So pleasing when a neat link arises between one’s own work (last week’s post about books that made me European), and something rather grander (the recent news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature).
If the Nobel Committee asked me which songwriters deserved a prize for both literature and peace, I’d say the French (and Belgian) ones. George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara...and which interpreters of them deserved something too, for reaching out and breaking down barriers: Piaf, Juliette Gréco singing the words of Brassens, Aragon, Queneau – and Brel again, who crops up everywhere. The work of these songwriters/poets/singers foretold the work of Dylan decades earlier with just as much brio, panache, joie de vivre and on occasion angst (why are none of those English words?) and, dare I say, it more tunefully too. Let’s have a look at a few gems of poetry, simple philosophy, politics and music.
I heard the songs of Brassens as a child, not realising he also wrote poetry and novels. He lived in hiding for five years in Paris after escaping from a German forced labour camp.He was a true European, with a musical Italian mother who was a strict Catholic and a liberal, anti clerical French father. His songs are often jaunty and cheerful, but the lyrics are uncompromising.
Brassens wrote Chanson pour l’Auvergnat in 1954. (For copyright reasons I’ve not reprinted any of the original in this post, but given my own unpolished English summary instead. It’s easy to find both lyrics and performances online, by Brassens himself, Juliette Gréco and relatively recently Manu Dibango among others.)
This song is for you, the Auvergnat who without guile, gave me four sticks of wood, when my life felt cold. You gave me firewood when all the good chattering people had shut the door in my face, only firewood, but it warmed my body, and even now gives a joyous flame to my soul.
He goes on to praise the hostess who gave him bread, when “there was hunger in my life” and no one invited him in, and tells how her welcome still warms his heart. Finally the stranger/foreigner (l’étranger means both in French, how UKIP must envy that) who, watching as the police arrested him, gave him an awkward smile of encouragement rather than laughing and clapping with the watching crowd. That sweetness still burns like the sun in his soul. When you good people die, he says in each chorus, may you go to heaven.
Some parallels here, surely, with the situation of migrants to Europe? Let us hope they meet an Auvergnat…
Piaf sang of the kindness of strangers too, in a song you will all know the tune of – daah, Dah, dah, Daah, dah DAAAHH but whose story you may not have known:
Come in, Milord, sit down. It’s so cold outside but you’ll be comfortable here…Put your feet up!
The singer is a prostitute and her client a English aristocrat. She’s flattered that he’s come to her, she’s seen him go proudly past, a beautiful girl at his side (so beautiful it made her shiver), a silk scarf over his shoulders. Then today the girl left on a ship, threw away his love, broke his heart. How sad love is, and life itself…but you can find new chances for happiness. He’s a great lord and she’s just a woman of the streets, but she can sympathise…(as the the music slows and Piaf speaks in a shocked voice rather than singing) “but you’re crying, milord. …there, there…it’s not so bad…give me a little smile?…that’s it..bravo!“and the music speeds up, they dance, and the man is comforted, for a while at least. This brilliant song turns social standing on its head: the poor street girl has the generosity and power to comfort the aristocrat in his moment of fragility – and yet she and we know he will probably survive longer and more comfortably than she. The songwriters were Marguerite Monnot and Joseph Mustacchi.
Thirdly, “Barbara”. She was born Monique Serf in Paris to Jewish parents from Alsace and Odessa.
She spent the war in flight from the Nazis, yet her song Göttingen (1965) must surely be the soundtrack to peace and reunion everywhere. She visited the German town and wrote this haunting song about how Göttingen’s parks and schoolchildren and roses were different to those in Paris, but just as beautiful; about how when there is no shared language you can still smile at each other, and about how she fears another war between France and Germany because there are people she loves in Göttingen. She recorded the song in both French and German, and it was quoted by Gerhard Schroeder at the celebrations to mark 40 years of the Elysée Treaty of Reconciliation. Do listen to it – but be warned, it will become a earworm and so it should.
I don’t mean to look only at the past (and I have nothing against Americans or Dylan!) Last week I suggested Books against Brexit and will return to that, but for now I seem to have swung towards a (better) Song for Europe. How about the wider world and the present? Fortuitously, this came onto my facebook page today. It’s good to see the tradition of moving, constructive, poetic song writing in response to power and exclusivity is still going strong: This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about this election. She wrote this song, which Leslie Odom Jr. sings. It’s free to download until December 3. Credits at the links given.
Songwriters: Brassens, Georges Published by: Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
Monnot & Mustacchi Published by: Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group Barbara:my sheet music ©Les Editions Métropolitaines, 11 rue de Provence 75011 Paris
© Jessica Norrie 2016