From French Folk to Rock and Back Again




It took a long time for real rock music to arrive in France — indeed there are some cynics who say it never did! Undoubtedly there was a lot of catching up to do for while Hendrix and The Who were cavorting on London stages in the mid 1960’s, smashing guitars and turning up the decibels, in Paris the ‘cabaret scene’ was still very much the vogue.

Parisian-born Gabriel Yacoub – a long-standing leading folk music figure in France (See footnote)

Here singer/songwriter Tony Smith, an occasional Rock contributor to French News Online, offers an insider view of how the music cycle has rolled back in France’s favour with folk music  to the fore. Tony recently set up a folk music venue in the south- west and has also released a new track — lyrics & lead vocal by Tony Smith – recorded in a train to Paris. It  can be viewed here while more details are found here. See his earlier reviews here  and here
It was after all on the ‘cabaret scene’ that habitues could find earnest male French folk singers and wistful damoiselles doing the rounds singing earnest and dreamy French folk songs in small, smoke filled clubs around the bohemian Montmarte quartier.

France preferred its music unplugged and confined to certain quartiers where guitars were in any event played as mere accompaniments in poetry recitals. After all Jim Morrison came to live in France precisely to escape rock music.

Here is a video clip of a visit to Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery  Paris- a popular pilgrimage for his fans:

During the sixties France had a General as president who didn’t understand young people, mini-skirts or loud music and was not above picking up the phone to complain if anything shown on the then state-controlled TV network displeased him.

There was certainly no equivalent of the UK’s raucous Top of the Pops or the more edgy, Ready, Steady, Go! to boost music sales and Vinyl was anyway more expensive on the French side of the Channel. Additionally of course, there was the language barrier.

The 1968 student upheaval in France was sparked off (in part) by a refusal to allow mixity in certain Paris universities and it was also a powerful call for an end to the conservative ideas that rigidly controlled French society at the time. Indeed 1968 opened up the country to new ideas and trends and not before time. During the late 1960’s, Paris, and the rest of France was a decade behind the UK in pop fashion and music, indeed looking back it could be termed a lost era for the French as far as rock music innovation and new musical ideas were concerned.

Malcolm Mc Claren, who launched the Sex Pistols, admitted to being influenced by the Parisian cafe society of the 1950’s, which thrived of course while London dozed. But, hey, by 1966 it was time to wake up, was it not? Dylan was going electric, folk music was out – rock music was the way forward for the younger generations. And indeed, rock music came to dominate in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s across most of the Western-influenced world (in other words virtually everywhere).

Still, even after two decades of exposure to all the different rock variations, French musicians didn’t cut it: in the 1990’s, apart from a couple of techno acts, France remained out on a limb. For the home market, songs sung in French dominated. These heavily texted efforts all owed more to the Folk idiom than to Rock.

And then or course around 2000, folk music came back into vogue! New, quirky, artists such as Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens led the way. Bert Jansch, a veteran of the 1960’s British scene, made some fine new recordings shouldered by the new young folk artists that seemed to be all over the place.

This time round the French were ready.

The Internet and YouTube opened the gates and anyone, anywhere in France willing to spend enough time can now find all the latest trends and research the older groups and styles. Sometimes, the YouTube effect is directly discernible: it sufficed that a couple of Canadian folk groups made it big by being up to ten on stage and writing semi-chanted pop hymns a few years ago and a year or so later, in France, a rurally based, ten-piece folk group emerged.

I happen to like both rock and folk and in April 2012 I started a monthly Folk Club night in Montauban (north of Toulouse) which has seen some fine performances from people of all nationalities. If you live in the south west or are visiting the region call 05 63 66 15 34 to book a place. The Folk Club is held at ‘Le Quetzal’, 18 Rue Des Augustins Montauban every first Sunday evening of each month

Story: Tony Smith
editorial@ french-news-online com

Useful links:

Footnote: Gabriel Yacoub was born in Paris, of a Lebanese father and a French mother. He is a guitarist and singer, and with Marie Yacoub was a founder member of folk/rock group Malicorne. With Malicorne, Gabriel played acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, epinette de Vosges and banjo, while Marie played electric dulcimer, bouzouki and hurdy-gurdy. They sang most of the lead vocals on the albums.

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