Memories Of The Longest Day For Winter Warmth

It gets dark so very early on the shortest day of the year. The optimist in you might consider that tomorrow will be a bit brighter, longer. But as winter officially begins, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg makes a jump-cut to summer. In the spirit of hope, she takes us to Paris, where she spent last June 21 — the longest day of the year.

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On this shortest day of the year, the optimist in you might consider that tomorrow will be a bit brighter, longer. The poet Shelly put that sentiment this way. If winter comes, can spring be far behind? But as winter officially begins, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg makes a jump cut to summer. In the spirit of hope, she takes us to Paris, where she spent last June 21st, the longest day of the year.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Those French - when a season turns, they really know how to celebrate.

(Soundbite of singing choir)

STAMBERG: They do it in Russian.

(Soundbite of violin)

STAMBERG: They do it in Scottish.

(Soundbite of drums)

STAMBERG: They do it with African drumming. They do it all night, the longest day. It was 10 p.m. on June 21. The sun was just beginning to set, and all over Paris, there was music. Fete de la Musique they call it. On just about every street corner, there were people making music. Some are professional musicians, others music-loving amateurs. There are what a friend described as minor talents.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: And on the streets of Paris, some music makers with big ambitions.

A drummer, guitarist, a guitarist - a drummer, and the lead singer is wearing a bowler hat and a striped shirt. And none of them is more than 14 years old.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: The first day of summer, the longest day, has been celebrated musically in France since 1982. The idea began there and then immigrated to everywhere. Now, there is longest day music day in Morocco, Chile, Germany, Togo, everywhere.

(Soundbite of people singing)

STAMBERG: All over Paris, the streets are jammed with musicians and their audiences. Everybody is in a good mood, so glad the dreary French winter with its afternoon sunsets is over. Young, old, rich, not so rich, the French pour out of their apartments and restaurants and cafes and crowd all the places where the music plays.

(Soundbite of organ music)

STAMBERG: Over in the Marais, a right-bank neighborhood where various 17th and 18th century aristocrats used to live, the best place to be on June 21st or any day is the Place des Vosges. It's a formal harmonious square embraced by arcaded streets, all baby bottom pink. They cleaned the bricks recently, and pale grays don't work. Henry the IV laid out the Place des Vosges in 1605. It's the oldest square in Paris and probably the loveliest. You get there via narrow shop-lined streets, noisy this night with summer solstice revelers.

So, here comes dancing in the streets, young ladies wiggling their hips, jumping up and down, raising a fist or two in the air, having a wonderful time.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of choir music)

STAMBERG: Under one arcade on the Place des Vosges, a church chorus sounds glorious.

(Soundbite of applause)

STAMBERG: A few feet away, another choir wraps up its free concert, and nearby, a large crowd gathers under another arcade to make their own music. Somebody hands out song sheets.

The young people here probably don't know these wonderful, traditional, old songs. They are songs their grandparents used to sing, popular music of bygone days not sung much anymore, except tonight.

Handing out songs sheets, people reaching over the tops of other people's heads to get them, passing them back. Let's see what they are.

Printed on a piece of green paper, it looks as if it rolled off an old mimeograph machine, lyrics for a song I've not heard. A woman next to me in the crowd obliges.

(Soundbite of singing in French)

STAMBERG: It seems lots of people know this song.

(Soundbite of people singing)

STAMBERG: It's by Charles Asneveu(ph) someone tells me, and it rings out on these ancient streets with the sweet and earnest concentration that turns a group of strangers into a tuneful community.

(Soundbite of people clapping)

(Soundbite of French conversation)

STAMBERG: He's nine years old.

Songs of a summer night, June 21st, 2008 in Paris. Six months later, here in Washington on this shortest day of the year, the warmth remains. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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