That voice, which made the term “timbre” tangible, was rich mahogany and mellow oak, a perfect pitch of commitment and emotion in the cause of the downtrodden. He was 79 when he succumbed to cancer, and though he hadn’t recorded much in later life, his music continues to sell very well – his recent “greatest hits” is a platinum album.
His contemporary Jacques Brel had a wider international audience, and Ferrat deliberately shunned the showbiz limelight. At the height of his career, he settled in a rural Ardeche village – the French equivalent of Appalachia. Fellow villagers, who loved their card-playing boule-throwing neighbor, were eloquent about his humility and humanity.
Like in his earlier years living in Parisian housing projects, Jean Ferrat took his inspiration from working people. That’s how he himself started out, a teenage apprentice in a public works lab, who dabbled in performance art in his free time. He emerged in his late twenties as a singer with a difference, one who, decades before the rest of us worried about such things, decried in song “hormone chicken” and whose song “Ma Mome” had a factory worker as heroine.
A lifelong leftist, Jean Tenenbaum owed his life to Communists who sheltered the Jewish boy when his father was deported to Auschwitz. Though “card-carrying” would be incorrect (he never became a party member, and was considered too outspoken to tour the Soviet Union), he certainly identified with the PCF, the French Communist Party. This didn’t stop him from penning condemnations of Stalinism (“Le Bilan,” or the balance sheet of Stalin’s countless victims) and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Jean Ferrat was above all an idealist.
In the France of the 1950s, Tenenbaum wasn’t considered a marketable name, so the young singer looked at a map, saw Cap Ferrat jutting out into the Mediterranean, and voilà, a star was born. As if Anthony Dominick Benedetto had seen Mt. Rushmore and chosen the national monument for a stage name.
Watching one of several homages to Jean Ferrat on French TV, B&W footage showed a very scrawny thirty-something strolling along a street in a vintage musical video clip. Jean Ferrat is a perfect example of “improving with age,” his long middle years where his trademark moustache and salt-and-pepper mane adorned his many albums (he composed and sang some 200 songs). His voice remained strong well into his sixties, when he recorded his last album. His commitment to social justice remained: he once wrote “When they stop banning my songs, just throw me off the bridge.” (image: JeChanteMagazine)
Ferrat’s poetry deserves more than this blog can offer, and his influence was as much due to his mellifluous voice as to his subject matter. While his odes to the victims of the Holocaust and to Pinochet still stir passions, his work on everyday subjects (“Ouralou,” his departed dog) are also touching. Try to stay dry-eyed while listening to “Tu verras, tu seras bien” (You’ll see, you’ll be fine), about adult children relegating an aging parent to a retirement home.
Ferrat’s poetry, and that of Louis Aragon, which he set to music, was sublime, and his love songs are some of the most beautiful in modern French music. Have a listen.
Jean Ferrat, tu seras bien...