On the 30th of November, a French female singer-songwriter passed away.
Her name was Anne Sylvestre.
In my imagination, she is a red and green hooded woman coming straight out of some magic woods. But instead of quiver, bow, and arrows, she is not carrying anything but a guitar. Almost naked on stage, just singing the naked truth with the frail soprano voice of a tiny bird perched on a solid oak.
In the following lines, I would simply like to do her justice, as the protector of the weak and defender of the oppressed that she is – at least in my eyes.
“La chanson française”: a man’s world
Born in 1934, Anne Sylvestre started to sing in the 50s, in Parisian cabarets. Some other French musical giants or “monstres sacrés”, literally “Sacred Monsters”, were artistically born at the same time, in the same places, especially around Saint-Germain des Prés. The “Rive gauche” French song, named after the Parisian cabarets of the 60s mainly located on the left bank of the Seine river in Paris, can be considered as a genre in the history of music (if you are interested in the topic and you can read French, here is an article attempting to define it: https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-01800624/).
To make a long story short, cabarets were so narrow that singers could only accompany themselves on guitar. Thus, a singer-songwriter was all alone on stage performing “text songs” (in French we say “chansons à textes”, which means that the lyrics are refined, poetical, elaborate…) with her/his instrument, traditionally a guitar, sometimes an accordion, more rarely a piano – which couldn’t fit on stage. Artists would tend to make a distinction between “varieties” and a richer, more poetic type of music. They started putting poems into music, writing poems themselves, writing poetical stories telling us about any topic with an absolute freedom of tone, sometimes disruptive, cheeky or politically incorrect, also telling us beautiful stories depicting ordinary characters. Thus, they somehow continued, but also modified, the tradition of the “Chanson Réaliste” of a generation earlier. (These “Realist Songs” refer to a more popular genre, born at the beginning of the 20th century, in which women performed dramatic songs in a very theatrical way. Edith Piaf was one of the last representatives of this movement).
This is how names such as Léo Ferré (1916), Georges Brassens (1921), Charles Aznavour (1924), or Jacques Brel (1929) came to light. You might have heard about them. Many Turkish friends told me they liked Jacques Brel or Aznavour very much. So do I.
Who wouldn’t feel goosebumps all over his/her body while listening to them?
Wonderful Bohème, wonderful text, wonderful theatrical performance. And yet, a song about poor male artists living in Paris, convinced of their own artistic genius, while painting naked women to earn a living.
Ne me quitte pas
Wonderful song, wonderful poetical text almost depicting a medieval pattern, a desperate man begging his wife not to leave him. Promising the impossible to keep her. Palavra palavra… : the woman might better go and never return.
Mysogynie à part*
Indeed, Brel, Ferré, Brassens… also told or sang disparaging remarks about women. In some cases, we can wonder about their degree of misogyny: Brassens was often accused of misogyny (but it is a wide debate!); Brel’s interviews can be surprising in this respect; Ferré was clearly mysoginist…
After singing a song about the beauty of having a child, Brel says in an interview: “I write men songs (…) The audience is very feminine, I feel like I am raping it a bit.”
In this recorded interview commented on by Juliette Gréco, a famous French performer from the same generation, you can hear Ferré, Brassens and Brel’s different, controversial points of view about women… to which Gréco reacts with nothing more than a smile. As if they were only jokes. She endorses them anyway, as she sang for them. Gréco perfectly embodies the conventional female singer: charming, making herself desirable, performing songs composed by men. She was a muse for male artists.
Déshabillez-moi (undress me)
As for Ferré, convinced about his own genius, he openly declared in several interviews that women were only mothers: “they should remain in their proper place and not bother the artist”. In the following interview, he also said that he would not accept any “cultured woman” at home, and that women could never be as smart as men anyway since “their intelligence was located in their ovaries.”
Rubbish, you might think. So why to give importance to these old, ugly, dead men?
Because from their talent and fame (I must confess that I am a big fan of Brassens), they were fully part of the construction of the concept of “French music” that everybody has in mind, still nowadays. They are the ones that the collective history has selected, at the expense of other female artists, who were at least as talented (I suggest you to listen to Catherine Ribeiro for example: she is absolutely astonishing).
