Georges Brassens was one of the best-known singers and songwriters of postwar France. Nowadays, he's often compared to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, an urban troubadour who wrote songs that were evocative, provocative and moody, and sometimes used profanity to make a point.
Translating his works into English is demanding — and it's discouraged quite a few singers. But now French-American composer Pierre de Gaillande has produced an album of Brassens' songs, titled Bad Reputation.
"It’s a labor of love," de Gaillande tells NPR's Scott Simon of the translation process. "I think of it as really difficult and really fun musical word puzzles."
Born in France, de Gaillande says his father was a devoted Brassens fan who would play the singer's records at ear-splitting volumes in their home. As de Gaillande grew older, he says, he came to love it, too, from the songs and the sound to the lyrics and the philosophy.
"Brassens was sort of a self-proclaimed anarchist at the beginning of his life," de Gaillande says. "He never had any fear of criticizing the hypocrisy of the society around him — even though, like Bob Dylan, he never wanted to be a spokesman for any kind of political party or political viewpoint at all."
An Unusual Way With Lyrics
"To Die for You Ideas," a song attacking fundamentalism and war, sums up the ethos of the singer-songwriter.
"He also says that the people who die for ideas aren't the ones who actually believe in them," de Gaillande says. "The ones who make the decisions, they're not actually dying. They're getting other people to do the dying for them."
Brassens had an unusual way with lyrics: Most of his songs are frequently laced with argot, a secretive French slang. He also had a tendency, de Gaillande says, to fit the rhythm to the song's words. This complicated the translation process, but the unusually structured music still appealed to de Gaillande.
"I think they're really catchy," he says. "I think they have, what they say in German, 'earworms,' which is a great expression, meaning they stick in your head."
Often, Brassens' French fans are die-hards. Many have expressed skepticism toward de Gaillande and his ability to translate.
"I love that," he says. "Whenever I play these songs, there are always French people in the audience. They come and they stand with their arms crossed and a pout on their face. And then, slowly, the pout goes away. They're convinced. They're sold."
The French-American composer moved to New York after college, and says he's come to know the differences between citizens. As much as Bad Reputation is a tribute to Brassens, it also celebrates his home country and, perhaps, the human condition.
"It's so warm and so human," de Gaillande says of Brassens' message. "It's not about money, it's not that God told me to do this, it's not about 'I'm stronger than you.' We're all in it together; let's eat a great meal and have a bottle of wine."