Chanson française A good way to understand a people is to listen to its music. French songs have a special flavour, a very sentimental tone, the lyrics are more important than the music. Very often they are based on a triple time rhythm and use instruments like the accordeon.  Charles Aznavour, elected "Entertainer of the Century" by CNN and Time (2000) (credit)
 Some facts about French songs    French songs today
  • Among the most popular French songs
  • Among the most successful French songs in English version
    • Autumn Leaves by Frank Sinatra (from Les Feuilles Mortes, by Yves Montand) (listen to it)
    • My Way by Franck Sinatra (from Comme d'habitude by Claude François)
    • More to come
  • Multi-ethnic : reflecting French society, French songs are very open to foreign cultures and the most popular singers include MC Solaar (black rap), Zebda group (arab), Khaled (arab), etc... The future of French songs is clearly ethnic, at the image of the country.
  • The most famous French DJ, David Guetta has sold over 40 million records worldwide.
  • Singers who have had a major influence on French songs include :
    • Charles Trenet (1940s-1960s), nicknamed "le fou chantant" ("the singing crazy man") : poetry, cheerfulness, jazz ...
    • Georges Brassens (1950s-1970s), representative of the "chanson d'auteur" ("author's song", i.e.where the lyrics are essential or "chanson Rive Gauche" i.e.
      who performed in cabarets on the Left Bank in Paris) : poetry, humor, provocation ; he was considered a master by such great singers as Jacques Brel, Leo Ferré (listen to one of his great songs), Guy Béart, Barbara (listen to one of her great songs), Claude Nougaro, etc...

       (credit)

      listen to one of his most beautiful songs !

    • Charles Aznavour (1960s-1990s), is a great showman (listen to one of his most beautiful songs !) like Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Michel Sardou, Johnny Hallyday, etc...
    • Serge Gainsbourg (1960s-1980s), an excellent musician, creative and open to all forms of music influenced many of the younger French singers such as Jean Jacques Goldman, Benjamin Biolay, Sanseverino,...
    • The rock group Noir Désir in the late 1990s and Alain Bashung
  • More to come.... Other names suggested by visitors include William Sheller, Mylene Farmer, etc...
  • Click here and listen to my 10 favourite French songs

DO YOU KNOW JOHNNY HALLYDAY ? Very few Americans do and all of those who know him mock him. Why? The 70-year old rock singer is among the most popular French singers but it is understandable that for most Americans, the words a "French rock singer" may sound as unexpected as "an English chef". However, Johnny is clearly a national monument.

 

French music is alive and well ! Young groups and French singers keep the tradition of French songs (the importance of lyrics) associated with a new form of music (integrating an African or Arab sound). Among them :

  • French Rap Music is very popular, with groups like NTM or singers like Diam's or MC Solaar. Diam's is France's most popular female rapper. Born in Cyprus and raised in a Paris suburb, Diam's is part of a new generation of French singers with immigrant roots. In her hit song, "Ma France à moi" Diam's, who wears baggy pants and keeps her hair cut very short, captures the feelings of the disaffected youth who don't relate to traditional France.
  • French Rock & Roll with Indochine, les Rita Mitsuko, Noir Désir or Mano Negra (with Manu Chao, who now sings alone)
  • World Music, with singers like Amadou et Mariam
  • Popular singers include Raphael, Cali, Sanseverino, Benabar, etc
  • An example of the merging of tradition with new forms is the singer (of Arab origin) Rachid Taha singing with his group "Carte de Séjour (Green Card) the old (1943) Charles Trenet standard " Douce France "
  • In Québec, they love songs and they have great singers. Among them, Félix Leclerc, a kind of founding father figure, Gilles Vignault, Robert Charlebois, Richard Desjardins, etc... and many more. If you love songs in French, when in Montréal or Québec, spend an evening in a "boite à chansons" (a "café" with singers)
  • More to come...

