Sunday, 25 August 2013

Les sabots d'Helene - the bistro owner's beautiful wife who once tugged his heartstrings


This song of admiration and affection was dedicated to the attractive young woman, who, with her husband, ran the “café charbon” at the corner the rue Bardinet and the rue Alésia, opposite the Impasse Florimont, where Georges Brassens lived with his Jeanne and her husband. Marcel  Planche .  During the early years, Brassens was a regular at the café and was sometimes too hard up to pay for his drinks.  His understanding hostess was Hélène Malet-Orsal  and Brassens joined his composition with the traditional popular song, “En passant par la Lorraine” which had another Hélène as its heroine.  (Perhaps that made the song less personal to Helene’s husband, who must surely have had mixed feelings about the compliment.)




Les sabots d'Hélène(1)
Étaient tout crottés,
Les trois capitaines l'auraient(2) appelée vilaine(3),
Et la pauvre Hélène
Était comme une âme en peine...

Ne cherche plus longtemps de fontaine,
Toi qui as besoin d'eau(4),
Ne cherche plus: aux larmes d'Hélène
Va-t'en remplir ton seau.

Moi j'ai pris la peine(5)
De les déchausser,
Les sabots d'Hélèn' moi qui ne suis pas capitaine,
Et j'ai vu ma peine
Bien récompensée...
Dans les sabots de la pauvre Hélène,
Dans ses sabots crottés,
Moi j'ai trouvé les pieds d'une reine(6)
Et je les ai gardés.


Son jupon de laine
Était tout mité,(6)
Les trois capitaines l'auraient appelée vilaine,
Et la pauvre Hélène
Était comme une âme en peine...
Ne cherche plus longtemps de fontaine,
Toi qui as besoin d'eau(3),
Ne cherche plus: aux larmes d'Hélène
Va-t'en remplir ton seau.


Moi j'ai pris la peine
De le retrousser,
Le jupon d'Hélèn' moi qui ne suis pas capitaine,
Et j'ai vu ma peine
Bien récompensée...
Sous le jupon de la pauvre Hélène,
Sous son jupon mité,
Moi j'ai trouvé des jambes de reine,
Et je les ai gardées.


Et le coeur d'Hélène
N'savait pas chanter,
Les trois capitaines l'auraient appelée vilaine,
Et la pauvre Hélène
Était comme une âme en peine...
Ne cherche plus longtemps de fontaine,
Toi qui as besoin d'eau(3),
Ne cherche plus: aux larmes d'Hélène
Va-t'en remplir ton seau.


Moi j'ai pris la peine
De m'y arrêter,
Dans le coeur d' Hélèn' moi qui ne suis pas capitaine,
Et j'ai vu ma peine
Bien récompensée...
Et, dans le coeur de la pauvre Hélène,
Qui avait jamais chanté,
Moi j'ai trouvé l'amour d'une reine(7)
Et moi je l'ai gardé.




(1955 - Chanson pour l'auvergnat)
The clogs of Hélène 
Were all caked with mud
The three captains, so they say, called her a sloven
And our poor Hélène
Was like a soul in anguish…….

Don’t seek a fountain any longer
You, in need of water,
Seek no further : from Hélène’s tears
Go and fill up your pail.

I took the trouble
To pull from her feet,
The clogs of Hélène , I who am no way a captain
And  I saw my trouble
Most sweetly repaid…
Inside the clogs of our poor  Hélène
Inside her clogs mud-caked
I found me the feet of a queen
And I have kept them mine


Her woollen petticoat
Was all full of holes
The three captains , so they say, called her a sloven
And our poor Hélène
Was like a soul in anguish…….
Don’t seek a fountain any longer
You, in need of water,
Seek no further : from Hélène’s tears
Go and fill up your pail.


I took the trouble
To tuck right up high,
The skirt of Helen, I who am no way a captain
And I saw my trouble
Most sweetly repaid…...
Neath the petticoat of poor Hélène
Neath her skirt moth-eaten
I found me the legs of a queen
And I have kept them mine.


And the heart of Hélène
Knew not how to sing,
The three captains, so they say,  called her a sloven
And our poor Hélène
Was like a soul in anguish…….
Don’t seek a fountain any longer
You, in need of water,
Seek no further : from Hélène’s tears
Go and fill up your pail.


