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·GEORGES BRASSENS

 FOR ANGLOPHONES·

 

 

In France, Georges Brassens is as popular as the Beatles are in England.  In the anglophone world he is little known, because his lyrics are difficult for non-French audiences to understand, and English interpretations of his songs are rare.

He was born in Sète, a Mediterranean port where all southern Europe traditions meet, in 1921. His father was a humble house builder, his mother, Elvira Dagrosa, the daughter of immigrants from southern Italy.

From his father, he received the values of an unpretentious man, of great kindness and understanding, filled with the secular and anticlerical ideas of that time; from his mother, a fervent Roman Catholic, a religious education; from both an endless love for popular songs the kid followed in the streets from house to house, from gramophone to gramophone; from his school years (he left at the age of 15), he’ll only remember a teacher of exception, à la Robin Williams, communicating to his class his love for poems he read with tears in his eyes.

Gradually, he realises how much the art of la chanson needs poetry. This is due to the particular French context.  France, unlike countries such as Spain, Italy and the USA, has few traditional folk rhythms which are sufficiently attractive to form the basis of popular tunes.  Songwriters borrow rhythms from elsewhere - using tango, rhumba, blues and jazz for example.  If the lyrics are poor, there's no originality in the creation.  Thus the lyrics need special care.  True poetry is achieved by the best.

 And Georges wants to be among the best. He decides to study the art of poetry, the skills with which poets built five centuries of French literature. Up to the age of 31, from Sète to Paris, with an episode of forced labour in Germany during WWII (from which he escapes), he keeps reading, taking notes and studying from the greatest, from François Villon (born in 1421, his master, older by 500 years), to his contemporaries Paul Fort and Aragon, with Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Verlaine in between.

On March 8, 1952, when about to give up, he gets his first real opportunity to face the public. In his notebook, about 30 songs are ready, the raw material for the first 3 LPs. In a few weeks, he leaves poverty and the fringes of society, enters the world of fame and fortune. He remains one of the best paid singers in the country, selling millions of recordings, until his death in 1981.  Nearly every home has one of his records. Any French person can hum a dozen of his songs. His characters are as popular as those of La Fontaine. A national monument, a living statue.

But he was the kind of man who lived by his principles.  Neither fame nor fortune made him change his friends or his way of life.  He lodged with great friends for 20 years, in a house without running water for much of this time.  His friends might be stars like Jacques Brel or Lino Ventura, or more often unknown companions from his childhood or from harder times.

When hearing a Georges Brassens song (and if you're familiar with French... ),the first thing you notice is the perfection of the language. Poetry so subtle and elaborated that it seems simple.
He really did bring poetry to the people. In his silent years, Georges Brassens built an imaginary and timeless stage through which his own philosophy could pass.  As it now becomes clearer every day, a humanism for our times.  From a basis of non-violent anarchism, he advocated an individual morality in which peace and a better world can result from eradicating "evil" within each of us. Perhaps similar to a Buddhist approach, but a long way from any organized church or party, and totally atheist.

In show business, he was a special case.  Others prepared songs for records and shows. He wrote at his own creative rate. When a dozen new songs were ready, he went back to the public. Every time, a triumph. As he said, his songs were meant to be heard again and again. So, he re-wrote them again and again. Sometimes, up to 50 drafts were found. He speaks of familiar things, love and friendship, old age and death, with humour and without sentimentality, always saying less than he is feeling, presenting an imaginary world and characters which we recognise nevertheless. This is poetry with a human face, telling us about life. Life stronger than wars and ideologies, money and power, conformity of any kind.

He set his own poems (and some others he particularly loved) to music. A music as perfect as his lyrics, based on his encyclopaedic knowledge of French song and jazz music.  The music was meant to serve the words, giving them life ("I made the words dance") and space ("like a film soundtrack you must not listen to").  On stage, alone with his guitar and a double bassist, his faithful companion Pierre Nicolas.  For studio recordings, a second guitar (Joël Favreau from 1966 onwards). But always the music serving the poetry, as evidenced when you hear instrumental interpretations or an adaptation in an unknown language.

Georges Brassens, all life long, kept specifically French (only 3 recordings in Spanish, only 3 shows outside Francophonia, among them one in Cardiff in October 1973… in French).
His form of expression needed acceptance from the public. Acceptance could be gained from people with a sufficient knowledge of French.  Otherwise, it required an audience ready to be satisfied with the musicality of the words.

To ignore Georges Brassens is to ignore an essential element of French culture in the 20th Century. More than that, it’s missing a splendid occasion to dive into the poetical heritage of France with musical accompaniment, and much pleasure. Much, much pleasure.
 

