When – ages ago - girls in my class were getting hysterical about Elvis Presley or Rock around the clock – which I like today for sentimental reasons of youth gone by – I listened to my collection of chansons, French chansons. I grew up with them and I still like them… for the mood they create. I like them for the poetic words, for the melancholic music talking about lost love, solitude, dreams, memories, environment and streets remembered; but also about the daily hard fights of the little people in society, the neighbourhoods, the rebellious young people fighting bourgeoisie, disappointment in politics, and generally sad things in our life. The history of chansons goes back as far as the early middle ages and to famous epic poems - one of the oldest is the ‘Song of Roland’ - usually recounting deeds of past heroes, which were sung by bards, troubadours or ménéstrels roaming the countries, from one court to the next, often going with the armies into battles or for example with the crusaders; there is even one ‘Crusade Song’. All countries have their early epic poem chansons, in Germany it was the Minnesang, courting chants accompanied by the lyre. Turkey had its migrating poets and singers, often very religious, philosophical and of high morale such as Yunus Emre. Cyprus had its ballads and chants that came with the Frankish and Italian court people, even today we have composers and poets in Cyprus who create chanson-like songs with Greek and Turkish Cypriot elements, for example my friend and poet Zeki Ali and his friends in the South, with one of their albums ‘A Pair of Olive Leaves’.
When we speak of chansons today a few famous chansonniers come to our mind that had great influence in the scene and left us with beautiful songs and nostalgia of times gone by. Who isn’t touched by ‘Milord’ sung by Edith Piaf or ‘La Vie en Rose’ and so many others, who as a young girl roamed the streets of Paris and sang her songs for a handful of pennies. When I grew up we talked about the small cafés in Montmartre where the famous musicians started their career and we longed to go there one day ourselves; by the end of the 19th century it was Aristide Bruant and his Cabaret, he became famous by a poster painted by Toulouse Lautrec, the man with the black hat and the red shawl. Contemporaries were Georges Brassens with the charming song ‘Les Lilas: Quand je vais chez la fleuriste j’achète des lilas’…or Maurice Chevalier with his immortel ‘Valentine: Elle avait des tout petits pétons, Valentine, Valentine’…Charles Trenet with his unforgettable song La Mer: ‘La mer, Qu'on voit danser le long des golfes clairs, A des reflets d'argent, La mer’…. It was the theme tune of Radio Angola first thing in the morning.
The image of Paris was connected with actress and popular chanson singer Juliette Gréco with her songs: ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’ or ‘Parlez-moi d’amour’ and later Mireille Matthieu, called the sparrow from Avignon and successor of Edith Piaf. Male chanson singers of that time were Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour who were both working with Edith Piaf in their young years. Yves Montand, who was of Italian descent, a fantastic actor known best for his film ‘The Wages of Fear’ who first started as a music hall singer, was discovered by Edith Piaf and married Simone Signoret. I love his song: ‘Les feuilles mortes’. Ah, and Charles Aznavour, actually of Armenian descent, but born in Paris, actor and singer… I first heard his voice in 1962, with his internationally known songs: ‘Tu te laisses aller’ or ‘She’, or ‘Mourir d’amour’. He sang in many countries and languages and his famous timbre won him many enthusiasts and female hearts.
Finally, I come to my longtime favourites who are Barbara, Jacques Brel, Jean Ferrat, Léo Ferré. I had heard Barbara and Jacques Brel sing in 1964 in a Parisian restaurant near the Eiffel Tower in one of the sidestreets, very exclusive place, Villa d’Est, and I became addicted to their music, many of their songs are their own compositions. Barbara’s best known songs were ‘Göttingen’, ‘Marienbad’ and ‘Il pleut sur Nantes’, all her songs being full of melancholy. Jacques Brel, who in the world wouldn’t know ‘Ne me quitte pas’ or the aggressive song “Les bourgeois sont comme les cochons plus ça deviant vieux plus ça devient bête’….also in the English speaking world his songs became very popular. A wonderful chanson singer is Jean Ferrat with Russian blood in his venes, known as composer and for singing poetry, especially Louis Aragon, and his own poems. Yes, and finally Léo Ferré who in my opinion offers the widest scope of chansons, the whole range of emotions, inventing his own musical ways and composing music to the verses by François Villon, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and many more. He is considered one of the greatest composers and writers of French chansons.
Just recently I listened again to his song: Avec le temps, avec le temps, va, tout s’en va, on oublie le visage et l’on oublie la voix; le coeur, quand ça bat plus, c’est pas la peine d’aller chercher plus loin, faut laisser faire et c’est très bien, avec le temps….
With time, listen, everything passes, we forget a face and with it the voice; when the heart no longer beats it’s no use to continue searching, we need to let go and that’s good… with time passing….