Tuesday 15 April 2008

Les Copains d'Abord

Les Copains d'Abord is dedicated to the close friends who joined Brassens on boating trips off the South coast of France in a boat called “Les copains d'abord”. The song was written for a film, Les copains (1964), directed by Yves Robert. One of the striking features of Brassens’ life was the enduring friendships that he forged, evident also in his other songs.

The original video of les Copains that I posted, since deleted on U-Tube, continued with "Ballade des dames du temps jadis".  this I have now put on a separate post.  If you are looking for Brassens' song based on Villon's poem please click the new link: Ballade des dames du temps jadis2


Non ce n'était pas le Radeau
De la Méduse(1) ce bateau,
Qu'on se le dise au fond des ports
Dise au fond des ports,
Il naviguait en pèr' peinard(2)
Sur la grand-mare des canards(3)
Et s'app'lait Les Copains d'Abord
Les Copains d'Abord. (4)

Ses fluctuat nec mergitur (5)
C'était pas d'la littérature,(6)
N'en déplaise aux jeteurs de sort,(7)
Aux jeteurs de sort,
Son capitaine et ses mat'lots
N'étaient pas des enfants d'salauds,
Mais des amis franco de port, (8)
Des copains d'abord.

C'étaient pas des amis de luxe,
Des petits Castor et Pollux(9),
Des gens de Sodome et Gomorrhe(10),
Sodome et Gomorrhe,
C'étaient pas des amis choisis
Par Montaigne et La Boétie(11),
Sur le ventre ils se tapaient fort, (12)
Les copains d'abord.

C'étaient pas des anges non plus,
L'Évangile, ils l'avaient pas lu,
Mais ils s'aimaient tout's voil's dehors,(13)
Toutes voil's dehors,
Jean, Pierre, Paul(14) et compagnie,
C'était leur seule litanie
Leur credo, leur confiteor,
Aux copains d'abord.

Au moindre coup de Trafalgar(15),
C'est l'amitié qui prenait l'quart,
C'est ell' qui leur montrait le nord,
Leur montrait le nord,
Et quand ils étaient en détresse,
Qu'leurs bras lancaient des s.o.s.,
On aurait dit des sémaphores,(16)
Les copains d'abord.

Au rendez-vous des bons copains,
Y'avait pas souvent de lapins(17),
Quand l'un d'entre eux manquait à bord,
C'est qu'il était mort,
Oui, mais jamais, au grand jamais,
Son trou dans l'eau n'se refermait(18),
Cent ans après, coquin de sort! (19)
Il manquait encor.

Des bateaux j'en ai pris beaucoup,
Mais le seul qui ait tenu le coup,
Qui n'ait jamais viré de bord,(20)
-mais viré de bord,
Naviguait en père peinard
Sur la grand-mare des canards
Et s'app'lait Les Copains d'Abord
Les Copains d'Abord.

No, it was’nt the least like the raft
From the wrecked Medusa, this boat
As they might claim down in the ports
Might claim down in the ports
It sailed like a placid old man
On th’ duckpond of the open sea
And was called: “Les Copains d'Abord”
The pals first on board.

Its “Fluctuat nec mergitur”
Is no mere literary phrase
No matter what doom-mongers say
What doom-mongers say,
Its ship captain and its sailors
Were in no way sons of bitches
But they were friends welcomed by all,
The pals first on board.

They were not friends, kind of de luxe,
Little Castors and Polluxes
Men from Sodom and Gomorr’
Sodom and Gomorr’
They were not such friends as chosen
By Montaigne and La Boétie
They enjoyed much knockabout fun
The pals first on board.

They were not angels either
The Holy Word they had not read
But love was all around, sails set
Love with sails all set
John, Peter, Paul and company
It was their only litany
Their creed, their confession
To pals first on board.

At th’ faintest Trafalgar shot heard
It was friendship that took the helm
Friendship gave to them their bearings
Gave them their bearings
And whenever in such distress
That their arms launched their S.O.S
You would have thought them semaphores
The pals first on board.

When the good pals met together
Not often had some-one dropped out.
When one of them was not on board
‘Twas that he was dead
Yes, but never, never ever
Did death close its seas over him
Hundred years after, what the deuce!
He was just as missed still.