BBC 4 on Brassens Oct.14th 2004

Graeme Allwright sings Brassens Georges Brassens never made a record in English. In 1984, Graeme Allwright recorded an LP with translations by Andrew Kelly. Musical arrangements guitar and double bass were by Pierre Nicolas and Joël Favreau, Georges' musicians, accordion and trombone by Richard Galliano. This record is now a collector's item... Here we give extracts, along with extracts from the original songs. The door is wide open for singers to create with the Brassens heritage. One extract, from Misty, shows how versatile this music is. Many, in France and other countries, have had a try, Some were misses, some were, or are, hits.
For CDs available, visit Brassens main page.
Please note that Andrew Kelly now presents 10 new translations (some revised this year), all as excellent as those below  and hitherto unpublished. They can be found along with the full versions of his previous ones on our friend William Hinshaw's site, the Georges Brassens US Fan Club 
Singers interested will find here proposed translations into American English of two early essential songs : The Gorilla and The Bad Reputation.

Georges lived and worked with friends. This is a song for dinners with buddies and drinking wine together. For many, a hymn to friendship. Dixieland adaptation here.

 

Buddies first of all  mpg
Les copains d'abord
A delicious poem. Should we accuse our priest besause of this tiny flower fallen from the pages of his Holy book? And this malicious  "Notre père / Qui j'espère / Etes aux cieux", in Prévert's style. Short, perfect verses. No wonder Georges got the Académie Française's Grand Prix de Poésie.

The daisy mpg

La marguerite mpg

Georges belongs to the bawdy Rabelaisian tradition. The girl's protector shares her infection... she sinks so low she even sells herself to cops... gently anarchist. One of the earliest among the published songs. Long forbidden on radios (that was back in 1953!).

 

A sinner's repent mpg
Le mauvais sujet repenti mpg

Thanks to Georges, the public discovered this unknown jewel of the poet Antoine Pol. The melody is among the finest Georges ever wrote (Joël Favreau is on both extracts, and  the introduction is used for Brassens' main page background).  The passers-by mpg
Les passantes mpg
A bawdy approach to feminism. Film star Emmanuelle Béart, daughter of singer Guy Béart (the one who called Georges "The Good Master") said "I'm OK, but the figure is exaggerated".

 

Nine-and-a-half times mpg
Quatre-vingt quinze pour ceut mpg

No miracles allowed: the schoolmistress will be fired and the boys return to ignorance. This song is posthumous, Georges never sang it... The best version we can present is the one Maxime Le Forestier made a hit with. The school mistress mpg
La maîtresse d'école mpg 
Maxime Le Forestier
Georges lived with Joha Heiman "Püppchen" 35 years until death set them apart (she died in 1999). We owe her this  poem which Georges wrote, one of the most moving ever written by a man to a mature loved one.

 

Saturn mpg
Saturne mpg

When youg,  Georges had an affair with a girl who appeared not to be the one his blind love hoped for. We keep the flowers. One of the most popular among the earlies. My lovely flower she's as hard as iron mpg
Une jolie fleur mpg
Another hymn to friendship, à la François Villon. The original lists the  woods around Paris. One of the songs written for Marcel Carné's "Porte de Lilas" (1957), the only film in which Georges acted (and sang).

 

Friends like evergreens mpg
Au bois de mon coeur mpg

A tender love story with this pearl at the end: "Dans le mille de mon coeur / A laissé le dessin / D'une petite fleur qui lui ressemble" The thunderstorm mpg
L'orage mpg
In the original, the name of the loved one is not mentioned. This is a song with a moveable date (it moves in the calendar as it moves the heart): September 22th, 15th or 20th (in a Spanish adaptation). Another demonstration of how close Brassens' music is to jazz. Brassens' singing technique is very similar to that of the blues singers technique: the beat is as insistent as that of a steam engine and the singer draws arabesques around it.

 

To Anne, September 15th mpg
Le 22 septembre mpg

Still controversial today. Jean-Jacques Goldman, popular singer and songwriter (for Céline Dion, among others), although admirer of many of Brassens' songs, finds this one "obscene". Georges was a pacifist, this is one of the songs in which he sends the message, in the form of a funeral march.

It makes you think, in these hard times.

Die for what you believe in mpg
Mourir pour des idées mpg
1998: 46 years later. One of most popular of  Georges' Songs, in a surprising Misty's adaptation which proves Brassens' music will keep for ever open to all transformations...  

 

Beautiful stranger mpg
Chanson pour l'Auvergnat mpg

Do visit our friends' sites in English :

   Projet Brassens

   Georges Brassens US Fan Club

Some translations

Do send comments on this page.


Georges' guitar...

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Thanks to Maxine Green, Andrew Kelly and William B.Hinshaw for their precious help