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Georges Brassens: A Master-Singer of Exquisite Lyrics

Translated Tuesday 1 November 2011, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Brassens, the poet, the anarchist whose eyes radiated tenderness, is immortal. Thirty years after his death, his poetry is still on our lips. Our friend Georges has left nearly 180 songs whose poetic lyrics and simple melodies have earned him a prominent place in the history of popular music.

Thirty years after his death in 1981 Georges Brassens is more than ever the talk of our villages and cities. The poet, the anarchist, the rebel, the musician, the moustached singer in his buttoned-up polo shirt and corduroy suit is celebrated everywhere for his songs.

The genial fellow has kicked the bucket but his works, his marvellous songs are still with us. Their popular style appeals to adults as well as to children who enjoy singing them and studying his tunes. No wonder our secondary schools, our streets, our village squares are named after him. He is a monument, a towering figure whose songs are sung by artists of all generations, from Juliette Gréco, Barbara, Marcel Amont, Françoise Hardy to Renaud, not forgetting Arthur H, Thomas Dutronc, les Têtes raides or Maxime Le Forestier who paid him homage through a 500-stop tour in which he took up his greatest songs: “Brassens is a vaccine against stupidity,” he says with a smile. “We need booster-shots at very regular intervals.”

This remark, which opens Didier Varrod’s rich documentary film Brassens is part of us shown on France 3 TV channel on October 24, encapsulates what Brassens still represents for us today. A man who would always think for himself, whose personality was captivating, whose songs everyone could make their own. Three decades after his death, having been more often translated than most other singers and having sold over 60 million records and CDs, he remains dear to our hearts. Georges Brassens evokes a world where friendship comes first; he was happiest when his songs were taken up in the family circle: “To me, a song is something that will provoke someone, anyone, to stand up all of a sudden and start singing for any audience, without too much artifice and without too much of an orchestra behind .”

Is Georges still influential today? The reason Brassens is part of our collective memory is that he embodies the tranquil, confident wisdom of an entertainer who lives a simple life, whose presence is reassuring, whose poetic songs have left a mark on his time. A time when lovers “ were smooching on public benches” [1], when village youths had fun seeing how “brave Margot dégraf(ait) son corsage pour donner la gougoutte à son chat” (simple-souled Margaret undid her blouse to feed her cat a few sweet drops).

“Georges’s pals”

Georges Brassens was born in the small port of Sète on October 22, 1921, where he lived happy near his tree [2]. A very shy young man, he nevertheless embraced the stage in order to make his poetry known to the public at large, accompanied by his lifelong accomplice, double bass player Pierre Nicolas. “What does Brassens tell us? What’s Brassens’ message to us?”, he wonders, “nothing but tokens of friendship.”

His way of life, his gift for friendship can be traced back to his childhood in Sète. In his teen years he committed a few larcenies with his pals, which earned him a two-week suspended sentence. The recent exhibition at the Paris Cité de la musique Brassens ou la liberté (Brassens and freedom) has thrown light on his progresss, from his sunny days in the lanes of Sète to his arrival in Paris in 1940 where he worked for a while as metal turner at the Renault factories in Boulogne Billancourt. His was a bohemian life at the time, until he settled down in a flat in the 14th arrondissement, impasse Florimont. There he rubbed shoulders with those who were later to be “Georges’s friends, writer René Fallet, Pierre Onteniente nicknamed Gibraltar [3], who became his faithful secretary, Marcel Planche, Jeanne Le Bonnec’s husband, who inspired the song la Cane de Jeanne (Jeanne’s duck). More songs followed, dedicated to Joha Heiman, his partner, afftectionately nicknamed “Püppchen” (small doll in German) for whom he wrote J’ai rendez-vous avec vous (I have an appointment with you), Je me suis fait tout petit (I made myself as small as I could), la Non-Demande en marriage (the Non-Proposal of marriage) etc.

This craftsman of a song-writer cast a tender look on life even though he was not always tender with humankind. The only things that counted for him were a well-turned line, a refrain or a tune that he strummed quietly on his guitar, punctuating it with a few chords. In his Paris flat he spent his time writing or reading, devouring whatever was at hand. To him writers were beacons that lit his way through life - he had fed on them since his first writings during his teen-years in Sète - and his discovery of poetry, to which Alphonse Bonnafé, his French literature teacher, then initiated him. François Villon, Paul Fort, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo…are on the list.

