Musician Joe Flood translates the songs of Georges Brassens
Written by Hank Hoffman
For musician Joe Flood, translating the songs of French singer Georges Brassens has been a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless. Translating Brassens’ songs posed an array of challenges on linguistic, cultural, and musical levels, according to Flood.
In October, Flood began a first-Tuesday-of-each-month residency at Café Nine in New Haven to play Brassens’ songs and related works. The Guilford-based musician has also recorded 10 of his Brassens translations for a forthcoming compact disc.
Brassens, who died in 1981 at age 60, was a French singer-songwriter and poet admired for his deft, lyrically dense wordplay and anti-authoritarian attitude. Both qualities are evident in Brassens’ “Le Gorille,” translated by Flood as “The Gorilla,” about a rampaging, well-endowed primate that sodomizes a hanging judge.
While Flood, who is 51, had long entertained the idea of translating and covering Brassens songs, he initiated the effort as an independent study project related to his master’s degree in romance languages. From there, it blossomed into “a huge undertaking,” becoming the basis for his master’s thesis.
Flood grew up marinated in music – folk music in particular. He had 10 older siblings, all of whom were music fans – and many of whom played music. His mother, he says, was “a frustrated singer” and instilled in him a love of old jazz and swing music. He played folk music with his brothers and sisters and gravitated toward the blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
Known for his work in the roots-rock and country milieus, Flood plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, five-string and tenor banjo, double bass, and slide guitar. He started his professional career busking on the streets of Paris when he was 18. Among his career highlights have been playing with singer-songwriter Eric Anderson, Garth Hudson, and Rick Danko of The Band and New Orleans luminaries Dr. John and Allen Toussaint. Flood has composed songs with Levon Helm of The Band and written songs for and played with the roots-rock group the Bottle Rockets.
In an interview at his Guilford home, Flood says his first encounter with the music of Brassens was serendipitous. He had been living in France for about three years, busking and playing in groups like Billy Hills and His Hootin’ an’ Hollerin’ Hillbillies, a country combo led by a musician from Kentucky. Rodolphe Raffali, a guitarist in the group who played in the gypsy jazz style of Django Reinhardt, booked the band in the south of France where Raffali’s parents lived. Along with half the band members, Flood stayed in a small place that Raffali’s parents had in town. On the coffee table was a Georges Brassens songbook, which Flood began perusing. At that point, having lived in France for several years, Flood believed himself to be pretty fluent in the language.
“But I could see there was stuff going on with the language but I couldn’t understand all the vocabulary. And there were pictures of Georges Brassens – out there splitting wood, digging ditches in the countryside. I said, ‘This doesn’t look like any French singers I’ve seen,’” recalls Flood.
Raffali played some Brassens recordings for Flood, explaining the songs to him.
“When I came back to the States, I had one tape with 10 songs on it, and I listened to it all the time,” says Flood. “The thing about his songs is that they are all really well constructed. He would have a form and vary it slightly in every verse but the variations made all the difference.
“They are lyrically dense songs. In the years when I was not really involved in French, Georges Brassens was my French teacher, because I’d be listening to these songs and saying, ‘I get that, but what is that part? What is he really saying?'” Flood tells me. “And I didn’t have the texts, so I was just listening really hard.
“I have an affinity with him because I admire his attitude. He’s doing a lot of things I aspired to do with songwriting. His lyrics are very poetic but also humorous. They’re political in a way without being topical,” says Flood.
I ask Flood how he would compare his songwriting style to that of Brassens. One big difference, Flood says, is the respective cultural traditions in which each was immersed.
“Where his style is rooted in French culture, literature, and folk music,” explains Flood, “my style is based on American folk music and old pop and jazz music.
“Brassens doesn’t seem influenced by pop songs – I mean classic pop songs – whereas I spent a lot of time in my younger days listening to and playing standards as a way of honing my craft as a songwriter, although I’m more known as a roots, rock, and country kind of writer,” says Flood.
Flood sees similarities between Brassens and American troubadour Woody Guthrie.
“People make a big deal out of Woody Guthrie’s politics, but my connection to Woody Guthrie was a spiritual one – he sounded like nobody else,” says Flood. “His lyrics speak up for the common man, but he was anything but common. And the same thing for Brassens – he’s against all ideologies, he’s in favor of the little guy always. He doesn’t like authority, but he’s always charming and always poetic, and I find that to be the case with Woody Guthrie.”
