George Brassens wrote
"J'ai quitté la vi' sans rancune, j'aurai plus jamais mal aux dents,
Me v'là dans la fosse commune, la fosse commune du temps."
"I've left this life with no rancour, I'll never have toothache again,
Now I lie in the communal grave, the communal grave of time."
That's a quote from Brassens' song 'Le testament', his 'Last will and testament'.Georges Brassens (1921-1981) is as well-known in France today as The Beatles are in England. People whistle his melodies on the streets, pass them on through generations. His bittersweet lyrics won him the French national poetry prize. He popularised French poetry in music. People respect him as le bon maître/the good master and regard him with affection as tonton Georges/uncle George and notre nounours national/our national teddy bear.
What they say about Georges Brassens
"Brassens...sang at the world as if it were an old lover whose ways are teasingly familiar, and from whom not too much is expected...he was France's greatest and wisest singer, and we should visit him...in whatever way we can."
Julian Barnes, "Something to Declare", Picador 2002
"A few years ago, in the course of a literary discussion, someone asked who was the best poet at the moment in France. I responded without hesitation: Georges Brassens."
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize for Literature 1981
"I believe it is a mortal sin not to listen to Brassens."
Jacques Brel, songwriter
"...he is the greatest songwriter in the world, bar none. He is head, shoulders, chest, knees above anybody else I can think of. Nothing he does is poor. In France he is not just a household word, he is a household paragraph. The French do not doubt or debate his greatness."
Jake Thackray, poet and songwriter
"He was a poetic anarchist with the gentlest anti-establishment voice ever recorded. Even if you can't appreciate the words, the melodies are simple and beautiful. Brassens' music evolved in an environment completely separate from that which we are used to, so sounds alien and familiar simultaneously. He is both a national outcast and hero in France, yet most of us don't know him on this side of the Channel. His lyrics were more subversive than Dylan or the Sex Pistols and he wrote better tunes than either.
Alex Kapranos, Franz Ferdinand's singer, quoted in The Guardian October 2006
"Brassens is capable of being terribly funny, very ironic and biting, but also very sentimental, and brings tears to your eyes."
Posy Simmonds, Guardian cartoonist
"...humour, insight and a sweet approachable style combined with a marvellous contempt for established propriety...he speaks with a clear voice about major issues of life and death."
William Hinshaw, American Fan Club webmaster
"Deprived of its creator-interprète (Brassens') work holds its own. More - it inspires other creators both to write songs and to interpret those of Brassens. Often their renderings ensure that the work is enriched, that nuances are exploited, that its sound is renewed, modernised. Because of this, because too of the universality of his themes and the variety of his treatments of them, Brassens is, and may remain longer than we could have possibly imagined, a seminal figure who is also our contemporary."
Sara Poole, Brassens Chansons', Grant and Cutler 2000
| A perspective from England in 2005
Sara Poole, lecturer in French at England's Reading University, and author of
"Brassens: chansons", contributes this appreciation of Georges Brassens.
"Major voice of chanson in the 1950s. Anarchist beginnings. Early writings convinced him (but luckily not the Académie Française, which honoured him in 1967) that he was not a poet, and he began to write material he hoped others would sing. When they didn't, or not much, he was obliged to sing it himself; all his life he would amble shyly and sweating on stage as if about to have a tooth pulled.
He sang provocative (sometimes, in the early days, banned) pieces about social hypocrisy, friendship, death, love, religion, women, individualism, etc. He created characters that are as much part of the French collective cultural baggage as Uriah Heep or Bertie Wooster are of the British national psyche. He did all this in crafted, honed pieces set to very hummable jazz rhythms, and delivered solely with the help of his acoustic guitar, and his accompanist's double-bass.
I reckon every French citizen over 12 can hum a Brassens piece (even if they don't know who it's by). The French love him because of the image of the French he reflects back at them: free-thinking, loyal, compassionate, witty, uncompromising, modest, with a nose for a hypocrite and a sublime talent - and growing more handsome as he grew older. He never married (but had a lifetime love); he never lost his southern accent; he never made any concessions to show business.
He's an icon. In all senses. Draw a guitar and a bushy moustache and the majority of the French population will know instantly who you are evoking. It is almost impossible to find anyone with a drop of French blood, whatever their age, who can be persuaded to say anything negative about the man or the work."
Brassens in Britain
Brassens had never performed outside France until, at the invitation of his friend, French lecturer Colin Evans, he visited Wales to present one concert at Cardiff's Sherman Theatre in 1973. The BBC filmed the performance and in 1975 broadcast excerpts within a programme about Brassens' life and work.
"5th May 1975. On TV, George Brassens first and only concert in England (sic). He sings the great love song I first heard him sing twenty years ago and should have acted on: 'J'ai l'honneur de ne pas te demander ta main.' A man introducing the programme acutely says that, whereas English popular music was overrun and conquered by America in the thirties, forties and fifties, France remained immune; hence the pure tradition represented by people like Brassens."
From 'The diaries of Kenneth Tynan' edited by John Lahr, Bloomsbury 2001
Colin Evans has kindly allowed us to reproduce here his introduction to Georges Brassens from the programme notes for that concert in 1973.
Sherman Theatre Cardiff, October 28th 1973
"Every night for three months last winter Brassens filled to overflowing the Bobino theatre in Montparnasse. (1,400 seats). I was there on the last night. Outside people queued in vain. Inside they stood five deep at the back of the theatre. Brassens appears after the interval, and stands by a wooden chair, his right hand making embarrassed slowing down movements when the applause doesn't stop. The lighting is flat. Then he puts a foot on the chair and begins his first song.
"A theatre is not the lighting and the sound equipment but the hush that falls when a large number of individuals is fused into a group, concentrating on another human being's voice and on a form of language which both is and is not their own.
"At midnight people pour out into the Rue de la Galté. As Giraudoux says about the effect that good theatre has on an audience: "Like a warm iron on sheets, a style has passed over them, they are all crumpled by the week's work and now they are all smooth."
"Brassens is quite simply the greatest living poet-singer. He only appears in public every three years, each time with just ten new songs. His words are the result of months of writing and rewriting. He commands a vast range of vocabulary and metre. Since his schooldays he has been steeped in what he calls the "real" poets, from Villon to Valéry. But however far he moves into literature his language is always rooted in the rich soil of everyday usage and he stands firmly in the age-old tradition of irreverent popular art. His music, varied, inventive, is the vehicle for the poetry as music always has been in a popular, oral tradition.
"He radiates integrity, wholeness. We are surrounded by electronic artefacts and synthetic creations, but here is a live human being speaking of familiar things, love and friendship, old age and death, with humour and without sentimentality, always saying less than what he is feeling, presenting an imaginary world and imaginary characters which we still recognise. This is poetry with a human face.
"Brassens has never before agreed to sing outside France where he has his roots and his language. We are privileged that he should have broken this rule to sing to us in the Sherman tonight."