Renaissance of Song
Not only are these people [Brassens and other post-World War II French songwriters] responsible for the greatest renaissance of song in modern times, but they are responsible for the great cultural change of the counterculture, the replacing of the acquisitive appetite with the lyric sensibility. . . . The great secret of Brassens is that he speaks for the hardcore unassimilables with complete self-awareness. He knew that he and behind him his ever-growing following could not and never would be assimilated, and he knew why, and he said so in every song, whatever that song was about. With him the counterculture comes of age. (Kenneth Rexroth, Subversive Aspects of Popular Songs)
Georges Brassens (1921-1981) was a lifelong anarchist, and his songs express a lively antiauthoritarian spirit, even if most of them are about the simple pains and pleasures of life rather than about specifically political topics. Unfortunately, few English-speaking people are aware of him.
For French people he is at least as significant as Bob Dylan is for us (or at least was for people of my generation). But they dont resemble each other very much. Brassens retains a connection with an older and in some ways wiser culture that was no longer available to Dylan, who was thus driven to a more desperate, apocalyptical mental and verbal dissociation sometimes almost reminiscent of Rimbaud. I don’t think Brassens, or anyone else, approached the brilliance of Dylan during his greatest period (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde). But even then Dylan was erratic, and his bitter sarcasm often seems petty and immature compared with Brassens’s worldly-wise humor and irony.
Leaving aside their rather dissimilar musical styles, Dylan might have written something like “Mourir pour des idées” (suggesting that those who urge us to die for ideas be the first to set an example) or “La ballade des gens qui sont nés quelque part” (about the “happy imbeciles” who take patriotic pride in being from wherever they happen to be from). Leonard Cohen might have written something like “Le petit joueur de flûteau” (a fable about a wandering musician who refuses to sell out) or “Le blason” (a delicate paean to the “most beautiful treasure of the female anatomy”). But I doubt if either would have been capable of the innocent rambunctious joy of “Les copains d’abord” (celebrating the camaraderie of a bunch of boys who used to sail around a duck pond in a little boat) or the simple poignancy of “Auprès de mon arbre” (bewailing his folly in cutting down a old tree, throwing away an old pipe, and abandoning an old lover) or the urbane drollery of “La traîtresse” (the mistress who betrays her lover by sleeping with her husband) or “Quatre-vingt-quinze pour cent” (contending that women fake orgasms 95% of the time). For that matter, what other Frenchman besides Brassens could have conceived of “Fernande” (“An erection is not a matter of will power”)?
I could go on and on with examples of Brassenss originality, but it’s more fun to listen to him than to talk about him. He wrote around 150 songs, in addition to setting a number of poems to music. Most of these appeared on a series of twelve LPs (1954-1976), which have all been reissued as CDs. There are also a few miscellaneous recordings of live performances, etc., as well as posthumous works recorded by others. Even if you don’t know any French, I think you’ll find that the tunes alone are enough to keep you humming.
A remarkable amount of Brassens material can be found on the Web. The following are just a few of the most useful sites:
http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=brassens (beginning here, you can access hundreds of video clips of Brassens performances — as well as similar collections of most of the other singers mentioned below by using the Search box)
http://www.analysebrassens.com (explanations of obscure references, idioms, and slang in each of his songs)
http://jcd66.free.fr/Brassens/index.htm (another similar site of annotations and explanations)
http://www.apparemment.fr/brassens/ (a huge illustrated discography)
http://www.georgesbrassens.fr/brassens-guide.htm (lots of Brassens info, though the site is now inactive)
http://www.aupresdesonarbre.com (extensive information on every aspect of Brassens, including news and reviews of the latest books, articles, festivals, and recordings)
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You may also enjoy exploring some of the other great French singers and songwriters. La chanson française is a rich and fascinating world. To mention just a few of my favorites: Pierre-Jean Béranger, the “peoples songwriter” of the early nineteenth century. Aristide Bruant, the guy with red scarf and black cape pictured on the well-known Toulouse-Lautrec posters, which were commissioned to advertise the café where Bruant performed his own songs, which generally involve the most down-and-out neighborhoods of Paris. Yvette Guilbert, the other great cabaret singer of la Belle Époque (a.k.a. the Gay Nineties, ca. 1890-1910). The tragic and often sordid chansons réalistes of the 1930s (Fréhel, Damia, early Piaf). Mistinguett and Mireille are among the other fine performers around the same period. And the delightfully zany Charles Trenet (someone called him a combination of Danny Kaye and Salvador Dali). Many people consider him Frances greatest songwriter, and he may be, though I think Brassens edges him out.