Boats, I’ve been on a lot of them
But the only one quite up to scratch
Which never lost its direction
Lost its direction
Sailed like a placid old man
On the duck pond of open sea
And was called: “Les Copains d'Abord”
The pals first on board.

1)      Some malicious observers in the harbours they passed must have suggested that the unprepossessing boat of Brassens with its motley company resembled the survivors of the wreck of the Medusa on their raft as painted by Géricault.

2)      Un père Peinard.  There are several different and sometimes conflicting notions of Père Peinard.  One that would fit here would be of an older man, relaxed about the world, who takes life as it comes.

3)      La grand-mare des canards. There are different interpetations given to this. “La mare aux canards” means duck pond, but in popular slang it is an understatement for the sea.  As I have lived in the Montpellier region, my picture is of L’étang de Thau, a big coastal salt lake.

4)      When spoken or sung this phrase sounds like “copains de bord” which means shipmates and would convey the theme of the song.  The literal meaning of “les copains d’abord” i.e. “pals come first” would also apply and there would seem to be this dual meaning to the name that Brassens chose for his boat and to the song’s title.  In the song: ”A l’ombre des maris Brassens shows that he relates the phrase “Les femmes d’abord” to the cry on a sinking ship: “Women go first!”

5)      Fluctuat nec mergitur means "She is tossed by the waves, but is not sunk". This phrase is the motto under of the city coat of arms of Paris, whose emblem is a ship floating on a rough sea

6)      C'était pas d'la littérature -  Robert tells us that « Tout cela, c’est de la littérature » means  « That is of trifling importance ».

7)      Un jeteur de sort = a wizard says Collins Robert, but the important idea here is of some-one who can predict the future - most usually forecasting doom.

8)      franco de port, is an expression which means that the cost of transport is prepaid by the sender.  Brassens is making a play on words with “port” going with boat  and perhaps “franco” referring to the adjective “franc”- straightforward and open.  Perhaps impossible to translate!

9)      Castor and Pollux in classical mythology, were twin brothers, or rather half-brothers.  Castor was the son of Leda and Tyndareus, Pollux the son of Leda and Zeus. Castor excelled as a horseman and Pollux as a boxer. They were great warriors and were noted for their devotion to each other.

10)   Sodome et Gomorrhe. Perhaps the previous reference to a famous friendship in ancient literature, where such friendships were sometimes sexually ambivalent makes it necessary for Brassens to make clear that homosexuality was not the basis of their friendship.

11)   Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563), Wikipedia tells us he was a French judge, writer, and "a founder of modern political philosophy in France." He "has been best remembered as the great and close friend of the eminent essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592),  , in one of history's most notable friendships. Montaigne described their friendship as a true marriage of souls and he was shattered by La Boétie’s early death.

12)   Sur le ventre ils se tapaient fort-  A French dictionary explains « se taper » as follows : taper (se) taper -  faire (se), consommer ;  se farcir, faire (avec difficulté) ; faire (une corvée), supporter ; faire (corvée) ; consommer (sexuel) ; subir qqchose, vivre qqchose ; boire.  It warns that the usage can be vulgar and gives as an example :
Hier soir au Novotel il s'est tapé une fille – Last night at the Novotel he shagged a girl

“Taper” means to beat/ to hit and Reverso dictionary concentrates on this saying: that “se taper dessus” means to knock each other about, and “se taper sur le ventre” while meaning “to thump someone in the stomach” also has an idiomatic use of “being very close”.  In the comments below, we see different ideas from French speakers.  It seems to be an expression which changes with the context and each person has a different idea of the context!

13)   tout's voil's dehors,.  This is another veiled confirmation that this group of men were not involved in homosexuality.  There is an expression ”marcher à voile et à vapeur” which means to be bi-sexual.   According to Brassens, the pals “marchent toutes voiles dehors”.

