From the very beginning, cabaret was an expression of the popular soul. Its language was made up of jokes, skits and above all songs. The songs in particular always had a special importance. They expressed the feeling of the people, recorded events and reactions, in a way that often newspapers (which relied on machinery and finance, therefore were largely controlled by the ruling class) never could. In a time when common people had little tools for broadcasting their ideas and feelings, songs offer the way. Songs gave the possibility to express a feeling or an idea and to share it by simply singing it.
Even the first French cabaret artistiques , which was mostly frequented by artists, were strongly characterised by the inclination to give voice to the people. It would often find expression in the chanson, which didn’t merely mean ‘song’. It was a ‘protest song’.
Aristide Bruant, one of the first cabaret owners in 1880s France, was a sharp chansonnier who based his artistic activity on expressing the people’s soul, and chastising the upper classes. He even used his arts and his cabaret to sustain a political carrier when he ran as a radical candidate for the Belleville Saint-Fargeau district.
Avant gardes also exploited songs as a form of social expression. Many of these movements were born or found a place of meeting in cabarets. Basically all of the avant gardes had a political, social engagement alongside the artistic aesthetic. Many intentionally used chansons to reach the public and pass on a message.
Many cabaretists were chansonniers. They created their songs, they performed them, and through them they dialogued with their public. They gave them words to use and share. In the cabaret, through the chansons, the true soul of a nation found its expression.
Sara Chiesa – French Cabaret Music: Songs of Aristide Bruant, Erik Satie, and Marguerite Monnot (1881-1958) (pdf)
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993
Lisa Appicnanesi, The Cabaret. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1975/1984