Then there is the post-World War II “renaissance” of poet-singers that Rexroth praises, which, besides Brassens, includes Léo Ferré, Jean-Roger Caussimon, Jacques Brel, Félix Leclerc, Guy Béart and Anne Sylvestre. In addition to his own songs, Ferré also set Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Apollinaire to music and collaborated with Caussimon (“Le temps du tango” is a superb example of their joint work). I prefer Brassenss straightforward manner of singing to Brels more strident and melodramatic style, but there’s no question that Brel composed lots of great songs. (With the exception of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, hes also the only French singer who is, or at least was, somewhat well known in America, thanks to the 1966 musical Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.) Félix Leclerc is French-Canadian, and his strange, haunting songs have a more “outdoors” sound, evoking the vast, wintry landscape of Quebec, in contrast to the urban tone of most of the others. Guy Béart is an odd character, but often very catchy. Anne Sylvestre, perhaps because she is a woman and also because she started a little later than the others (in the mid-1950s), is the one whose concerns and sensibilities most clearly anticipate the counterculture of the sixties.
Many of these people were anarchists of sorts, but as Rexroth notes, their real merit is to have expressed an alternative way of life rather than to have written explicit protest songs. One of the exceptions was Mouloudjis recording of Boris Vians “Le déserteur” (1954), which was banned from the radio during Frances Indochina war. Its a very moving song, but Mouloudji is such a great singer he could make a laundry list sound moving.
There are many other excellent singers from this period Patachou, Juliette Gréco, Monique Morelli, Catherine Sauvage, Barbara but Germaine Montero is by far my favorite. Her renditions of Béranger and Bruant are perfect, but she also did moderns like Ferré and Prévert, and most beautiful of all, 23 songs by Pierre Mac Orlan. The Mac Orlan recordings were special favorites of Guy Debord and his friends in the early fifties, and are currently available in a 2-CD set entitled Meilleur. Montero also recorded Spanish folksongs and García Lorca poems (she studied theater with Lorca in the early 1930s) and premiered the title role in the French version of Brecht’s Mother Courage.
Many of these songs are still genuinely popular, even if not on the level of the latest media-imposed superstars. I’ve been in crowded Paris bars where a performer would start singing one of the old songs and half the room would immediately join in, knowing all the words by heart. And Brassens, at least, is now popular not only in France but in many other countries around the world. In Russia theres even a Georges Brassens Choir”!
The main reason they are virtually unknown in America is of course the language difference, but there are also musical and cultural communication gaps. To people who have grown up with post-bebop rhythms and psychedelic rock, French tunes may sound a bit old-fashioned, at least on first hearing. On the other hand, the French languages relative lack of stresses makes some of the more sophisticated composers such as Ferré seem puzzlingly vague and disconnected. And the lyrics, even of the postwar singers, deal with the age-old themes: love and loneliness, friendship and betrayal, celebrating the joys of life, lamenting its evanescence, satirizing the official world — the same themes you can find in Villon or the medieval Goliards (Carmina Burana), nothing particularly postmodern.
I suppose some of Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday might be considered roughly equivalent to the chansons réalistes, but a world of cultural differences remains. Yves Montand sang Jacques Prévert lyrics without anyone thinking it unusual. The American near-equivalent would be if Frank Sinatra had done an album of e.e. cummings or Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The combination of quality poetic lyrics with pop music, common in France for over a century, scarcely exists in English until the sixties counterculture. With the latter, things begin to merge globally — Anne Sylvestre’s lovely lyrics are reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell (whom she preceded by several years). . . .
That’s about as far as my interest goes. I must admit that I have scarcely explored more recent French singers. Probably there are some good ones, but most of the ones I’ve heard don’t sound much different than their American contemporaries, and I haven’t been very enthused by any American pop music since around 1970.
These remarks are, of course, only matters of personal taste. I don’t claim that there is anything radical about my musical preferences. In fact I question Rexroths belief in the subversive effect of poetry and song, except in the very vague general sense that such works may sometimes serve to wake us up, give us a hint of possibilities of life that are usually repressed. I dont like these French songs because of any radical aspects they may have, but because I find them fun to sing and listen to.
I like many other kinds of music as well — folk, jazz, classical, etc. — but those are easily accessible to anyone who wants to explore them. I’ve put together this little introduction to Brassens and his compatriots because they are unknown to most English-speaking people, and I think you may enjoy them.
For those who may be interested, I have reproduced my translation of François Villon’s Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times, one of the poems that Brassens set to music.
NOTE: From January to May 2021 I did a series of ten Zoom programs, The Secret World of French Songs, presenting and discussing many of the songs and songwriters mentioned above.