What if Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra had been the same person? In France they were, and his name was Charles Trenet.
I’m taking a break from my posts on Ammons to share my newly revived passion for Trenet. While I’ve always enjoyed his lighthearted songs and his buoyant singing, I’ve only recently begun to appreciate his range and versatility. Trenet (1913-2001) wrote and performed hundreds of songs over the course of his more than sixty-year career; best-known in the US are “La Mer,” memorably recorded by Bobby Darin in an English version called “Beyond the Sea,” and “Que Reste-t-il de Nos Amours,” recorded by Sinatra among others as “I Wish You Love.” But there are many other superb songs by Trenet that never crossed over to English. And while Trenet himself spent time in Hollywood, he didn’t achieve the level of transatlantic stardom accorded to fellow performers like Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Charles Aznavour. Yet in my opinion he was the greatest of all the French chanteurs, offering an incomparable blend of nostalgia, humor and joie de vivre, shot through with unexpected streaks of melancholy.
It may in part be a measure of how close-knit the French cultural world was in the 30s and 40s that Trenet associated with the likes of Saint-Exupery, Artaud, Cocteau, Colette, and Max Jacob. He harbored serious literary and artistic aspirations of his own, publishing novels and verse along with his copious chansons. A gay man compelled to keep his sexuality hidden for most of his career, he often called attention to the line between the performer’s mask and the poet’s soul. One of his most beautiful songs, “L’Ame des Poetes,” imagines a crowd of people singing the poet’s words after his death, “not knowing for whom his heart beat.” Here’s a video of Trenet singing it sometime in the 1970s:
His performance here is unusually muted; Trenet was generally known for his energetic, google-eyed manner. Here’s a clip from his first film, in which he calls to mind a singing Harpo Marx (he was known in this period as “le fou chantant” or “the singing clown”):
Finally, here is one of Trenet’s most famous songs, “Je Chante,” originally written in the 30s during the Depression. Trenet brings an irrepressible glee to his performance, but if one listens carefully to the lyrics they tell a surprisingly grim story of a wandering singer who begins to faint from hunger, is dragged off to jail, then praises the rope or “ficelle” with which he hangs himself for freeing his soul from his body:
Like the proprietor of this blog, I’m a diehard Sinatraphile, as well as a lover of the great American standards. But there is no one quite like Trenet in American popular music before the 1960s. While a few songwriters met with success as performers—Hoagie Carmichael, Johnny Mercer—none of them achieved Trenet’s dual standing as one of his country’s most beloved singers and songwriters. His songs are touching, hilarious, sweet, silly, and sad. Ecoutez-les!