Monday 16 March 2009

La Tondue - His disgust at the reprisals after the Liberation of France

After the liberation of France from the Germans, there was a period when groups of people in France took the law into their own hands and settled scores against those who were accused of collaboration. In some cases people were arbitrarily condemned and then lined up against the wall and shot.
 Among the victims of these reprisals were women who had fraternised with the Germans. Some of these, we are told, were prostitutes who had worked in military brothels -as if this would excuse this public cruelty!- many were just ordinary girls who had fallen for the charms of young men of another nationality. The punishment for these women is described by Brassens.

In this song Brassens expresses his shock at the cruelty of which groups of people are capable in the grip of a strong. self-righteous, idea.

La tondue -The girl with the shaven head

La belle qui couchait avec le roi de Prusse,(1)
Avec le roi de Prusse,
À qui l'on a tondu le crâne rasibus,

Le crâne rasibus,

Son penchant prononcé pour les "ich liebe dich ", (2)
Pour les "ich liebe dich ",
Lui valut de porter quelques cheveux postiches, 
Quelques cheveux postiches.

Les braves sans-culottes, et les bonnets phrygiens, (3)
Et les bonnets phrygiens,
Ont livré sa crinière à un tondeur de chiens,
À un tondeur de chiens.

J'aurais dû prendre un peu parti pour sa toison,
Parti pour sa toison,
J'aurais dû dire un mot pour sauver son chignon,
Pour sauver son chignon,

Mais je n'ai pas bougé du fond de ma torpeur,
Du fond de ma torpeur.
Les coupeurs de cheveux en quatre (4) m'ont fait peur,
En quatre m'ont fait peur.

Quand, pire qu'une brosse, elle eut été tondue,
Elle eut été tondue,
J'ai dit : " C'est malheureux, ces accroch'-cœur(5) perdus,
Ces accroch'-coeur perdus. "
Et, ramassant l'un d'eux qui traînait dans l'ornière,
Qui traînait dans l'ornière,
Je l'ai, comme une fleur, mis à ma boutonnière,
Mis à ma boutonnière.

En me voyant partir arborant mon toupet,
Arborant mon toupet (6)
Tous ces coupeurs de natt's m'ont pris pour un suspect,
M'ont pris pour un suspect.

Comme de la patrie je ne mérite guère,
Je ne mérite guère
J'ai pas la Croix d'Honneur, j'ai pas la Croix de Guerre,
J'ai pas la Croix de Guerre,
Et je n'en souffre pas avec trop de rigueur,
Avec trop de rigueur.

J'ai ma rosette (7) à moi : c'est un accroche-coeur,
C'est un accroche-coeur.

Georges Brassens

1964 – from the album: Les copains d'abord.
The pretty girl who'd slept with the king of Prussia
With the king of Prussia
Whose skull the people shaved as bald as a coot
Skull bald as a coot

Her marked preference for repeats of "ich liebe dich "
Repeat "ich liebe dich ",
Meant her wearing different mops of hair, not her own
Mops of hair not her own.

The brave sans-culottes and the bonnets phrygiens
And the bonnets phrygiens
Handed her flowing locks to a man who sheared dogs
To a man who sheared dogs.

I ought ‘have sided a bit for her gorgeous mane
Have sided for her mane ,.
I ought ‘have said a word to save her tight curls
To save her tight curls.

But I just did not budge from out of my torpor
From out  of my torpor
The extremist hair cutters put the wind up me
They put the wind up me..

When worse than down to a crew-cut, she’d been  shaven
She had been shaven
I said “It's a shame, those kiss curls to go to waste
Kiss curls to go to waste “
And picking one up, left behind in the tyre ruts
One left in the tyre ruts,
I placed it like a flower, in my buttonhole
Placed in my buttonhole

On seeing me leave, displaying my trophy
Displaying my trophy,
All those cutters of  plaits, eyed me with suspicion
Eyed me with suspicion.

As of my country I’m hardly deserving
I’m hardly deserving
I've no Medal of Honour, I've no Medal of War
I've no Medal of War
And I’m not troubled about that overmuch
Not troubled overmuch

I have a rosette of my own :  it's a girl’s kiss curl

It's a girl’s kiss curl.


(1) Le roi de Prusse. Brassens just means a German soldier, not necessarily a man of rank.   A number of explanations have been given for this device. My own feeling is that it conveys the romantic view of the French girl in love of her German lover.

(2) "ich liebe dich ". This phrase, of course, says « Je’t’aime in German.

(3) Les braves sans-culottes, et les bonnets phrygiens.
In this line Brassens identifies the masses of ordinary people who joined in the violent reprisals against alleged collaborators with the “sans-culottes” of the Revolution of 1789. They were then given this name because they didn't wear upper class breeches or “culottes”. The Phrygian bonnet was a symbol adopted by the 18th Century Revolution because it was worn at the time of the Roman Empire by former slaves who had been freed. Brassens aroused the anger of left wing activists by his depiction of them in this song.

(4) Les coupeurs de cheveux en quatre. « En quatre » is used in a number of expressions to mean to the highest degree (for example “se mettre en quatre pour quelq’un” = to do your utmost for some-one. If Brassens was indeed threatened in 1945, he would not have been the first choice for bullies to pick on. For a time, Brassens was employed as a bodyguard for Jean-Paul Sartre.

(5) Soft kiss curls. I put in the adjective to give me a 3 syllable translation.

(6) Toupet has 2 meanings (a) tuft of hair (b) impudence. His gesture with the locket of hair was recognised by these administrators of rough justice as an act of defiance.

(7) A Rosette is an insignia of honour in the military and in the Légion d’honneur.

The job completed, the girl is led through the streets with her Franco-German baby.


Arthur Koestler has said:
..... the evils of mankind are caused, not by the primary aggressiveness of individuals, but by their self-transcending identification with groups whose common denominator is low intelligence and high emotionality.


Anonymous said...

Dear David

Thank you for providing this wonderful site and for your analysis of this song in particular...

'Man as an individual is a genius. But men in the mass form the headless monster, a great, brutish idiot that goes where prodded.'
Charlie Chaplin

Best wishes

David Yendley said...

Thanks Nick. Very relevant!

Aleksander Wolicki said...

I think there is a deeper meaninig in "les bonnets phrygiens". It is not only a synonym of the French "mob". As You noticed phrygian cup was w symbol of Roman freedmen ('liberti'). 'Libertus' was a man made free by someone else, without taking any active part in his own liberation. Brassens is "cruel". He points to the moral issue: the passive people who were freed by external force (Alliants) are not ashamed to pose as judges of these poor women which is disgusting. [Ps. Sorry for my Polish-English]

Anonymous said...

Nice explanation ! Pretty acurate.

Just 2 things :

- Couper les cheveux en quatre, means over complitated the things. You can translate it litteraly : cut the hair by four. Not easy isn't it ?

- Accroche cœur is the nickname for a solitary curly hair, like some women in the 20's have on their front head.

Thank´s to share George Brassens with the world.