Serge Gainsbourg & Philippe Clay, “The Accordion” (1962?) and other accordion songs

The Accordion on YouTube.

I just discovered this 1960s French bromance. It has been making me smile the past few days, especially in conjunction with the music videos, with Serge singing in duet with his friend, Philippe Clay. I thought “The Accordion” was adorable (painted on five o’clock shadows! raggedy dog! faux patch-worked rags!). They did another one “The Assassination of Franz Léhar” which is a mindblowingly weird song and video. Seriously, if you guys want to be uncomfortable in that Twilight Zone/Alfred Hitchcock Presents kind of way, check out the video. It’s like Dick Van Dyke’s character in Mary Poppins had some sort of mental breakdown.

Philippe was first a trained mime and then moved into singing, which explains everything when you see him sing, especially in “The Assassination”. Watching him and Serge next to each other, you can see the difference in training. Philippe’s body language and his singing look like he’s been trained to do this. Practiced, but natural. Serge never had formal stage training, and so his awkward style of body language really stands out next to Philippe’s smooth operator attitude. Also the fact that Philippe was 6’3″ and Serge was 5’10” makes them look like a comedy duo. I heard they used to hang out with Boris Vian in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I read somewhere that Serge was inspired by Boris Vian’s stage presence as a singer. Except Boris had severe stage fright and stood in front of the microphone ramrod straight, his face white as a ghost, making everyone in the room feel as awkward as he felt. There’s a great photo of Vian floating around the internet on stage at the Trois Baudets. Look how comfortable he looks (not)!
borisvian3baudets

I have a theory about Gainsbourg’s stage presence, especially in his early days, but it gets into some armchair psychology, which I don’t feel like writing right now. To get back to the song of the day, it was apparently written by Serge for Juliette Gréco. I don’t know how he came to record it as a duet with Philippe, but it’s the first duet I’ve heard him sing with a man. Crazy stuff. And look how adorable they are singing together. They’re obviously having a great time, which is extremely charming. Anyway, here are the lyrics:

My God, life is cruel
To the street musician
His friend and lover
Is the accordion
Who is it that helps him live,
Helps him sit down when he’s drunk?
Is it you, is it me?
No–
It’s the accordion.

Refrain:

Accord, accord, accord,
Your alms to a chord-player, the accordion.*

[Trans. Note: An amazing line in French, and I did I pretty good job making it work. In French it’s: Accordez accordez accordez donc/
L’aumône a l’accordé l’accordéon. Literally, “Give, give, give then, alms to the one-who-is-given-something, the accordion, with a complicated wordplay on accordez/accordé/accordéon (give/the one who is given/accordion). It almost works in English, but I ended up replacing “the one who is given” with “a chord-player” which is a little weird in the phrasing, but keeps the word play. Gave myself a little pat on the back for that one.

They’re thick as thieves*
And when you put them into words
He accompanies his accordion
On the violin
He spends a night quiet
Then in the morning he lets out
A little air from his lungs
Into the accordion

[* Trans. Note: Ils sont comme cul et chemise; lit. “They’re as [close as] ass and shirt.” Thanks for great idiom, French!]

Sometimes he disfigures himself:
He takes his little mother-of-pearl buttons
And nicks them off his vest
For the accordion
He borrows his suspenders–
To save the string
That hold his pants up–
For the accordion

[Refrain]

But one day, out of weariness,
He’ll leave solitude behind,
Give himself to the horizon
Of the accordion
He’ll get 50 centimes for it
At the pawnshop
And we won’t pay attention
To the accordion any more

The other reason I wanted to post this particular song was because I’ve been thinking a lot about accordion songs lately. I feel like several of the songs I’ve translated over the semester have featured the accordion. It’s such a strange instrument and I’ve been hearing it fairly often lately in the contemporary Egyptian music as well and I have no idea why. There are a lot of songs about and featuring the accordion in French and Arabic. I don’t know anything about the history of the accordion in society or music, but I think that’s something I’d like to know more about. I’d like to start a list of all the songs I can think of that feature one prominently. So here we go:

Gainsbourg & Clay, “The Accordion”

Edith Piaf, “The Accordion Player” (Extra points for a great live performance)

Brel, “Amsterdam“, “Vesoul” (Amazingly, I never knew who the guy in the video was until just now. Brel calls him “Marcel” in the video, and apparently his name is Marcel Azzola, and he was a very famous accordionist who accompanied a good number of classic French singers including Brel, Yves Montand, Edith Piaf, Boris Vian, Juliette Gréco, etc. etc.), “L’eclusier

Cairokee ft. Souad Massi, “Agma Ma 3ndy

Basically everything by Youssra El Hawary (because she plays her own accordion): “The Wall“, “In The Street“, “El Mohem (?)”

Gogol Bordello, Start Wearing Purple

So much of Weird Al Yankovic:Angry White Boy Polka” among other songs.

Fréhel, Mon Amant de Saint-Jean” (the first French song I ever loved; one of the many songs in the bal musettetradition in France)

My music knowledge is pretty limited, so hopefully I’ll keep adding to this list.