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. Continue reading “A century on, French singer and anarchist Georges Brassens still hits the right note”