So poetical, so romantical, so beautifully performed by men. About ten years ago, Alain Souchon, another popular singer-songwriter still alive (and whose songs are often quite sexist), claims this cultural heritage in the song “Rive Gauche”:
Yes, this is the typical French music style: conservatism and sexism under the guise of romanticism, literature and mastered rhetoric. Try to criticize them, and you will immediately be told that you are unable to appreciate fine arts, that they were all admiring women, that you understood wrongly, that you are exaggerating, that you are too ignorant. Because, you know, you are not in the bubble of the experts, auto-referring to themselves for decades and decades.
But you don’t need to be Einstein to see that women are often considered as objects in their songs. Muses in the best case, whores in the worst, whose consent has no importance in love stories. I could definitively write another article about the representation of women in popular French songs. An article? Nay, a doctoral thesis! (If you can understand French, here are 5 podcasts on the topic : https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/continent-musiques-d-ete-multidiffusion/les-femmes-dans-la-chanson-francaise-15-les-femmes, and some reflections in this article: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/509758)
(*) A song signed Georges Brassens, 1969: The singer describes and complains about his boring, religious wife, entitling the song “mysogyny excepted”. If the character is a woman, the song carries in fact an anticlerical message, nothing more. The title is also a nod to his detractors.
It is about time for women and Anne
From the 50s to the 70s, only a few women managed to play the cards right. But I am not sure that you heard about them. They are famous in France. But very often less than these Sacred Monsters I mentioned above. They are famous in France. But not so much abroad.
So is Anne Sylvestre.
Extremely humble in her style, prolific and sincere in her brilliant work. A virtuoso of language able to use and mix daily French and slang as much as poetical figures and references. Ferré, Brel or Brassens are the heirs of the French literature, applied in the field of music. Masters of rhetorical figures, literary language, and political commitments (or rather anarchism), they are the solid oaks. Whereas Anne Sylvestre is the tiny bird on their branch, embracing the whole world, circulating freely in all the universes of language and themes, flying in both worlds of men and women, of adults and children (she is actually better known for her songs for children).
She has much in common with them, of course. The freedom of speech and tone, the singer-song writer profile, the hate for the politically correct.
But she decided to write about other topics that the Sacred Monsters where not at all interested in. She was, in a way, a lot more independent and unconventional than them.
Before I introduce one of her most beautiful pieces to you, let me give you a broad sample of her songs related to women issues and lives, ordered chronologically. It will give you an idea of who she was, as an artist J
La fille du vent, 1962
In this song, a mother warns her daughter not to love the wind. But she wants to be free, at her own peril. The girl finally gets pregnant, and both her son and husband vanish in the air.
àHere is a version I like by the promising Laura Cahen:
|Fille folle amante du vent
Boucle ton corset
Baisse bien la tête
Méfie-toi qui aime le vent
Engendre la tempête
|Mad girl, lover of the wind
Buckle your corset
Keep your head well down
Careful, who loves the wind
Will beget the storm
Éléonore is a woman living out of town, rejected by all for she is the one that all married men come to see. Thus despised by both men and women, she sings the vastness of her heart, her solitude and her pain.
|Je vous ai vus l’un après l’autre déguisés en jolis mariés,
Mais je suis pourtant restée votre
Seule manière d’oublier
Lors je vis à l’écart, en butte
À mille et une méchancetés
Vos épouses me persécutent
Et vous, vous me tyrannisez
Moi, je reste Éléonore Éléonore
Et mon cœur est plus vaste encore
|I saw you one after the other disguised as pretty bride and groom,But I still remained yourOnly way to forgetWhen I live apart, on a hillA thousand and one wickednessYour wives are persecuting meAnd you, you bully meMe, I remain ÉléonoreAnd my heart is bigger still|
Non, tu n’as pas de nom, 1974 In this song, Anne Sylvestre, playing with the genre of the lullaby, stands up for the right of abortion. While singing her inexistent child to sleep, every verse consists in a strong argument for this cause.
|Savent-ils que ça transforme
L’esprit autant que la forme?
Qu’on te porte dans la tête?
Que jamais ça ne s’arrête?
Tu ne seras pas mon centre
Que savent-ils de mon ventre?
Pensent-ils qu’on en dispose
Quand je suis tant d’autres choses?
Non, non tu n’as pas de nom
Non tu n’as pas d’existence
Tu n’es que ce qu’on en pense
Non, non tu n’as pas de nom
À supposer que tu vives
|Do they know that it transforms
Spirit as much as body shape?
