LISETTE: A BRIEF HISTORY
“Lisette quitté la plaine” is the oldest surviving song text in early Haitian Creole. Written in Saint-Domingue around 1757 by the white colonist Duvivier de la Mahautière,[i] the song dramatizes the plight of an enslaved African man. The song’s narrator has lost the will to live because his beloved, Lisette, has been forcibly sent either to another plantation or to serve as a domestic slave. The song combined the newly developing Creole language with “Que ne suis-je la fougère,” a popular French melody. Popularized among the elite and middle class of the French colony, de la Mahautière’s version even made its way to French ears.
In 1778, Swiss-born composer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau received a copy of “Lisette quitté la plaine” and set it to a new melody. He named the new song, “Chanson Nègre.” Scholars understand Rousseau’s setting as a rare political statement from the enlightenment philosopher denouncing slavery in the French colonies.[ii] In his new rendition, Rousseau quotes heavily from Claude Goudimel’s “Psalm 42” from the Genevan Psalter.
As the Haitian revolution irrupted thirteen years later in 1791, many people (white, mixed race, and black) fled to the United States and Cuba. Bringing their musical knowledge with them, so too did these migrants bring “Lisette quitté la plaine” to Philadelphia and New Orleans, which would not become a US city until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In these cities, the song was often sung with altered lyrics and melodies.[iii]
Over a century later, Clara Gottschalk Peterson, a Philadelphia composer and pianist, published in 1902 what she claimed was the first music anthology of “Creole Folk Tunes in Negro Dialect from New Orleans.” Peterson wrote that such songs “served to rock whole generations of southern children.” While her view of African culture is disappointingly racist and patronizing, her impulse to preserve this trove of folk songs has today left us with a valuable historical document.[iv] In Peterson’s anthology, “Lisette quitté la plaine” morphed into “Zélim to quitté la plaine.” Though in this version “Lisette” became “Zélim,” the remaining lyrics are nearly identical to the those of the original. Peterson notated a gorgeous melody that differs from both Rousseau’s and from the original French tune sung in Saint-Domingue.
Forty years later in 1942, the African American pianist, singer, and ethnographer Camille Nickerson published a set of five Creole folk songs, one of which was entitled “Lisette, ma chère amie.” Nickerson’s version is a mélange: it shares the same melody as Peterson’s, yet its lyrics are nearly identical to those of the original “Lisette quité la plaine” from Saint-Domingue. Nickerson collected and published hundreds of Creole folk songs and street cries from her native Louisiana. In a one woman show called the “Louisiana Lady,” she performed this collection throughout the US during the 1930s to 1950s.
In the 1920s, the song was reclaimed by Haitian pianist and composer Ludovic Lamothe. As an expression of national pride, Lamothe set the song to the Haitian traditional dance form, the méringue, and titled his version “Lisette.” Haitian philosopher Jean Price Mars encouraged Lamothe to use this text because he saw in “Lisette” the depth and diversity of Haitian Creole poetry and song.[v]
[i] M. L. E. Moreau de Saint-Méry, Blanche Maurel, and Etienne Taillemite, Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l'isle Saint Domingue (Paris: Société de l’histoire des colonies françaises, 1958).
[ii] Claude Dauphin, “La ‘Chanson nègre’ de Rousseau: une note de lyrisme dans cette humanité déchue,” in Musique et liberté au siècle des Lumières (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2017), 175–95.
[iii] For a 19th-century example of altered lyrics and melody, see Idylles et chansons, ou essais de poësie créole par un habitant d’Hayti (Philadelphia: J. Edwards, 1811), 16–18.
[iv] See the preface of Clara Gottschalk Peterson, Creole Folk Tunes in Negro Dialect from New Orleans (New Orleans: L. Grunewald Co. Ltd., 1902), 1. The anthology is publicly available at https://imslp.org/wiki/Creole_Songs_from_New_Orleans_in_the_Negro_Dialect_(Peterson%2C_Clara_Gottschalk).
[v] Jean Price-Mars and Maryse Condé, Ainsi parla l’oncle (Montréal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2009 ); Jean Price-Mars, So Spoke the Uncle, trans. by Magdaline W. Shannon (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1983 ), 28–31, 236.