Thursday, 25 April 2013

La marche nuptiale -The pathos of the wedding procession for Brassens' parents

This is a very touching, very personal song, because Brassens is describing the wedding day of his parents.  Although the title of the song is “Wedding March” and Brassens speaks of the day as a memory that he will never forget, the sombre music of the song is more suitable for a “marche funèbre”-  a funeral march.  This is appropriate because their wedding appears to have had a prevailing mood of pathos, marked by embarrassment, disappointment and deep emotional distress on the part of the bride.  The families of bride and groom were so poor that their bridal carriage, to the amazement of the onlookers was an ox cart propelled by the wedding guests. 

It is an unconventional wedding, because the couple have already been together for a long time and their son is accompanying them with music on his harmonica.  We are told that they are on the way to the Town Hall and so they would seem to be on their way to a civil ceremony, not a church marriage. The crisis for the bride comes, when heaven manifests its disapproval by striking the procession with a mighty wind and soaking the participants with a heavy downpour of rain.

The account in the song does not tally with Brassens’ biography and this question will be discussed in the following translation notes.
Barbara sings this song with a lot of verve and feeling.

Mariage d'amour, mariage d'argent,
J'ai vu se marier toutes sortes de gens
Des gens de basse source et des grands de la terre,
Des prétendus coiffeurs, des soi-disant notaires.

Quand même je vivrais jusqu'à la fin des temps,
Je garderai toujours le souvenir content
Du jour de pauvre noce où mon père et ma mère
S'allèrent épouser devant Monsieur le Maire.(1)

C'est dans un char à boeufs, s'il faut parler bien franc,
Tiré par les amis, poussé par les parents,
Que les vieux amoureux firent leurs épousailles (2)
Après long temps d'amour, long temps de fiançailles (3)

Cortège nuptial hors de l'ordre courant,
La foule nous couvait d'un oeil protubérant
Nous étions contemplés par le monde futile
Qui n'avait jamais vu de noces de ce style.

Voici le vent qui souffle emportant, crève-coeur!
Le chapeau de mon père et les enfants de choeur..
Voilà la plui' qui tombe en pesant bien ses gouttes,
Comme pour empêcher la noc', coûte que coûte.

Je n'oublierai jamais la mariée en pleurs (4)
Berçant comme un' poupé' son gros bouquet de fleurs
Moi, pour la consoler, moi, de toute ma morgue,
Sur mon harmonica, jouant les grandes orgues.

Tous les garçons d'honneur, montrant le poing aux nues,
Criaient : "Par Jupiter, la noce continue !" (5)
Par les homm's décriée, par les dieux contrariée,
La noce continue et viv' la mariée !

In Barbara’s version she repeats the second stanza at the end of her song

Quand même je vivrais jusqu'à la fin des temps,
Je garderai toujours le souvenir content
Du jour de pauvre noce où mon père et ma mère
S'allèrent épouser devant Monsieur le Maire.(1)

1957 – In the album : Je me suis fait tout petit
Marriages for love, marriages  for money
I have seen all sorts of people getting married :
Folk of humble stock and great figures in the land,
Some calling themselves coiffeurs, some self-styled lawyers.

Even if I should live  until the end of time
I will always treasure the memory
Of the poor wedding day my father and mother
Went to get themselves wed before Monsieur the Mayor

It was, if  full truth need be told, in an ox cart
With our friends pulling it, and relatives pushing,
That the long-time lovers rode to their nuptials
After a long term love,  a long time engagement.

A marriage cortège most unconventional,
The crowd thronged around us,  eyes wide with amazement
We were being looked on by people not involved  
Who hadn’t ever seen a wedding in this style

Here comes the wind, which blows away, oh the heartbreak ! 
The hats of my father and children in the choir.
Then there’s the rain which falls, dishing out big  rain-drops 
As if to stop the wedding, at all cost.

I shall never forget the bride, sitting weeping,
As she cradled  like a doll her big bunch of flowers.
I to console her, I, with all my proud contempt
On my harmonica, played great organ pieces

And all the groomsmen, shaking their fists at the clouds
Were shouting « By Jupiter, the wedding goes on !
Though by humans decried, by the gods obstructed
The wedding  continues and so long live the bride !