The "new France" resulting from immigration is not only represented by suburban riots. Thanks to ethnic diversity, there is an incredibly rich new generation of young singers, movie-makers and writers

.Rap star MC Solaar  (credit)

French music and the "exception culturelle francaise"

France is the only country in Europe where national music is predominant (2/3 of the number of records sold). Why ?

  • a quota policy : minimum 40% of French music on radio channels (see the site of the French regulator - CSA - and comments about the Sept.30, 1986 Law creating quotas : 25% or 60% for stations with a particular broadcasting policy regarding creation, 40% as a standard rule)
  • a huge heritage of great singers (Piaf, Brel, Brassens, Aznavour, etc...)
  • excellent concert halls and numerous Summer festivals

 --> In 2004, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France organized an (excellent) exhibition called "One Hundred Years of French Songs". Each decade was illustrated by the 10 "best" songs of this period. Among them, I have selected the following :

  • 1900-1914 ("Caf'conc' et Cabaret") : Sous les ponts de Paris (1913) by Georgel : cabaret songs, often saucy, popular entertainment, ...
  • 1914-1918 ("Chansons dans la guerre") : Quand Madelon (1914) by Bach : patriotic songs,...
  • 1918-1930 ("les années folles") : J'ai deux amours, mon Pays et Paris (1930) by Josephine Baker (listen to it) : love and glamour in 1920s Paris, discovering jazz, ..
  • 1930-1939 ("de l'euphorie à la débâcle") : Parlez moi d'amour (1930) by Lucienne Boyer : "chanson réaliste" (very depressing...) or very sentimental,.. (listen to it)
  • 1939-1945 ("chansons sous l'Occupation") : Douce France (1942) by Charles Trenet : nostalgia,...
  • 1945-1960 ("de Saint-Germain-des-Prés à la Nouvelle Vague") : Hymne à l'amour (1950) by Edith Piaf (listen to it)
  • 1960-1970 ("génération Yé-Yé") : Ma plus belle histoire d'amour (1966) by Barbara : at the same time, discovering rock'roll (Johnny Hallyday etc..) and the top moment of "chanson d'auteur"...
  • 1970-1980 ("engagement ou divertissement") : C'est extra (1969) by Leo Ferré : following the student's revolt of 1968, a period of politically engaged songs,...
  • 1980-1990 ("le temps des groupes") : Un autre monde (1984) by Telephone : the music isd more important than the lyrics ; big concerts...
  • 1990-2004 ("rap et musiques plurielles") : Aïcha (1996) by Khaled (listen to it) and many young singers, often from African or North-African origin, introduce a new form of songs,...

 

--> Children songs include : Au clair de la lune (see below), Le Bon Roi Dagobert, Cadet-Rousselle, Frère Jacques, Sur le Pont d'Avignon, etc...(everybody knows them...)

 

USEFUL TIPS..The radio station for Rap and Rock & Roll is Skyrock (96Mhz) and if you want to know where to go to listen to music, from the smallest cafés (with an unknown group of singers performing) to the largest concert hall, read LYLO (" les yeux les oreilles " : i.e. Eyes and Ears, bi-monthly, more than 1000 concerts in hundreds of places n Paris for the coming 3 weeks) : you can find it (for free) in most musical bars and concert places in Paris

 

Famous French songs about Paris

Paris has always been a source of inspiration for poets and singers and some of the most popular French songs are about Paris.

Months in Paris

  • April in Paris
  • J'aime Paris au Mois de Mai : Charles Aznavour
  • Le temps des Cerises (JB.Clement, Renard): Yves Montand
  • Paris au mois d'Aout : Charles Aznavour
  • September in Paris

Love in Paris

  • J'ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris (1931, Scotto, Koger, Varna), Josephine Baker (listen to it)
  • Vous qui passez sans me voir (1936, Hess, Trenet), Jean Sablon (listen to it)
  • Parlez moi d'amour (1930, Jean Lenoir), Lucienne Boyer
  • More to come

.An authoritative book on French songs about Paris (Editions Aumage, Paris, 2005) (credit)

 DID YOU KNOW THAT ...... ? If a French person can sing ONE song or play ONE tune, he/she will sing " Au Clair de la Lune ". The words are "Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête moi ta plume pour écrire un mot.....etc" i.e. " My friend Pierrot, under the moonlight, please loan me your goose quill : I want to write something" (it's more poetic in French !) and the tune goes like this.