That we carry you in our head?
That it never stops?
You won’t be my center
What do they know about my belly?
Do they think we just have it
When I am so many other things?
No, no you don’t have a name
No you don’t have an existence
You are only what people think
No, no you don’t have a name
Let’s assume that you live
You are nothing without your captive
But do you matter more?
More weight than a seed
Oh it’s not a party
It’s more of a defeat
But it’s mine and I esteem
That there are indeed two victims
Clémence part en vacances, 1977
In this song, an old woman seems to go insane, at the end of her life. She suddenly stops doing anything, maybe disabled and stuck in her armchair, for she has worked more than enough over the course of her long life. She behaves like a child, the whole village gossips about it, and her poor husband Honoré is therefore obliged to do the housework. In a very light tone, Anne Sylvestre plays with different levels of meaning: freedom vs. illness, death and rest vs. life and work, choice vs. obligation, women vs. men. She concludes with the idea that Clémence’s attitude should be spread: if ‘all the Clémences’ would take a vacation, they could finally have some rest.
A pris des vacances
Clémence ne fait plus rien
Est comme en enfance
Clémence va bienHonoré, c’est bien dommage
Doit tout faire à la maison
La cuisine et le ménage
Le linge et les commissions
Quand il essaie de lui dire
De coudre un bouton perdu
Elle répond dans un sourire
“Va, j’ai bien assez cousu! ”
Took a vacation
Clémence does nothing anymore
Is like in childhood
Clémence is fine
Honoré, it’s a shame,
Must do everything at home
Cooking and cleaning
Making the laundry and shopping
When he tries to tell her
To sew a lost button
She responds with a smile
“Go, I’ve sewn enough!”
“Frangines” (which means “sisters” in slang language) is a wonderful song about sisterhood. Anne describes several situations, since early childhood, in which girls are pitted against each other, about how the little power some may gain thanks to their beauty of their skills is then harshly competed by the others. She shows what a loss of energy it is, and calls for female solidarity and union against whose who don’t leave them more space, for a better education of men, for a great change in the society.
|On aurait pu rester frangines
Ça nous aurait gagné du temps
Main sur l’épaule, j’imagine
Qu’on aurait pu, se regardant,
Voir qu’on était toutes assez belles
Et même celles
Qui ont pas le tempsC’est tout pareil dans nos métiersOn nous oppose et on nous monte
En épingle, pour mieux montrer
Qu’on se trouve en dehors du compte
Pour peu qu’on dépasse la tête
On est toujours une exception
Chacune sur notre planète,
Ce qu’on a pu tourner en rond !Si on se retrouvait frangines
On n’aurait pas perdu son temps
Unissant nos voix, j’imagine
Qu’on en dirait vingt fois autant
Et qu’on ferait changer les choses
Et je suppose, aussi, les gensEt qu’on ferait changer les choses
Allez ! On ose
Il est grand temps !
|We could have stayed sistersIt would have saved us timeHand on the shoulder, I imagineThat we could have, looking at each other,See that we were all pretty beautifulAnd even thoseWho don’t have time It’s all the same in our professionsWe are opposed and we are mountedHairpin, to better showThat we are outside the accountAs long as we stick out our headsWe are always an exceptionEach on our planet,What we could have gone in circles! If we found ourselves sistersWe wouldn’t have wasted our timeUniting our voices, I imagineThat we would say twenty times as muchAnd that we would change thingsAnd I guess, too, people And that we would change thingsGo! We dareIt is high time !|
L’histoire de Jeanne-Marie, 1977
Jeanne-Marie is an ugly, extremely smart and hardworking girl. Since she is smart, she has a lot of enemies. Everybody wants her to be married, wants her to have babies… But she decides to write her own story. She keeps refusing the life she was meant for and keeps studying and investing in her future. The last line beautifully says, as if it were the destiny of all women: “and her story is not finished”.
|Ça me plairait pas d’être pute
Pas plus qu’entrer en religion
Non que l’ouvrage me rebute
Mais il y faut une raison
Et dites-le bien à vos hommes
Qu’ils ne viennent jamais frapper,
De n’appartenir à personne
M’empêchera pas d’exister
Je ne veux pas la charité !On pourra dire, on pourra croireDe médisance en calomnie
Elle est pas terminée l’histoire,
L’histoire de Jeanne-Marie.