Even if I should live  until the end of time
I will always treasure the memory
Of the poor wedding day my father and mother
Went to get themselves wed before Monsieur the Mayor

1)     devant Monsieur le Maire- I thought of putting « Before his Worship the Mayor » as that is the Mayor’s (odd) title in Britain, but that would have changed the cultural setting.

2)     firent leurs épousailles – Brassens says that his parents celebrated their wedding in an ox cart.  Surely the mayor did not marry them in it.  I have taken the liberty of changing it!

3)     Après long temps d'amour, long temps de fiançailles – According to the story in the song, the parents had been in love for a long time and had had a long engagement.  Obviously they must have been living in sin, to use the English terminology of those days, and she had given birth to the son who was playing the harmonica and telling the story.  In fact, Georges Brassens mother, Elvira Dagrossa, who came from an Italian family, had been married previously and had had a daughter, Simone, in 1912.  Her husband had been called up during the 1914- 1918 war and he had been killed in 1919.  As she married Jean-Louis Brassens in 1920 after having been a widow for only one year, it is difficult to see how they could have been lovers and engaged for a long time.  As Georges Brassens was born, their legitimate son in 1921, it was impossible for him to have been at his parents’ wedding –except in the womb perhaps !

4)     Je n'oublierai jamais la mariée en pleurs- It is understandable that this would have been a very emotional day for Elvira. Just a year ago, she had been married to a different man, the father of her nine year old daughter – until the ominous telegram was delivered at her house.  As a devout Catholic, she would be afraid of the wrath of God and the anger of the skies would seem to confirm this.  She was getting married in a civil ceremony to a man who had little respect for her religion and her Catholic education would have convinced her that she was jeopardising her immortal soul. 

5)     Criaient : "Par Jupiter, la noce continue !"In turning their eyes to the heavens, the sceptical Brassens menfolk, do not address the god of the bride, capable of oppressing a poor and vulnerable woman who has already suffered much, but call on the heroic god of the Ancients.

Here is an impressive version sung by the Spaniard, Serge Lama, in the company of Georges Brassens

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Monday, 8 April 2013

Celui Qui A Mal Tourné - reassuring tale of people at their worst but also at their best

I find this a touching poem and very personal to Brassens, as the experiences and emotions of the man in the story closely parallel those of Brassens.
 Brassens never found himself accused of murder of course, but in his youth, Brassens had become involved in unworthy criminality, which diminished his self-respect and gave him a great sense of guilt. He too had been condemned by the harsh verdict of the courts, which made no allowances.  He had been painfully conscious of the disgust and anger he had aroused in the ordinary people around him and had gone into long exile. Even when he became a successful performer, his self-image was of an outsider estranged from the society of “respectable” people - to him they were "Les croquants and les croquantes".

Paradoxically, the audiences who thronged to listen to him were in the majority from this “respectable” class and, who knows, might have included some members who were over-weight, over- wealthy and devoted to sensual pleasure, like the ageing fun seeker, whom the man in the story had accidentally snuffed out. Nevertheless, the audiences reacted to the social outsider on the stage with appreciation, sympathy and love. 
It is possible therefore that the enlightenment of the man seen in the last verse of the song describes Brassens' own realisation in the closing years of his career.  One can imagine that on some nights at the end of his performances, when stage-fright habitually tore his nerves to shreds, Brassens returned to the privacy of his dressing room and overwhelmed by the warmth of his reception, drowned by the invasive sense of human kindness, sank to the floor and wept uncontrollably.  The final two lines of the song are the most important in the song.

Celui Qui A Mal Tourné

Il y avait des temps et des temps
Qu'je n'm'étais pas servi d'mes dents,
Qu'je n' mettais plus d'vin dans mon eau (1)
Ni de charbon dans mon fourneau.

Tous les croque-morts, silencieux,
Me dévoraient déjà des yeux:
Ma dernière heure allait sonner
C'est alors que j'ai mal tourné(2)

N'y allant pas par quatre chemins,
J'estourbis(3) en un tournemain(4),
En un coup de bûche(5) excessif,
Un noctambule(6) en or massif.(7)

Les chats fourrés,(8) quand ils l'ont su
M'ont posé la patte dessus
Pour m'envoyer à la Santé(9)
Me refaire une honnêteté.

