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The bawdy joy of Georges Brassens

Audio 21:11
Robert Doisneau

George Brassens, the French pipe-smoking poet-singer, died 30 years ago. Paris's Cité de la musique celebrates both the music and the free-thinking man in a big, joyful, bawdy exhibition.

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“If you [want to] love my country, you should use Brassens as a travel guide,” says cartoonist and filmmaker Joan Sfar, who is cocurator of Brassens ou la liberté (Brassens, or Freedom) currently running at the Cité de la Musique in Paris.

Sfar calls him the French Woodie Guthrie - a white musician who mixed with the underclass, a self-proclaimed anarchist who wanted nothing more than to be left alone. Passionate about France, Brassens is “the guy that can have you love that country despite what that country is”.

Brassens had a colourful life - he dabbled in petty crime in his youth and deserted from the army during WWII - but what was so French about him?

“He’s everything you can expect from a Frenchman,” Sfar insists. “Sexually-obsessed, always eating and drinking, using a lot of rude words.”

Brassens composed more than 150 songs in his 40-year career, and many still speak to people. Talk about friendship here in France and sooner or later someone starts whistling the catchy Les Copains d’abord (about boys sailing boats on a pond);  conversations about fools at work or in government office will prompt a line or two from Quand on est con on est con (Once an idiot always an idiot). 

“We know them by heart,” says Sfar, “so much so we sometimes forget how morbid, pornographic and insolent they are […] When I started researching Brassens, thinking how to draw him, I realised most of the songs were about naked women, death and cats.”

Brassens did indeed loved cats, enough to have a woman breast-feeding one in a bid to keep the locals entertained in the song Brave Margot

Robert Doisneau

 
His songs abound with veiled references to erections and priapism. And, while Le Gorille and La Mauvaise Réputation were censored when they first came out in 1952, his mastery of the French language meant they were never crude.

Cocurator and journalist Clémentine Deroudille, granddaughter of French photographer Robert Doisneau, says she wanted to give the exhibition a playful, bawdy feel from the outset.

“We didn’t want to show just one image of Brassens, the singer with cats under his arms, polo-necked jumpers and a pipe.”

The more archive and new material she looked at during the two years it took to mount the exhibition, the more she realised Brassens was a libertarian, a genuine free spirit.

But also a perfectionist. Manuscripts on show reveal the extent to which the singer-poet reworked his texts, even prepared his interviews down to the last word.

The exhibition includes hours of film archives such as Brassens sweating it out to rapt audiences in Parisien music halls.

But it’s also interactive, lively and humorous, in keeping with the French icon’s personality. Children are encouraged to do naughty things such as “pinch” jewellery, pull cats’ whiskers, or use bad language, having worked out the four letter words through pictures. There are also singing sessions, guitars provided.

Even if you’re not in Paris you can take part in the Brassens World Championship on Dailymotion. French-speakers are invited to perform their favourite Brassens song to win a slot in the exhibition itself. The only criteria are wearing a moustache and speaking French.

But if you don’t speak la langue de Molière, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about.

Brassens’ song-poems are crammed with wordplay. While they’ve been successfully translated into many languages, from Japanese to Russian, English versions have left a lot to be desired. One notable exception is British singer Jake Thackray, who translated and performed Brassens’ songs to great acclaim.

“I use his version of Le Gorille,” says Pierre de Gaillande, a Franco-American singer/songwriter who has, hallelujah, translated and recorded some of Brassens songs for his album Bad Reputation.


The 13 tracks include La Princesse et le Croque-notes, Je me suis fait tout petit and Chanson pour l’Auvergnat. In Les Trompettes de la Renommée he asks “I wonder, holy cow, who do I have to fuck/ To make the goddess of a hundred mouths speak up?”

The epic two-year project was a way of “getting back to the French side of [my] culture,” says de Gaillande. But translating Brassens’ poetry was a humongous challenge.

“What makes the translations difficult is that Brassens was a rhyme fanatic, he loved his rhythms, and almost all his rhymes are exact.” De Gaillande wanted to stick to that rule. Resulting in many sleepless nights.

De Gaillande says songs like Mourir pour ses idées (To die for ideas) show just how relevant Brassens still is.

“It talks about fundamentalism, people who die for their ideas but it’s more of an attack on those who force others to die, the warmongers, the behind-the-scenes henchmen who pull the strings and get more unfortunate people to die,” he says.  “I connect very intensely with the veiled anti-military message.”

But, as for many Brassens fans, de Gaillande says that the man behind the music also continues to fascinate him.

“He was completely uncompromising, […] someone who stayed so true to a poetic vision, without being influenced by the nonsense of celebrity.”

For Joan Sfar, Brassens offers “a very young message, full of energy”.  Documents from the period before Brassens became famous in the 50s showed how the singer,  born in Sète in the south of France, had no interest in working whatsoever. As soon as they found him a job, he’d fall out with people and leave.

"I felt that was an inspiration,” says Sfar, “not just for singers but all artists, anyone in the business of telling stories.”

 

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