Sunday, February 21, 2021

Transatlantic transformation - French and American music in translation


[Twins in a wagon*]

The flight from New York to Paris is a few hours long but upon arriving, you feel in a different world whether because of the architecture or the jet lag. The French and Americans, who have had a lengthy love affair since Lafayette and Alexis de Tocqueville, often expressed an appreciation of each other’s music. In some cases, the songs have been imported as is,  such as the songs of Elvis Presley in French and Edith Piaf in English. In other cases, while the music remained the same, the words took on a completely different meaning, even texture, a bit like physically identical twins with different personalities. As a small sampling, I will look at two well-known songs, My Way, Frank Sinatra’s signature song, and the Little Drummer Boy, the classic Christmas classic, known as Comme D’habitude and l’Enfant de Tambour in France.

Claude François and Jacques Revaux wrote a song entitled “Comme D’habitude”, meaning As I always do, in 1967, which was then originally transformed and sang in English by Paul Anka but made famous by Frank Sinatra. While the melodies are identical, the words express entirely different situations and feelings:

Comme D’habitude [link]

My Way [link]

Je me lève

And now the end is here

Et je te bouscule

And so I face that final curtain

Tu ne te réveilles pas

My friend I'll make it clear

Comme d'habitude

I'll state my case, of which I'm certain

Sur toi je remonte le drap

I've lived a life that's full

J'ai peur que tu aies froid

I traveled each and every highway

Comme d'habitude

And more, much more

Ma main caresse tes cheveux

I did it, I did it my way

Presque malgré moi


Comme d'habitude

Regrets, I've had a few

Mais toi tu me tournes le dos

But then again too few to mention

Comme d'habitude

I did what I had to do

Et puis je m'habille très vite

I saw it through without exemption

Je sors de la chambre

I planned each charted course

Comme d'habitude

Each careful step along the byway

Tout seul je bois mon café

And more, much, much more

Je suis en retard

I did it, I did it my way

Comme d'habitude


Sans bruit je quitte la maison

Yes, there were times I'm sure you knew

Tout est gris dehors

When I bit off more than I could chew

Comme d'habitude

But through it all, when there was doubt

J'ai froid, je relève mon col

I ate it up and spit it out…

Comme d'habitude…



The French original is a very sad story of a loveless marriage in which everything is done ritually without feeling, even making love. The husband gets up in the morning, pulls up the cover to make sure the wife is warm and caresses her cheek with no reaction besides her turning her back to him. He gets up, drinks his coffee alone and leaves for work. When he returns, she has left for the evening. She returns later after he goes to bed. They have sex. The day begins anew. Yet, he still keeps on functioning “as I always do”. By contrast, the American version is the proud statement and restatement of independence of an older man who takes responsibility for his choices and voices no regrets. He declares that he made his own decisions and willingly paid the price for them. The contrast between the lyrics and emotional feeling they elicit is rather extreme.

In other direction, the American classis Christmas song, The Little Drummer Boy, is credited to Katherine Davis in 1941 but was made famous by the Trapp Singers in 1951. It was transformed into French by Georges Coulonge in 1960 and interpreted by Les Barclay but made famous by Nana Mouskouri. Again, while the melodies are identical, the messages are not the same:

Little Drummer Boy [link]

L’enfant de tambour [link]

Come they told me

Sur la route parapapampam

Pa rum pum pum pum

Petit tambour s'en va parapapampam

A new born king to see

Il sent son coeur qui bat parapapampam

Pa rum pum pum pum

Au rythme de ses pas parapapampam

Our finest gifts we bring

Rapapampam rapapampam

Pa rum pum pum pum

Ô petit enfant parapapampam

To lay before the king

Où vas-tu tarampapampam

Pa rum pum pum pum,


Rum pum pum pum,

Hier mon père parapapampam

Rum pum pum pum,

A suivi le tambour parapapampam

So to honor him

Le tambour des soldats parapapampam

Pa rum pum pum pum

Alors je vais au ciel parapapampam

When we come

Rapapampam rapapampam


Là je veux donner pour son retour

Little baby

Mon tambour tarampapampam

Pa rum pum pum pum


I am a poor boy too

Tous les anges parapapampam

That's fit to give our king….

Ont pris leur beau tambour parapapampam


Et ont dit à l'enfant parapapampam


Ton père est de retour parapapampam


Rapapampam rapapampam


Et l'enfant s'éveille parapapampam


Sur son tambour


Again, the original American version is cheery and inspiring, relating the story of the birth of Jesus, a spiritual. By contrast, the French interpretation tells the sad story of a child playing his drum after his father marched off to war and dreaming of going to heaven where the angels tell him that his father is returning. Sadly, the child wakes up contrast from the dream with his head on the drum. The music is the same but the aftertaste is not.

Each of the versions has its own merits. It is objectively impossible to say if the interpretation was better or worse than the original. However, as these examples how, it is clear that the transatlantic voyage, or any voyage for that matter, can transform music.

* Pictures are important for the blind to access the Internet. Picture: Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=757404">lisa runnels</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=757404">Pixabay</a>

No comments:

Post a Comment