 

USEFUL TIPS......Every year, since 1976 the Mecca of French songs is the Festival de Bourges (in the center of France) in April. Very popular French singers include Francis Cabrel, Jean Jacques Goldman and the most promising young French singers seem to be Vincent Delerm, Mathieu Chedid, Benabar, Sanseverino, Thomas Fersen. Another very interesting Summer festival devoted to French singers is the "Francofolies de la Rochelle" (in July). More about festivals.

 

 Places in Paris

  • Montmartre : La Bohème (1966, J.Plante, C.Aznavour), Charles Aznavour, enregistré en public Janvier 1978 (1998 EMI Music)
  • Saint Germain des Prés : A Saint Germain des Prés, Leo Ferré, enregistré en public en 1969 (Meridian)
  • Les Boulevards : J'aime flaner sur les grands boulevards, Yves Montand
  • Les prénoms de Paris : (J.Brel, G.Jouhannest), Jacques Brel, 1972 (Polygram)
  • Old Paris : Rouge Gorge (R.Séchan), Renaud (1988 Virgin France)
  • Bistrots : le vieux bistrot (G.Brassens)
  • Menilmontant (Charles Trenet, 1939)
  • Pigalle (Maurice Chevalier)
  • Paris : A Paris (Francis Lemarque, probably the most popular song about Paris, for the French) or Un gamin de Paris (Yves Montand) and also Revoir Paris (Charles Trenet, 1947)
  • More to come...
 Lyrics of French songs    Places and sites to find French music and lyrics
 Visit the sites of the singers with their biography, discography and the lyrics of their songs :
 

 Sites to visit

To order lyrics online : Paul-Beuscher has a huge catalog.

 Websites :

  • Visit a remarkable site, with more than 350 old French songs (but of course you have to know the name of the song)

Books :

  • One of the best books on the history of French songs is : Claude DUNETON, Histoire de la chanson française (2 vol.), Seuil, 1998
 

 Places to shop in Paris

  • FNAC : several large stores : 24 Bld des Italiens 75009 Paris, 136 rue de Rennes 75006 Paris, 74 av. des Champs Elysées 75008 Paris, 109 rue Saint Lazare 75009 Paris, etc...
  • Virgin Store : two main stores : 52 av des Champs Elysées 75009 Paris, 99 rue de Rivoli 75004 Paris, etc...
  • Paul Beuscher : 27 bld Beaumarchais 75004 Paris OR : 66 av de la Motte Piquet 75015 Paris
  • Many "passages" (XIXth Century commercial malls) include one or several shops with old musical scores (Passage Jouffroy, Passage Verdeau, Passage Vivienne, Passage des Panoramas, etc...)
  • More to come

DID YOU KNOW THAT.....? On French TV and radios and in CDs, there is of course a very fierce competition with American singers. Here are the figures for 2003 : French songs represent 22% of the market on radios, 60% of CDs sold. This is considered a relatively improved situation. Read about the "exception culturelle".

  • Jazz is alive and well in Paris : see where.
  • This page is still under construction : please write to me to help to improve it.

DID YOU KNOW THAT ? When you learn music in France (and in other Latin countries), you don't call the notes " A, B, C, D, E, F and G " but " do, ré, mi, fa, sol, la and si ".

 
To related pages : Listen to my favourite French songs, regional and ethnic French songs, see pages on French culture, French movies, French literature, unknown Paris, intercultural differences, try my French Quiz, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books:

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To email me Many sites about France give facts and information. This site does that too - with a plus. You'll get an insider's view of the Franco- American scene: working in Paris, tips about food, what's new, etc.. All these and much more from a Franco- American couple in Paris.