|I wouldn’t like being a whoreNo more than entering religionNot that the work repels meBut there has to be a reasonAnd say it well to your menThat they never come knocking at my door,Not to belong to anyoneWon’t prevent me from existingI don’t want charity! We could say, we could believe From slander to calumnyIt’s not finished the story,The story of Jeanne-Marie.|
Comment je m’appelle, 1977
“Comment je m’appelle” is about a girl who wonders about her identity. Living for the others and through their eyes, she got lost: beautiful, crazy, housewife, whore, physical or literary object, what is actually her name?
|Si vous le savez comment je m’appelle
Vous me le direz, vous me le direz
Si vous le savez comment je m’appelle
Vous me le direz, je l’ai-z-oublié
Vous me le direz, je l’ai-z-oublié
Quand j’étais petite et que j’étais belle
On m’enrubannait de ces noms jolis
On m’appelait fleur, sucre ou bien dentelle
J’étais le soleil et j’étais la pluie
Quand je fus plus grande, hélas, à l’école
J’étais la couleur de mon tablier
On m’appelait garce, on m’appelait folle
J’étais quelques notes dans un cahier
|If you know my name
You will tell me, you will tell me
If you know my name
You will tell me, I have forgotten it
You tell me, I forgot
When I was little and I was beautiful
I was wrapped of these pretty names
They called me flower, sugar or lace
I was the sun and I was the rain
When I was older, alas, at school
I was the color of my apron
They called me bitch, they called me crazy
I was some notes in a notebook
Douce maison, 1978
Here is song about rape. A woman is raped at home, but nobody believes her, it is all her fault, because she was too independent and free: not married, in a house out of the village, with no key, with a flowered garden with no housekeeper… She probably wanted what happened to her.
|Non, non, je n’invente pas,
Mais je raconte tout droit.
Elle ouvrait parfois sa porte à ceux qu’elle choisissait.
La serrure n’est pas forte, maison, tu n’as pas de clé,
Mais avec sa confiance jamais elle ne pensa
Qu’on pût user de violence pour pénétrer sous son toit.
|No, no, I’m not inventing,But I’m telling all right.Sometimes she opened her door to those she chose.The lock is not strong, house, you ain’t got no keyBut with her confidence she never thoughtThat one could use violence to penetrate under his roof.|
Mon mystère, 1978
In this song called “My mystery/Secret”, a woman describes the contradictory position to which women are subjected. On the one hand, she gets older like everyone, puts on weight, does the cleaning and hard work. But “do not worry”, she says, because on the other hand she must use thousands of secrets such as cosmetics sold thanks to misleading advertisement, hair removal, fragrant menstrual protection and plastic surgery, in order to stay desirable like women in the magazines and ads. She eventually sings that once she will be an old woman she won’t care anymore anyway, since nobody will care for her anymore.
La vaisselle, 1981
“La vaisselle” (the dishes) is a very funny song about the double and contradictory injunction experienced by women, consisting in always trying to be beautiful and desirable while doing the hard and filthy work.
|Qui c’est qui fait la vaisselle?
Faut pas qu’ça se perde!
Qui c’est qui doit rester belle
Les mains dans la merde ?
|Who is it, who does the dishes?It must not be lost!Who is it, who must stay beautifulWith her hands in the shit?|
Petit bonhomme, 1986
“Petit bonhomme” (little man) is a song about a man who looks perfectly polite and gentle, always taking the trash downstairs when he leaves home. But he happened to lie to his wife Maryvonne, his mistress and his mother. Eventually the three of them discover it and make an alliance, going on holidays in the South of France, expecting some more cheated women to join their joyful summer camp.
Five years before the same-sex marriage was legalized in France, Anne Sylvestre wrote this song defending the cause. In the 70s she also writes some more discreet songs about lesbian relationships such as “Mousse” or “Ruisseau bleu”.