Flood notes that Brassens used a lot of poetic devices in his songs. But, Flood adds, “devices in French poetry are not the same as in English,” which creates challenges in crafting translations that are true both to literal and poetic meanings. One stumbling block is the French affinity for rime riche, or rich rhyme. According to Flood, with rime riche, “If you make a rhyme and it’s exactly the same but in doing that you’ve twisted the meaning – using the same sound but using it with a different meaning – that sort of turn of phrase is the essence of wit. We have a whole other convention of rhyming. It’s a very basic difference when trying to translate these songs.
“You want to capture the spirit of it, the wittiness. If I went around using the same rhyme, people would say, ‘He doesn’t know how to rhyme,'” says Flood.
Another problem: Latinate words like “information” and “relation” that have direct English translations “sound very natural” in French, a Latinate language. But in English, Flood says, the same words “sound hoity-toity and intellectual.” Flood notes that those words are seldom used in songs in English except for comic effect, “like you’re trying to talk above the matter.”
“You have to throw out a lot of those Latinate words that translate directly to English and find more monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon ways of saying them,” Flood notes, adding that the monosyllabic alternatives can also “be manipulated to make the line fall more musically. It’s very challenging, to say the least, and that’s just on the linguistic side.”
Not only do his translations need to be accurate on both literal and poetic levels, but they also have to fit musically. Flood says that in typical French song construction, verses feature lines with feminine endings alternating with those with masculine endings.
“We almost never do that in English. It creates a musical dilemma, because we would normally end something on a beat,” Flood says, gesturing with his fist.
“Brassens is also completely steeped not just in French culture, but in French literature, so all through his work you find literary allusions as well as cultural allusions. Some of his songs are written as though in direct conversation with the French folk tradition,” Flood says.
As an example, Flood cites Brassens’ song “La Route Aux Quatre Chansons,” which translates as “The Route of the Four Songs.” Each verse refers to a particular French folk song about a different place. The singer visits each of the towns hoping to meet the girl about whom the song was written.
“But instead, he discovers the local prostitutes,” Flood says, laughing. “They’re a little different nowadays from the ones in the song. It’s really clever, really charming, typical of his attitude and outlook but completely untranslatable because the allusions being made are completely incomprehensible to an American listener.”
Flood, with his own lifelong immersion not only in folk music but also English and American literature, says he could sometimes substitute a similar allusion from the Anglo-American tradition for one of Brassens’ cultural references. But when the whole song is based on a particular reference, “you either have to find a cultural equivalent you could manipulate in the same way or it’s not going to work.”
Rather than try to play the songs in Brassens’ French rhythm, Flood found “the rhythm that felt closest to what I could do naturally. And when I did that, I often found a way into the voice that would work to translate the lyric.”
Flood recorded 10 of his translations for eventual CD release in sessions in New York City and Woodstock, New York. Garth Hudson, a member of The Band, played accordion, piano, and melodica at the latter sessions. Flood’s recordings are fuller than those of Brassens, who most often sang and played acoustic guitar, accompanied just by an upright bass player and, less frequently, a second guitarist. While Flood didn’t play guitar in Brassens’ style, he also varied his approach from his own normal style, working in more of a Doc Watson fingerpicking style. The presence of Hudson’s accordion playing on several cuts imbues the songs with a jaunty sensibility that evokes both French cafés and the French-influenced Zydeco music of New Orleans.
Flood sees his first-Tuesdays residency at Café Nine as not just an opportunity to play Brassens songs but as a “night that is an homage to Brassens and can touch a lot of different things,” including the work of other French artists and American singer-songwriters like Flood’s friend Eric Anderson. Additionally, Flood hopes to invite not only his local musician friends but also Brassens-fluent visiting artists and translators to sit in during performances.
“When I started my professional career, I was a busker. It’s how I spent most of my 20s – on the street and most of that in Paris. Brassens spent most of his 20s living underground, on the street, off the kindness of strangers,” Flood says, while noting that it wasn’t until he was in his 30s that Brassens was discovered as a songwriter. “I feel a connection with him because we spent our 20s scuffling on the streets of Paris.”My thrust in doing this is to introduce an American audience – and specifically one that listens to the kind of music I generally play – to the songs of Georges Brassens because I think they have an integrity that translates musically,” says Flood.
For more information about Joe Flood and to stream some of his Brassens translations, visit www.joeflood.net.