In doing a little research on French folk music I realized I had a different understanding of the word. So used to poets with guitars I forgot that folk came from folklore and that therefore, in a country of the old world like France, folk music would be a way to revive regional traditions rather than challenge them. To honor both my perception, and appreciation, for what I thought was French folk as well as what it is according to Google, I will go over both. The folklore then the folk.
French folklore music has been a way for regions who were until recently, and still are to some extent, very distinct from one another. We’re after all talking about a medieval country where each region had its own king, castle, set of rules and therefore regional codes and cultural pride. Despite the end of monarchy and the feudal system, the people of France still take great pride in their regional history, cuisine and stories. All of those converge into folk songs in which are told the stories of these once isolated people in their own regional dialects. Not surprisingly, the regions most known for their folk music are the same which are most known for maintaining regional pride in a time where such thing has become relatively irrelevant; namely Bretagne in the North-West, Gascogne in the South-West bordering Spain and Corsica, an island to the South-East of the mainland. Even in those three main regions, folk music had been rather rare since the feudal times but it experienced a sudden revival in the 50’s. It only makes sense that after the French suffered the consequences of a war opposing an entire nation against another they sought to return to a more regional, and therefore comforting, way of life. The beauty of folk culture, and music more specifically, is that it brings people together not according to arbitrary borders or governmental documentation but according to what actually connects people together; meaning physical proximity, a shared landscape, history and a way of life. The region of Bretagne shares the same Gaelic roots as its neighbor across the Channel despite the linguistic barrier and the tense history between the two nations. The music of Bretagne relies mainly on three elements. The first is the call-and-response style of vocals, which the Irishmen know well. The two other are its two most instruments: bagpipes and harps. In terms of its content, the folk music coming from Bretagne mainly talks of whimsical tales and odes to its green landscapes and rocky beaches. One would expect the folk music of Gascogne to resemble what is commonly known as Spanish music but it is pretty far from that. Its main instruments are small pipes made of sheepskin called bohas which were used mainly as a way to bring back the long defunct tradition of jugglers and troubadours. Even today, the Gascogne folk music therefore has a very theatrical component to it and rarely involves unaccompanied music. However, despite all of this, the region is more known for its Marciac International Jazz Festival than for its folk music. And now we’re on to Corsica; a region which more so than any of the two others emanates regional pride at its paroxysm. The Corses, inhabitants of the region, have in fact been known for their independist movements and terrorist attacks both on the island itself and on the mainland of France which long ago colonised them. When the Corsican chants don’t revolve around nationalist revendication they tell the tales which reflect even deeper seeded battles; the ancient struggles between the Moors and the Christians. The cetera, a citera of four to eight double strings which originates from the nearby region of Tuscany and dates back to the Renaissance period, is the main instrument of Corsican folk. When it comes to vocals, the Corsican folk can be broken down between its monophonic and polyphonic songs. The former usually involving a man a woman conversing in song and lamenting the dead, the latter comprised of both small groups of improvising female singers and larger choirs of men. The folk songs that I was most exposed to growing up though fell in one of two categories. They were either nursery rhymes sung to children for bedtime, such as Au Clair De La Lune, or crude drunken songs sung late-night at local bars whose names I can never recall but whose lyrics go, for one of them, “Put your dick on my shoulder, put your dick, put your dick, where, put your dick on my shoulder”.
As for what I, until today, thought was French music and still is when looking at it through the lens of American folk music; it is far more fun and reflective of a modern France as opposed to an attempt to revive its old identity. I would describe this French folk as being more lyric-centric and less musical than American folk but perhaps that is only due to my limited knowledge of the genre. That is not to say that the American folk is not filled with high-level wordsmith but rather that French folk is far less focused on melody and the auditory appeal of the words chosen. Both French and American folk do involve bringing rural tales to the city though. Dylan and his peers had their West Village and their Nuclear Age. The French had the post-World War II Parisians cafes. What they brought to those cafes was a little country realism which they displayed through crude language and raw themes. The first which comes to mind is the glorious Frehel, a hell of a woman who actually shouted her tunes in the yet-to-be liberated street of Paris. Her most famous song, La Coco, tells, in the first person, the story of a woman abandoned by her lover who then discovers the joys of cocaine, finds herself a gigolo and later on a coke-frenzy ends up foolishly killing him (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qk-PSBoc71I). The second go-to figure of French folk music, the kind I like at least, came about a decade or so later when Paris was back on its feet and infused with a new generation of artists of all kind. His name is Boris Vian and not satisfied with being one France’s greatest songwriters he was also a writer, poet, inventor, translator, actor and engineer. No joke. He even served as the liaison between the American Jazz artists such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, and the burgeoning Parisian Jazz scene. The first song that I think of when Boris Vian comes up is his hilariously grim trumpet back confessional tune on the topic of his alcoholism which features lines such as “I drink…systematically. To forget. The lovers of my mother.”; Je Bois (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qXkV1e6yZY). The song which earned him a place in the French Pantheon was his open letter to the President, Le Deserteur, which tells the story of a man deserting from the French army knowing damn well the consequences of his actions, both moral and legal, but who after seeing father and brother die on the battlefield would rather roam the unpaved roads of the French country a beggar than pick up a weapon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjndTXyk3mw). I can’t say that I’m saving the best for last but it is the one whose work I am most familiar with, the southern folk singer George Brassens. He was perhaps the closest thing to Dylan, at least early Dylan, in the way he went about constructing records. He went about with no more than an acoustic guitar and a notebook and infused his songs with anarchist dreams of a hiercharchy-less post-war society. His body of work is quite considerable and at the risk of being cliche it would be fair to say that he is one of these artists who lives to sing and not sing to live; or however that dumb formula goes I don’t know. He had the quirk of not naming his albums. They were either referred to by their number, in terms of the chronological order in which they were released, or by the name of the first song which appeared on each record. I think of him as a multi-faceted artists who could at times touch on sexuality and the prudeness of some, with a song like Fernande which lists off a man’s past lovers and both eloquently and crudely listing their respective sexual aptitudes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3zLP21va4s). At the same time he could write lovely songs about the relationship of a father looking into the eyes of his daughter for the very first time and feels himself both empowered as a father and as a man, weakened and nostalgia-infused by her sweetness and innocent; Je Me SuiS Fait Tout Petit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQ-jmO_EkPc). On the other end of the spectrum are songs like La Mauvaise Reputation, an ode to non-confirmity which acknowledges its risk and the self-inflicted martyrdom which comes with walking your own road; think a more lengthy and elegant version of Hendrix’s “I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die so let me live my life the way I want to” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26Nuj6dhte8).
I tried to compensate for the language barrier by describing the audacious themes of these French folk singers and offering more than one or two youtube links but it would be impossible for me to them justice in this blog post. Unlike American folk, whose content can be appreciated worldwide even by non-english speakers because of the well-known socio-political themes that artists like Dylan stood up against, the beauty of french folk, not unlike rap, lies mainly in the vividness of its tale of the average guy and more importantly and the way with which its artists manipulate the french language with intricate metaphors.