Thursday, February 5, 2009

Songs about hanged men : Georges Brassens vs Billie Holiday

The other day, I was listening to this wonderful album by Georges Brassens. Brassens is the first thing I remember, musically speaking. My grandfather played these 10-inch (30cm) LPs, I was 3 or 4 years old and soon I knew some songs by heart and sang them to my grandparents' friends in their garden. I listened to them with my sisters in the big upstairs room, especially this one. And Brassens still rules : he's folk, and sometimes jazzy à la Django (always just a double bass and two accoustic guitars), he's the hell of a songwriter, he's an exquisite poet (much better than Brel to me, much more literary), he's fun, go to his biography on wiki or AMG if you don't know him. The songs ? about God (the hilarious "Le Mécréant"), love (a modern-day "Pénélope", wife of Ulysses, "L'Orage). And death. And murder. Brassens (1921-81) is from another era, pre-rock, he's fond of 19th century poets and obsessed by the Middle ages.

So this is what brings us to the point : hanged men. Hanging poems are a tradition in French literature. If you can read French, this page gives a lot of examples of poems about the subject. The first and most famous one was François Villon's "Ballade des pendus", written while in prison (Villon was a thief and a homosexual). Brassens loved Villon, but in this album, instead of singing "La Ballade des pendus", he adapted a poem by 19th century poet Bainville called "Le Verger du roi Louis" ("King Louis Orchard"), about king Louis XI.

Here are the French words

Now, let's go back 20 years, in 1940, in New York City, and to one of the most beautiful songs of all time, "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday. If you don't know the story behind that song, just go there. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. The song was inspired by a photograph he had seen the hanging (I thought about including the photo to my post, but it's much too morbid)

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Now, this is an awkward translation I did of the Brassens song

On its wide, overspread arms
The forest, where Flora awakes
Holds garlands of hung men
All golden in the morning light

This dark grove where the oak wears
Bunches of incredible fruit
Even for the Turk and the Moor
This is King Louis' orchard

All this poor wretched folks
Rolling with thoughts unknown
In great and desperate rings
Flutter, still throbbing with life
The rising sun devours them
Watch them, dazzled skies,
Dance in the fires of dawning
This is King Louis' orchard

These hung men, now heard by the devil
Summon new hung men to come
While in the skies of spread azure
Where a meteor seems to glow
The dew dies off in the air
A swarm of delighted birds
Upon their heads is pecking about
This is King Louis' orchard

Prince, there is a grove decorated
With clusters of hungmen, buried
In the soft and murmuring leaves
This is King Louis' orchard

Amazing, no ? Did Meropol know the poem by Banville ? Or Villon's Ballad of the Hung ?

Somebody suggested me to close this post with a Joy Division song, but that would be unappropriate and rude... or very black humor !

Speaking of humor, there's something I gotta tell you : when I first posted that, it was titled "Songs about HUNG men"... I posted about it in the Acclaimedmusic forum, and I got all this reactions from American guys... then I googled "hung men" and realized my mistake !!!!!
So I leave you with this song. Mississipi John Hurt, famous songster, sang both about HANGED men (Stack o'Lee) and HUNG men (in this song) :

Découvrez Georges Brassens!

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