French singer and songwriter Georges Brassens was born in the south of France on October 22, 1921. He is known for his thoughtful lyrics, and he has also written music for poems by writers as diverse as Guillaume Apollinaire and Victor Hugo. Ironically, Brassens was a gifted musician who couldn’t read music; his mother had held out the promise of study at a conservatory if his grades improved, but they never did. He did, however, have a transformative experience with a teacher who taught him to love poetry. Brassens even considered pursuing a career as a writer. Unfortunately, stupid petty thefts with a gang of friends got him expelled from school. The disgraced young man left home for Paris.
By this point, Paris was already occupied by the German army. Brassens spent most of his time at the library pursuing a self-study program of the classics. He even was able to publish a collection of some of his early poems. Then he was forced to work in a German aircraft factory. He got a 10-day pass and never went back to the camp. Brassens hid in a Paris slum until the end of the war. His song “Jeanne” is dedicated to the woman who hid him – the same one who had helped him publish his poems. While in hiding, he churned out song after song, even a novel.
Although naturally shy, his friends pushed him to perform in cafés and cabarets. In this way, he came to the attention of some of the top names in the industry, including Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré. Brassens moved from cafés to the most prestigious concert halls, such as l’Olympia. His songs lampooned French society with mordant lyrics that contrasted sharply with peppy rhythms. One of his most controversial songs must also be the one most widely covered by other singers in a variety of languages – “Le Gorille.” In it, a judge who had sentenced a man to death without turning a hair later cries for mercy when attacked by a gorilla that has escaped from the zoo. The chorus, Gare au gori – i – i – i – ille (gar owe gor-e-e-e-yuh) means “Watch out for the gorilla” but it sounds so happy that I didn’t realized what the song was actually about until I got a lot better at French!
Brassens died of cancer on October 29, 1981. Many places in France are named after the singer who was the conscience of the nation.
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