I took the trouble 
To stay on right there
In the heart of Hélène, I who am no way a  captain
And I saw my trouble
Most sweetly repaid…...
And in the heart of our poor Hélène
Who had never sung before
I found me the love of a queen
And I have kept it mine.






TRANSLATION NOTES

1)      These cafés charbon, grouped mainly in the 11th arrondissement, had been set up in the 19th century by coal merchants who had come from the Auvergne region of Central France.  Their businesses sold coal but also served wine and coffee.  Hélène Malet-Orsal  did not originate from the Auvergne but from Aubrac Le Cayrol in the Midi Pyrénées region. She spent her life in the gentle reputation of being the Hélène of Brassens' song.  She died in 1992, having returned to live in her native village of Le Cayrol.

2)      (Ils) l'auraient appellee vilaine - - In the original folk song there are three army captains who treat Helen with contempt because of her poor, dirty peasant attire.  I think Brassens is gently teasing his own Helen about her rustic background, as she comes from a remote country district of France.  The original song reads:

Avec mes sabots, Ils m'ont appelée : Vilaine !
Avec mes sabots......

Brassens is using the conditional perfect tense and the normal translation would be be "The captains would have called her".  However in French, the conditional is used in statements the truth of which is based on hearsay or fable e.g."d'apres certains journaux du soir, une crise ministerielle serait imminente"

3)      Vilaine – Although the main meaning is « ugly », “ vilain” also had the meaning of “coming from a village” or “working class”.  Helen, on her way to Paris, seems very low class to these fine army officers. Brassens, of course, was antipathetic to social snobbery and the military.

4)      Toi qui as besoin d'eau – It wasn’t water that the soldiers were craving for though!

5)      Moi j'ai pris la peine – the phrase : « je perds la peine » occurs once in the original folk-song but Brassens uses « prendre la peine de etc » as a refrain. 


6) mité means moth eaten.  I could have kept this adjective, but I did not like the rhythm it gave me in this line of translation and I felt that I was expressing the same sense.  I use the direct translation later.

7)      Moi j'ai trouvé les pieds d'une reine – In the folk song, the royal connection is introduced when the peasant girl informs the officers, who had shown her contempt that the King’s son was in love with her.  He had given her a bunch of marjoram plants, which she had used her clogs to plant on the plain.  If they flowered she would become Queen.  Brassens does not include this mysterious tale.  The woman whose praises Brassens sings attains a regal dimension because of her physical beauty and the character of her love.

In the end this song of Brassens does not have a close connection with the folksong.  (We should add that Brassens does not use the traditional melody on which “En passant par Lorraine is sung”.)  However the name of Hélène, the peasant clogs, and the hurt of social snobbery were enough to give him the inspiration for this personal song. 


Please clickhere to return to the full alphabetical list of my Georges Brassens selection


THE ORIGINAL FOLK SONG


The title of the original folk song  is “En passant par Lorraine”.   Surprisingly, it is included in collections of chansons à boire, even though it has none of the salacious content of the standard French drinking songs.  This version of the folk song, at least,  is very innocent.




En passant par la Lorraine,
Avec mes sabots,
En passant par la Lorraine,
Avec mes sabots,
Rencontrai trois capitaines,
Avec mes sabots,
Dondaine, oh ! Oh ! Oh !
Avec mes sabots.

Rencontrai trois capitaines,
Avec mes sabots,
Rencontrai trois capitaines,
Avec mes sabots,
Ils m'ont appelée : Vilaine !
Avec mes sabots,
Dondaine, oh ! Oh ! Oh !
Avec mes sabots.

 Ils m'ont appelée : Vilaine !
 Avec mes sabots...
 Je ne suis pas si vilaine,
 Avec mes sabots...
 Puisque le fils du roi m'aime,
 Avec mes sabots...
 Il m'a donné pour étrenne,
 Avec mes sabots...
 Un bouquet de marjolaine,
 Avec mes sabots...
 Je l'ai planté sur la plaine,
 Avec mes sabots...

 S'il fleurit, je serai reine,
 Avec mes sabots...
 S'il y meurt, je perds ma peine,
 Avec mes sabots,
 Dondaine, oh ! Oh ! Oh !
 Avec mes sabots. 







This is the text in the Editions Grimaud of chansons à boire.  However the picture accompanying this text suggests that there might be other versions.


Please click here toreturn to the alphabetical list of my Brassens selection






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