Juste une femme, 2013
After Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of the main representative of the socialist French party and head of International Monetary Fund at that time, sexually assaulted a cleaning lady in a prestigious hotel in New York, Anne Sylvestre put her pen to paper. She cleverly, with irony and sarcasm, overlays the point of view of the assaulter and her own, disgusted by all these powerful libidinous men. For them, women are nothing, they have no value, no more function than satisfying their sexual appetite.
|Il y peut rien si elles ont des seins
Quoi, il est pas un assassin
Il veut simplement apprécier
C’que la nature met sous son nez
Mais c’est pas grave
C’est juste une femme
C’est juste une femme à saloper
Juste une femme à dévaluer
J’pense pas qu’on doive
C’est pas un drame
C’est juste une femme
Petit ami, petit patron
Petit pouvoir, p’tit chefaillon
Petit voisin, p’tit professeur
Petit curé, petit docteur
Il y peut rien si ça l’excite
Et qu’est-ce qu’elle a cette hypocrite?
Elle devrait se sentir flattée
Qu’on s’intéresse à sa beauté
|He cannot do nothing, if they have breasts
What, he’s not an assassin
He just wants to enjoy
What nature puts under his nose
But it’s not big deal
She’s just a woman
She’s just a dirty woman
Just a woman to devalue
I don’t think we should
Worry about it
It’s not a drama
She’s just a woman
Boyfriend, little boss
Little power, little big boss
Little neighbor, little teacher
Little priest, little doctor
He can do nothing if it turns him on
And what’s wrong with this hypocrite girl?
She should feel flattered
That we are interested in her beauty
A witch like the others, 1975
I hope that you now have an idea of the art of Anne Sylvestre J.
I would like to leave you by commenting on a 7 minutes-long song called ‘a witch like the others”, a tribute to all women, which I consider as a real gem.
But first, please listen to it. I also add a version in sign language that I like very much, and a page where you can find the lyrics translated into several languages (but not in Turkish I am afraid L)
àClémence Colin’s version in sign language
The song, in the first person, is made up of three musical phrases, always ending with this mystical melody accompanying the words “a witch… like the other”. It says it all: on the one hand magical, extraordinary, powerful but often banned like witches, women are, on the other hand, also everywhere, invisible, banal, ordinary, without any special interest.
In the first phrase, as the notes are swirling lightly, slower or faster, the woman singing requests to be listened to and looked at truly, as sincerely as natural elements can be. Be light, be liquid, be soft, be here and don’t escape this time, she says, listen to what I have to say… Now that she is “not able to move anymore”. She is about to collapse, and the song sounds like a final will as much as a march for the cause of women.
The second phrase becomes indeed a kind of march, whose intensity increases. The tempo is this time regular, stronger, marked by instruments and voice together, until it explodes into a climax and suddenly softens, turning into descending patterns. With beautiful images, simple melodies and structures, Anne Sylvestre describes the omnipresence and the strength of women through history, generations after generations (march), then brought together with men’s actions (softening): while men were fighting, the woman singing, representing all women, was there supporting them, rising kids, working hard, with no rewards and no complaints. While they were admiring her, rejecting her, leaving her, wanting her to be ignorant or servile, married or prostituted, loving her one day and despising her the next, the woman stayed on her feet, bearing misfortune and shame:
I was looking for you screaming
Here I am like a grave
All the misfortune into it
It’s only me
You worshiped me on your knees
Here I am like a church
All the shame underneath
It’s only me
In the last part, with all the possible delicacy and humility, the woman defines who she is: “it’s just me”, she keeps repeating, then she sings, with descending short musical phrases, all the functions she endorsed over the whole history of women, she tries –a challenge carried out with brio– to make a portrait of the faces of all women, daughters, sisters, mothers, your sisters, men’s mothers, mine. She’s mixing all the pronouns, the subjects, ordinary, historical, fantastic images…
|Et c’est mon cœur
Ou bien le leur
Et c’est la sœur ou l’inconnue
Celle qui n’est jamais venue
Celle qui est venue trop tard
Fille de rêve ou de hasard
Et c’est ma mère
Ou la vôtre
Comme les autres
|And it’s my heart
And it’s the sister or the stranger
The one who never came
The one who came too late
Dream or chance girl
And it’s my mother
Like the others
…just like a witch would stir her potion in a cauldron. A witch, just like the others.
Dear Anne, now you are like Clémence, you can rest in peace and do nothing. Nothing at all.
I wish I could translate this fabulous song into Turkish. If some musicians are interested, we could try to adapt some songs all together.
If you can read French and would like to know more about Anne Sylvestre, you can also read this article : https://www.cairn.info/revue-travail-genre-et-societes-2010-1-page-5.htm?contenu=article