pellerin (fondée en 1736); Source: Wikimedia Commons
Français: Sur le pont d’Avignon, lithographie coloriée, papier (matière); Author: imprimerie Pellerin (fondée en 1736); Source: Wikimedia Commons
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2 thoughts on “A Song Maybe Ghosts Know

  1. Hey, earlier in the year I went went through the same search for the episode. I watched it when I was younger, the hooded figures and the jester creeped me out and started searching. I finally tracked a copy down in French and bought the DVD off the amazon website, with the link below. It’s all in French without subtitles but there’s no mistake that’s the same Sur Le Pont d’Avignon and equally as haunting. Merry Christmas.

    https://www.amazon.fr/dp/B000JJRAUU/ref=pe_386181_146208951_TE_3p_dp_1

    Liked by 1 person

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