Leo Ferré, for example, the perennially balding singer and songwriter whose work went back to the 1930s and whose whose favorite of mine was inspired by the Spanish Civil War, Les Anarchistes (The Anarchists)
Y'en a pas un sur cent et pourtant ils existentThink of George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia -- in my opinion the 20th-century's best nonfiction work in the English language -- and the song will immediately make sense.
La plupart Espagnols allez savoir pourquoi
Faut croire qu'en Espagne on ne les comprend pas
Qu'y'en a pas un sur cent et qu' pourtant ils existent
Et qu'ils se tiennent bien bras dessus bras dessous
Joyeux et c'est pour ça qu'ils sont toujours debout
(Barely one in a hundred, yet they exist.
Most Spaniards well know why
they must believe that in Spain they're not understood ...
They are barely one in one hundred, yet they exist.
They stand arm in arm
joyfully they are always standing for their views.
Or then there's Maxime LeForestier, more of a Boomer contemporary, with a folk sound. I fittingly came across his recollection of childhood called Marie, Pierre et Charlemagne, playing in a music store the day I heard my paternal grandfather, a beloved companion in my early childhood, had died.
My favorite of his is La Rouille (Rust)
L'habitude nous joue des tours :You have to pronounce "adventure" the French way, always stressing the last syllable, adventure, to make the rhyme work.
Nous qui pensions que notre amour
Avait une santé de fer.
Dès que séchera la rosée,
Regarde la rouille posée
Sur la médaille et son revers.
Moi, je la vois comme une déchirure,
Une blessure qui ne guérira pas.
Notre histoire va s'arrêter là.
Ce fut une belle aventure.
(Our habits turn us around:
We who'd thought our love
had the strength of steel.
As soon as the dew dries,
see how rust is posed
on the medal and its reverse.
Me, I see it as a tear,
A wound that will not cure.
Our history will stop there.
It was a beautiful adventure.)
Then there's my favorite Italian cantautore, Ivano Fossati, who sings about boats and the sea and not feeling like going to war and, sometimes, just about a night in Italy. I discovered him in my grandmother's birth place in Northern Italy, when I went there with my then 11-year-old son. Then one night in Rome I went for a walk and I felt the song resonate
È una notte in Italia che vediThe list would not be complete without Juan Manuel Serrat, the Catalonian cantautor, who sings of everything, of Spain and Moors, of wheat fields and of love. He became famous during the 1960s, daring to push the envelope under the Franco regime.
questo taglio di luna
freddo come una lama qualunque
e grande come la nostra fortuna
la fortuna di vivere adesso
questo tempo sbandato
questa notte che corre
e il futuro che arriva
chissà se ha fiato.
(It's a night in Italy when you see
a slice of moon
cold as a blade
and as large as our good fortune
the chance of living now
in this time that skids
this night that runs
and the future that arrives
goodness knows breathlessly.)
Uno de mi calle me ha dichoWhat's really most enthralling about all these musicians is the timelessness of their music and their words. Some use touches of rock, like Serrat, but most do not; Ivano Fossati's music is jazzy, then not.
que tiene un amigo que dice
conocer un tipo
que un día fue feliz.
Y me han dicho que dicen,
que dijo que se tropezó en la calle
con un sueño y se entretuvo,
y desde entonces no estuvo
ni para nadie.
(Some guy in my street has said
he has a friend who told him
he knew a man
who was one day happy.
And I've been told that they say
that he said he stumbled in the street
with a dream and he reveled in it
and from then on he wasn't in
Many have songs that start out sounding as if they were classical instrumental pieces, then burst into words. Occasionally they've put famous poets into song, notably as Ferré did with Paul Verlaine and Serrat with Antonio Machado.
The only North American near-equivalent is Joni Mitchell, who has played with music as well as lyrics and transcended genre.
They are all modern troubadors, some (like Serrat) under censorship or (like Ferré) against the current, singing of their times, their loves, their people ...