The most common reference to Franco-Folk is the word Chanson. Chanson is a French word literally meaning “song”. The term has been continually used since the late Middle Ages and Renaissance to denote lyric-driven French art or folk song with French lyrics, usually polyphonic or secular. It has gradually evolved throughout the decades both musically and lyrically to become what we know today as chanson.
In effect, French chanson covers a wide range of different styles; in the singer-songwriter world, these are composed and written by the so-called chantauteurs.
In France today, the styles of key chantauteurs define chanson, contributing each in their own unique way to its many dimensions to the music of French and Francophone folk singer-songwriters.
The French Armenian Charles Aznavour and the French Belgian sensation Jacques Brel tend to depict realistic thoughtful songs sometimes boarding philosophy that highlight a deep dimension of French chanson.
A more dramatic dimension of French chanson compels the chantauteur to become the character in the story set by the lyrics and the music. This is seen in the previous chantauteurs when they give a more human (boy/girl next door) perspective to their song’s theme and also in the songs by the French sparrow Edit Piaf. The same are also seen exploiting purer romantic aspects, with songs bearing traces of the idealised loved themes of the trouvères or troubadours and gaining their power in the personalisation and the theaterisation of their themes.
The more libertarian dimension of French chanson is highlighted by Georges Brassens, Georges Moustaki and Serge Gainsbourg, heirs to the troubadours of the 12th-13th century. The former are free travelling poet-musicians, with no other law or obligation than to satisfy their creative muses. In such a journey, the women they encounter are wooed with the delinquent’s romanticism. Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin shocked the world delivering more than the promise of a steamy collaboration with Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus and taking the art more than one step further… On the other side of the excessively romantic coin, Barbara (named the Freudian enigma at the heart of France by Norman Lebrecht) sings of the fires of excessive passions and heartbreak.
In 1998, with over a thousand songs written in five languages, Aznavour was elected Entertainer of the Century by both CNN and users of Time Online, edging both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan out of the running. As for Georges Brassens, even after his death, over a thousand people worldwide make a living out of interpreting his songs. Edith Piaf’s life story was dramatised in the acclaimed movie “La vie en rose” named after, arguably, the most recognised chanson title in the world.
The impact of Chanson and French Folk in general away from French shores is such that it enjoys increasingly wide interpretations (including by Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, China Forbes and Stacey Kent) and there is a growing group of singer-songwriters nostalgically incorporating the genre in their musical material.
French Chansons classics include, to name but a very few, ‘Ne me quitte pas’ by Brel (aka If you go away), and Hier Encore by Aznavour (Yesterday I was Young) and of course La vie en rose and Hymne à l’amour with lyrics by Edith Piaf.
With internationalisation and fusion, modern French music barely keeps a single identity. Starting with Charles Aznavour, continuing with Georges Moustaki, and the modern voices of the likes of Carla Bruni and Camille, what remains Francophone is a fine film of an accent over the songs now sung in English, Italian, and other languages, and possibly in Carla Bruni, the recognisable breathy voice marking some of the more modern French female voices discovered internationally mainly via Serge Gainsbourg. Like other Ethnic Folk, French Folk can only perceive its input in the next generations, without being able to define itself as a clear category, neither through the language, nor the singer’s origin or their voice.