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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
4 on Brassens Oct.14th 2004
Thanks to Maxine Green, Andrew Kelly and William B.Hinshaw for their precious
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
along with extracts from the original songs. The
door is wide open for singers to create with the Brassens heritage. One
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
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
Singers interested will find here
proposed translations into American English of two early essential songs : The
Gorilla and The Bad Reputation.
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
Les copains d'abord
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.
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
Le mauvais sujet repenti
|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
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".
Quatre-vingt quinze pour ceut
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
La maîtresse d'école
Maxime Le Forestier
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
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
||My lovely flower
she's as hard as iron
Une jolie fleur
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).
Au bois de mon coeur
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 original, the name of the loved one is not mentioned. This is a song with
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
Le 22 septembre
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.
makes you think, in these hard times.
|Die for what you
Mourir pour des idées
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
Chanson pour l'Auvergnat
visit our friends' sites in English :
Georges Brassens US Fan Club
on this page.