This story first featured in the Spotlight on France podcast: listen here
With his pipe, polo-necked sweater, moustache and cat on lap, the image of Brassens is more cudly uncle than new-man.
As Joann Sfar, curator of a major Brassens exhibition in 2011, has pointed out, “most of his songs are about naked women, death and cats”.
The hit song “Brave Margot” featured two of those favourite themes, with Margot drawing in big crowds by removing her bodice to breast-feed her pet.
Brassens excelled at taking aspects of ordinary French life – women, sex, death, religion, the military, migration … and, yes, cats … and transforming them into theatre through an unsurpassed use of wordplay.
He’s been described as a French Woodie Guthrie – a working class singer and guitarist who shunned stardom. He was also a self-proclaimed anarchist with a distate for the military and the clergy.
He wrote 150 songs in his 40-year career.
Les copains d’abord, about friends playing with boats on a lake, L’Auvergnat, about the importance of generosity, and Quand on est con, are classics and feature in many a French family reunion or office party.
Some of his songs offended established values in early fifties France. Le Gorille – a song against the death penalty involving a rampaging gorilla desperate to lose its virginity and who “takes” the judge in the end, was banned on its release in 1952.
Mauvaise Reputation (Bad reputation), in which he defends individual liberties – including the freedom to desert the army, which he himself did in 1944 – was also deemed unfit for the public.
Out of time
Part of Brassens’ staying power resides in the timelessness of his songs, something he worked hard to achieve.
“I can’t use the word ‘automobile’ in my songs,” he told French public radio in 1970, “it will fix the song in a certain period.”
His superficially-simple refrains, accompanied by guitar, turn out to be very complex. But that hasn’t put off hordes of non-French speakers from taking up the challenge.
“Brassens has been translated into 82 languages and dialects, it’s enormous,” Bernard Lonjon, author of several books on Brassens told RFI.
He’s the most re-recorded French artist in the world.
Hesitant stage debut
Brassens’ entry into the pantheon of the French chanson got off to a sweaty start.
As a teenager he fled to Paris from his home town of Sète on the Mediterranean coast after a conviction for petty theft.
He first lodged with his aunt and then lived for many years in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing with a couple of friends – Marcel and Jeanne – as a threesome.
He made his stage debut at Les Trois Baudets club in Paris and went on to play there regularly between 1952 and 1956.
Françoise Canetti, whose father ran the club, remembers a big man who appeared “terrorised in front of the audience”.
“People on the front row looked uncomfortable seeing someone sweating so profusely,” she told RFI. “And some others were bothered by his songs. He used swear words, his French was very crude, that shocked some people.”
Canetti went on to become a fan and has released a compilation of Brassens’ work to commemorate both the centenary of his birth and 40 years since his death, when Brassens was aged just 60.
Men and women
“Brassens is everything you can expect from a Frenchman: sexually-obsessed, always eating and drinking, and using a lot of rude words,” analysed Joann Sfar.
That made him, and has kept him, a popular figure in France. He talked straight and sang the un-singable.
And while his penchant for alluding to sex, priapism and women could raise an eyebrow or two today, he always claimed he admired women. He certainly appreciated older ones, which was even more radical then than it is today.
There were several important women in Brassens’ life: his sister Simone, his aunt Antoinette, and Jeanne who was more than 30 years his senior.
His long-time lover and muse Joha Heiman – an Estonian-born woman he nicknamed Püppchen (doll) – was nine years older than him.
Püppchen inspired the hits Je me suis fais tout petit, J’ai rendez-vous avec vous, Saturne and La non-demande en marriage.
The latter, which translates as The non-marriage proposal, was both a declaration of love and a rejection of marriage and the obligation to have children. Brassens was against marriage and didn’t have kids, but the song liberated women too.
He also wrote in a very unjudgmental way about prostitution in the song La Complainte des filles de joie, earning him thanks from sex workers.
Les croquants, meanwhile, can be considered a song about the importance of sexual consent.
Brassens’ anti-military, anti-clerical stance earned him many fans on the left.
L’Auvergnat – a song about a couple “opening the door” and giving shelter to someone in need – remains pertinent in a France obsessed by immigration.
The song Mourrir pour ses idées (To die for your beliefs) has also been read in the light of France’s ongoing struggle with religious fundamentalism and secularism.
Brassens was keen to stay out of party politics, and didn’t see himself as any kind of prophet or social commentator. He went where the mood took him.
“My songs are a bit like people,” he told France Inter radio. “They’re a bit sentimental, sometimes they lash out, they tiptoe quietly, cry, sing, all of that is normal.
“I don’t think you can classify them, they don’t like being labelled. One day I feel like being sentimental and the next something else.”