Machin, Chose, Un tel, Une telle,(10)
Tous ceux du commun des mortels
Furent d'avis que j'aurais dû
En bonn' justice être pendu.

À la lanterne(11)! et sur-le-champ!
Y s'voyaient déjà partageant
Ma corde, en tout bien tout honneur(12),
En guise de porte-bonheur.(13)

Au bout d'un siècle, on m'a jeté
À la porte de la Santé.
Comme je suis sentimental,
Je retourne au quartier natal,

Baissant le nez, rasant les murs,
Mal à l'aise sur mes fémurs,(14)
M'attendant à voir les humains
Se détourner de mon chemin.

Y' en a un qui m'a dit: " Salut !
Te revoir, on n'y comptait plus..."
Y' en a un qui m'a demandé
Des nouvelles de ma santé.

Lors, j'ai vu qu'il restait encor
Du monde et du beau mond' sur terre,
Et j'ai pleuré, le cul par terre,
Toutes les larmes de mon corps(15).

 Georges Brassens

1957 - Je me suis fait tout petit,

It had been a very long while
Since I’d had aught to bite into Since I’d put wine in my water
Nor any coal into my stove.

All morticians on the quiet
Were already eyeing me up
My last hour was going to chime
That was when I went badly wrong.

Not to beat long about the bush
I killed a man in a wild flash,
Clobbering with much too much force
A night-reveller stuffed with money.

The ermined judges,  finding out
Came down very hard upon me
Sending me to Santé prison
To remake ‘n honest man of me.

Lots of folk whose names slip my mind
All ordin'ry human beings,
Were of a mind, I ought to have
In all fairness gone to be hanged.

Strung up high and with no delay !
While they saw themselves already
Slicing my rope fair and proper,
To be shared out as good luck charms.

A century on, they threw me out
From the gate of Santé Prison
As I’m the sentimental sort,
I go back to where I was born.

Keeping head down, hugging the walls,
Ill at ease to be in my shoes,
Expecting to see the humans
Veer off, to keep out of my way.

There’s one who said to me : “Hello!
Never counted on seeing you…..”
There’s one who enquired news of me -
My « Santé » - my health and prison.

Then I saw that there still remained
People and fine people on earth
I flopped to the ground and I wept
With uncontrollable tears.


1)      Qu'je n' mettais plus d'vin dans mon eau – The normal practice of putting water in wine is reversed. To avoid sentiment, the poet does not want to tell us too directly that the man was desperately short of food and shelter.

2)      C'est alors que j'ai mal tourné.  There is probably some irony here, as, the state that the was in, makes clear that things had gone badly wrong for him long before.

3)      J'estourbis = I killed.  The poet says he does not wish to beat about the bush but he uses a less usual verb for “to kill.”

4)      en un tournemain = in an instant/ in the twinkling of an eye/.  Perhaps in this case a mad,, impulsive action is implied.

5)      un coup de bûche = a blow with a lump of wood.

6)      Un noctambule = sleepwalker/ night owl/ a late nighter

7)      en or massif  = in solid gold

8)      Les chats fourrés, A slang expression meaning “judges”, descriptive of their robes.

9)      La Santé – The proper noun denotes the Prison in the 13th arrondissement of Paris.  The common noun of course means “health” and this permits puns in the poem.

10)   Machin, Chose, Un tel, Une telle – In English, when we want to quote some-one whose name we forget , we say « Thingummy says…. ».  In French they say « Machin dit….. » or they could use the other devices on this line.

11)   À la lanterne  Wikipedia gives this full explanation :  Lanterne is a French word designating a lantern or lamp post. The word, or the slogan "À la lanterne!" gained special meaning and status in Paris and France during the early phase of the French Revolution, from the summer of 1789. Lamp posts served as an instrument to mobs to perform extemporised lynchings and executions in the streets of Paris during the revolution when the people of Paris occasionally hanged officials and aristocrats from the lamp posts. The English equivalent would be "String Them Up!" or "Hang 'Em High!

12)   (faire) en tout bien tout honneur means something done with honourable intent and without any reservations

13)   En guise de porte-bonheur. There is an old superstition that a piece of hangman’s rope already used in an execution, brings good luck.

14)   fémurs, are femurs in English also of course, which are the thighbones – so we don’t share the idiom.

15)   Pleurer les larmes de mon corps means to cry my eyes out

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