14)   Jean, Pierre, Paul. These names sound like references to the bible but refer to his close friends. Pierre, for example Pierre Onténiente was his almost lifelong friend -see “Auprès de mon arbre”

15)   Un coup de Trafalgar means a treacherously unforeseen disaster, (reflecting the French view of Nelson’s destruction of the French fleet in 1805)

16)   sémaphores – The comic image of the panicking friends as semaphores is perhaps particularly vivid to the French. France built the first comprehensive semaphore system during the 1790s for military and government communications. The network included 555 stations and stretched over 4,800 kilometres. Its stations used apparatus such as towers with pivoting blades, shutters, or paddles, or hand-held flags.  Apparently this refers to an actual event.  On one outing the boat got into difficulty and it finished up with all the company on deck, waving frantically for help. Brassens is teasing them about this indignity, which he, of course, shared.

17)   “Poser un lapin” means to fail to keep an appointment

18)   Faire un trou dans l’eau” 'Jamais son trou dans l'eau ne se refermait' means that the dead was never forgotten. It refers to a burial at sea. (Thanks to an anonymous French blogger who corrected me.)

19)   coquin de sort! – Collins-Robert tells me that this exclamation translates into English by “the devil / the deuce” – not oaths in common use.

20)   Virer de bord means to tack/ to change tack, which is necessary in the art of sailing.  As tacking involves changing direction to pick up the wind, Brassens is probably extending the term to mean going off course.  This he and his pals would never do, being constant and steadfast.

The continuing international appeal of Brassens' songs

Les Bandits, a young American jazz group, on the New York cabaret circuit, include the songs of Brassens in their repertoire. I admire the vivacity of their performance.

Ballade des dames du temps jadis

I have now made a translation of Villon's  complete poem and have put it on a separate post. To read it please click the following link: Ballade des dames du temps jadis2
In the original video that I posted of "Les Copains" Brassens went on to sing the first verse only of the song

On this new post, you will find a recording of the full song by Brassens with good visuals.

Also I have made a translation into English with my translation notes.

Also I have posted the historical background notes that I found I needed for my translation


Anonymous said...

thank you so much for this!

Anonymous said...

I second that. Thank you, it helped me a lot.

Anonymous said...

As a native speaker, I never heard that "Faire un trou dans l'eau" means to die.

'Jamais son trou dans l'eau ne se refermait' means that the dead was never forgotten.
It just refers to the burial at sea.

Anonymous said...

Great website.
Just one thing about this song:

Sur le ventre ils se tapaient fort, (Literally- they thumped each other hard in the stomach)

It doesn't mean they thumped each other stomaches but theirs ; people can do that when they have a good laugh, or a good meal ; it's a very popular and casual way of course, you wouldn't expect to see that in a fancy dinner...


David Yendley said...

Thanks for your help Jean Marc

Anonymous said...

Thank you it is very useful to know all of that. I am doing the song with my students.


Tarjei said...

Fantastic find. This really made some vital parts of the story available to me! Thanks.

prager said...

thanks a lot for this brilliant site. your translations, comments and hints to references show that you're a true fan of this great poet, musician and human. good luck to you.

Unknown said...

I wanted so much to understand Brassens. Now I can. merci mille fois!

Harry said...

Père Peinard was an anarchist journal. Peinard means away from trouble, calm. A play on words. There are many in this song.


Another fun fact: In the old days it was a curse to say "rabbit" or rather "lapin" on shipboard. Rabbits multiplied fast and then might eat the wood and sink the ship.

Jeteurs de sorts probably refers, in part, to critics and journalists always slamming him or reporting incorrect stories about his life.

I'm a gay man, but I don't think there are lines here that refer to homosexuality directly or intentionally. The Sodom and Gomorrah reference is, I think, to the bourgeoisie via Proust. There are three high-brow references right after he said that The Friends were not "lux" or high-brow. Toutes à voiles, according to a French musician friend, absolutely could not be a reference to bisexuality. It's such a strong reference to being in full sail.

I think prendre l'quart means taking the rudder.

There is no grammatical or literal claim that les amis don't include women.

Thanks for this to Thomas who teaches French on iTalki online.

Drew said...

These kind of deep analyses are what makes me miss French classes from college. Thank you for providing something so analytical and fascinating! You wrote this around the time I was finishing up my major in French, and yet here I am 12 years later, discovering the song (and now, its meaning) for the first time.

Anonymous said...

I graduated in French in 1972 and new this by heart even before I took my a levels but have never fully understood it until now. Thank you so much - take me right back to messing about in boats with my copains in Cassis harbour in the 60s.