He was deeply imbued with their poems, which had a great influence on the style of his own texts. They all inspired songs that he interpreted with a sensuous delight, L’Auvergnat (The man from Auvergne), Brave Margot (Sweet Margot), le Gorille (Brother Gorilla). Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux (Happy Love There Is None), Un petit coin de paradis (A Small Plot in Heaven) ,la Mauvaise Réputation (Bad Reputation), la Chasse aux papillons (Chasing butterflies), les Sabots d’Hélène (Helen’s clogs), les Copains d’abord (Friendship first)… are some of the gems of his repertory.. Their subtle words have gone down in history; people will play them nonstop, marvelling, with each new turn of phrase, at their poetic conception. [4]

A libertarian in the early fifties

Brassens was a humanist. His moustache and rather gruff pout ill concealed the man’s tender heart. But his was a clear-sighted, rather pessimistic outlook: “I believe nothing in the world can be changed as long as men have not changed,” he told Jean Ferrat during a TV program with Jean-Pierre Chabrol in 1969. (…) [5] A rather bitter statement, to which he added: “I am afraid it will be a long time before men do change.” A man who believed in tolerance, he was afraid of fanaticism, of the way ideas could be exploited for dishonest puporses, was suspicious of dogmas being imposed as ultimate truths. That was no doubt why he was a libertarian in the early fifties. During a memorable round table with Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré he tried to explain what it meant for him to be unattached politically: “I was a libertarian in the years 1945, 1946, 1947,” he reminisced. “Each of us had quite a personal notion of anarchy. That’s precisely what’s so elating about anarchy, there’s no dogma even. It’s a moral outlook, a special approach to life. It’s difficult to explain.”

He preferred to express his ideas through his texts, at the risk of passing for a has-been, at the time when the yéyés, with Johnny, Claude François, and the rest shoved pithy songs out of the scene with what Brasssens called their “dance music”. He was unimpressed: a witty remark was enough to make him feel happy. He expressed his views and gave his opinions in his lyrics. Without mincing his words: he ridiculed vicars, the army, the police as well as ordinary people or bumpkins. It’s difficult to put a label on him. Where exactly does he stand? Didier Varrod asks: “Did he lean to the Left?” “I believe not,” actor and singer François Morel said. “He did not lean to the Right either. I don’t think either side can claim him as one of their own.” Brassens was often reproached for his refusal to commit himself politically. Witness his song Mourir pour des idées (To die for one’s ideas) (“OK,” goes the answer, “provided it’s a slow death!”); This song brought down bitter censure on him from those he called the “oppressive multitude”.

A non-conformist and individualist, Brassens embodied tenderness, irony, humour, friendship, music and poetry all in one and… a distinct taste for four-letter words or bawdy lines: his refrains and verse are peppered with them. He liked to be provocative, even at the cost of offending some. “Today, he would be ceaselessly prosecuted by the guardians of the politically correct order,” observed singer Juliette. Basically he did not care whether or not the poet is truly right in all things. Even when he was disrespectful of the social code, he never meant ill. In his songs he just expressed his views and feelings in a marvellously poetic language. His exquisitely worded songs shape images that touch our hearts and still make us dream. This is why he transcends time, despite a slightly old-fashioned style.

Our friend Georges left us thirty years ago: so the story goes. But that’s a lie! Brassens has never been so much with us.

[1So goes the refrain of ‘Bancs publics”: Les amoureux qui s’bécottent sur les bancs publics, Bancs publics, bancs publics, En s’foutant pas mal du regard oblique Des passants honnêtes, Les amoureux qui s’bécottent sur les bancs publics, Bancs publics, bancs publics, Ont des p’tites gueules bien sympathiques. » (The lovers kissing on public benches Who don’t give a damn about the sidelong glances of honest passers-by…have really sweet faces!

[2The title of one of his songs:“Auprès de mon arbre Je vivais heureux J’aurais jamais dû m’éloigner de mon arbre Auprès de mon arbre Je vivais heureux J’aurais jamais dû Le quitter des yeux (Near my tree I was happy I should never have strayed away from my tree Near my tree I was happy I should have never let it out of my sight”)

[3Because he was as firm as a rock.

[4Pierre de Gaillande translates Brassens’ songs and performs them in English; Cf http://www.georgesbrassens.fr/brassens-BadReputation.htm
So does Didier Delahaye. Cf http://brassensredux.com/?page_id=3777&lang=fr


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