French singer-songwriter and poet Georges Brassens was born 22nd October 1921, in Sète, a small harbour town on the French Mediterranean coast from a notoriously anti-cleric dad and a strictly catholic mum. It is one of his teacher that introduces him to poetry, and the rest is history.
Georges Brassens is as well-known in France today as The Beatles are in England. People whistle his melodies on the streets, pass them on through generations. His bitter-sweet lyrics won him the French national poetry prize and recognition all over the world. He popularised French poetry in music.
An interview with Régine Monpays, the director of Espace Brassens in 2009, the museum dedicated to Brassens reveals a fascinating and extremely knowledgeable person when it comes to Brassens and made it difficult to end the conversation. We spoke of him, sharing his memory, as if reminiscing about an old friend.
Brassens writes with such verve and wit, depth and meaning that is surprising that he remains simple and humble all his life. Speaking about him would require much more time than is available. Instead, let us discover this poet and music legend through a number of musicians in the world. Cameroon in particular loves uncle Georges, as testified by Kristo Numpuby’s album ‘Brassens in Africa’ putting some of Brassens’ most popular songs in African rhythms. Sandra Nkake, a French Cameroonian vocal prodigy, beautifully interprets and thereby introduces the title track of his debut album and the song that introduced Brassens to the world, ‘La mauvaise réputation (the bad reputation)’. It is also there that we start discovering his adversity for those he calls “honest folk”.
Through his unbelievable legacy, Georges Brassens continues to live. There are around 1000 interprets of his music around the world, some of which have made their whole or part of their carriers out of singing Brassens. There are also festivals and songs dedicated to Brassens including “The Ghost of Georges Brassens” by English songwriter Leon Rosselson, “les amis de Georges (friends of George) by the Greek music poet Georges Moustaki, “à Brassens” (“To Brassens”) by Jean Ferrat, and the tribute-album by Quebecois Renée Claude “J’ai rendez-vous avec vous”, to name but a few.
The non-French speakers have to overcome the barrier of the language and it takes really good translators to transport his songs abroad as they have to match their lyrics with the melody, and transmit the poetry as well as the events that might be typically French. I actually read an American translation of the bad reputation and I was very impressed. I will put more details about their website online. On top of that Brassens can have a very medieval vocabulary. So he is not very easy to translate. The next track is from Israel and is a duet between x and x singing Brassens “la non-demande en marriage”. Well to cut it very short, it is one of these “proposals” that honest people definitely found indecent at the time: It is basically, remember, 4 weddings and a funeral, when Charles (played by Hugh Grant) and Carrie (played by Andy McDonnell) decide and vow to spend their life together but never to marry. Well this song would be echoing in the background.
About women, Brassens said “les femmes, je les aime toutes ou presque” Women I love them all or almost. 85% of his songs are about women. His life companion Puepchen was the subject of some of his songs including the one we just heard “la non demande en marriage” (well let’s be together but not get married) and “Je me suis fait tout petit” a line of which song explained that he made himself small before of a doll who closes her eyes when you touch her explaining basically how she sort of tamed him. Their complicity, and her support though discretion in his life is probably, to me, the major fuel of his ability to freely express his mind.
Engaged poet, griot and cultural collage: Georges Brassens had a way to speak about freedom and challenging the accepted ways of doing things and traditions. I read a lot about Brassens being an anarchist but once you hear his songs and their depth and you speak to his friends who were a great part of who he was, you know he was a libertarian. And it is different.
The griots of Africa knew he was one of them. The jazz men and women (such as Sandra Nkake you heard first) recognised his music. The poets praised his lyrics. His songs although all in French went beyond language, although sang by a man went beyond gender, and touched every gender every colour. Georges Brassens was a cultural collage and as he still lives through his songs and books worldwide (yes he wrote books too), IS a cultural collage. He said: “J’ai quitté la vie sans rancune, j’aurai plus jamais mal aux dents, Me v’là dans la fosse commune, la fosse commune du temps.” I’ve left this life with no rancour, I’ll never have toothache again, Now I lie in the communal grave, the communal grave of time.” That’s a quote from Brassens’ song ‘Le testament’, ‘Last will and testament’.
To end this world tour of Brassens music, in English with Jake Thackray and the most recorded and translated song of Brassens. Jake managed to preserve the cheekiness of the song ‘Le gorille’ in his translation “Brother Gorilla’, a song against the death penalty.
- La mauvaise réputation;;covered by Sandra Nkake;;written by Georges Brassens
- Sam Alfa in the Antilles
- Ruben Dreches in Argentina,
- Carla Bruni from Italy and France
- William Hinshaw & Didier Agid in the US
- Paco Ib??ez, Joaquin Carbonell and Jacques Mu?oz each from Spain
- Anje Duhalde in Basque
- Dimitris Bogdis in Greek
- Alexandre Avanessov and my personal favourite Mark Freidkin both from Russia
- Eduardo Peralta in Spanish from Chile
- Alberto Patrucco, Fabrizio de Andr? Italy
- Tord Henriksson Cornelis Vreeswijk each in Swedish
- Nanni Svampa ;; Milanese
- Ji?? D?de?ek ;;Czech
- Jacques Ivart (esperanto)
- Franz Josef Degenhardt and Ralf Tauchmann;;German;; ;;
- Pierre de Gaillande ;; English;; France, USA
- Graeme Allwright ;; English
- Jake Thackray ;; English
- The band Zesp?? Reprezentacyjny , Piotr Machalica;; Polish
- Tuula Amberla;;Finnish
- ;;Maxime Le Forestier ;;
- xx Georges Brassens;;Kristo Numpuby;;Brassens in Africa;;African rhythms
Georges Brassens in 10 songs
1. La Mauvaise Réputation – this one is arguably the most known of Georges Brassens’ songs but I prefer it La mauvaise herbe 2. Les trompettes de la renommée 3. Mourir pour des idées 4. Les Copains d’Abord 5. Au coeur de ma mie – Debademba did an amazing ‘world’ cover of this lovely song in 2010 6. Les amoureux des bancs publics 7. Chanson pour l’Auvergnat – Grateful for the help of simple folks who took him in when honest folks mocked his misery – Jeanne is another one of those types of songs 8. A L’ Ombre Des Maris – the dark humour of Brassens has had him create quite a few controversial songs, this one being one of the very least 😉 9. Pauvre Martin – Brassens has an admiration and devoted praising attitude towards simple folks and describe them almost as minimalistically and elegantly as their aura shines to him 10. Le Testament