10 April, 2009
Georges Brassens was a French singer-songwriter.
Georges Brassens was born in Sète (then called Cette), a town in southern France near Montpellier. Now an iconic figure in France, he achieved fame through his simple, elegant songs and articulate, diverse lyrics; indeed, he is considered one of France's most accomplished postwar poets. He has also set to music poems by both well-known and relatively obscure poets, including Louis Aragon, Victor Hugo, Jean Richepin, François Villon, and Guillaume Apollinaire.
During World War II, he was forced by the Germans to work in a labor camp at a BMW aircraft engine plant in Basdorf near Berlin in Germany (March 1943). Here Brassens met some of his future friends, such as Pierre Onténiente, whom he called Gibraltar because he was "steady as a rock." They would later become close friends.
After being given ten days' leave in France, he decided not to return to the labour camp. Brassens took refuge in a slum called "Impasse Florimont" where he lived for several years with its owner, Jeanne Planche, a friend of his aunt. Planche lived with her husband Marcel in relative poverty: without gas, running water, or electricity. Brassens remained hidden there until the end of the war five months later, but ended up staying for 22 years. Planche was the inspiration for Brassens's song Jeanne.
Brassens grew up in the family home in Sète with his mother, Elvira Dagrosa, father, Jean-Louis, half-sister, Simone (daughter of Elvira and her first husband, who was killed in the war), and paternal grandfather, Jules. His mother, who came from a Neapolitan family, was a devout Roman Catholic, while his father was an easy-going, generous, openminded, anticlerical man. Brassens grew up between these two starkly contrasting personalities, who nonetheless shared a love for music. His mother—whom Brassens labelled a "missionary for songs" (militante de la chanson), Simone and Jules, were always singing. This environment imparted to Brassens a passion for singing that would come to define his life. At the time he listened constantly to his early idols: Charles Trenet, Tino Rossi, and Ray Ventura. He was said to love music above all else: it was his first passion and the path that led him to his career. He told his friend André Sève, "[It is] a kind of internal vibration, something intense, a pleasure that has something of the sensual to it." He hoped to enroll at a music conservatory, but his mother insisted that he could only do so if his grades improved. Consequently, he never learned to read music. A poor student, Brassens performed badly in school.
Alphonse Bonnafé, Brassens' ninth-grade teacher, strongly encouraged his apparent gift for poetry and creativity. Brassens had already been experimenting with songwriting and poetry. Bonnafé aided his attempts at poetry and pushed him to spend more time on his schoolwork, suggesting he begin to study classical poetry. Brassens developed an interest in versification and rhyme. By Brassens' admission, Bonnafé's influence on his work is enormous: "We were thugs, at fourteen, fifteen, and we started to like poets. That is quite a transformation. Thanks to this teacher, I opened my mind to something bigger. Later on, every time I wrote a song, I asked myself the question: would Bonnafé like it?" By this point, music had taken a slight backstage to poetry for Brassens, who now dreamed of being a writer.
Nonetheless, personal friendships and adolescence still defined Brassens in his teens. At age seventeen, he was implicated in a crime that would prove to be a turning point in his life. In order to make a little money, Georges and his gang decided to turn to small thefts whose principal victims were their respective families. Georges stole a ring and a bracelet from his sister. The police found and caught him, which caused a minor scandal. The young men were publicly characterized as "high school mobsters" or "scum". Some of the perpetrators, unsupported by their families, spent time in prison. While Brassen's father was more forgiving and immediately picked up his son, Brassens was expelled from school. He decided to move to Paris in February 1940, following a short trial as an apprentice mason in his father's business after World War II had already broken out.
Brassens lived with his aunt Antoinette in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, where he taught himself to play piano. He began working at a Renault car factory. In May 1940 the factory was bombed, and France invaded by Germany. Brassens returned to the family home in Sète. He spent the summer in his home town, but soon returned to Paris, feeling that this was where his future lay. He did not work, since employment would serve only to profit the occupying enemy. Saddened by the lack of poetic culture, Brassens spent most of his days in the library. It was then that he set a pattern of arising at five in the morning, and going to bed at sunset - a pattern he maintained the greater part of his life. He meticulously studied the great masters: Villon, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Hugo. His approach to poetry was almost scientific. Reading, for instance, a poem by Verlaine, he dissected it image by image, attentive to the slightest change in rhythm, analysing the rhymes and the way they alternated. He drew on this enormous literary culture as wrote his first collection of poems, Des coups d’épée dans l’eau, whose conclusion foreshadowed the anarchism of his future songs:
His friends who heard and liked his songs urged him to go and try them out in a cabaret, café or concert hall. He was shy and had difficulty performing in front of people. At first, he wanted to sell his songs to most-known singers such as "les frères Jacques". The owner of a cafe told him that his songs were not the type he was looking for. But at one point he met the singer Patachou in a very well-known cafe, Les Trois Baudets, and she brought him into the music scene. Several famous singers came into the music industry this way, including Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré.
He rarely performed outside his own country, and his lyrics are difficult to translate, though attempts have been made. He performed with an acoustic guitar; most of the time, his only accompanying musician was his friend Pierre Nicolas with a double bass, and sometimes a second guitar (Barthélémy Rosso, Joël
Brassens died of cancer in 1981, in Saint-Gély-du-Fesc, having suffered health problems for many years, and rests at the Cimetière le Py in Sète.