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  • From the ‘Chanson française’ to the ‘Canzone d’autore’ in the 1960s and 1970s: Authenticity, Authority, Influence by Rachel Haworth
  • Peter Hawkins
From the ‘Chanson française’ to the ‘Canzone d’autore’ in the 1960s and 1970s: Authenticity, Authority, Influence. By Rachel Haworth. (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music.) Farnham: Ashgate, 2015. x + 201 pp.

Rachel Haworth’s study, based on her PhD thesis, is admirably well documented and draws extensively on critical comment and analysis, both from the period covered and more recent studies of French chanson, including those of Adeline Cordier, David Looseley, Chris Tinker, and myself. Haworth’s approach is to compare the discourses about the genre with the extensive contemporary debates about popular music in Italy, focusing on the San Remo festival and the movement of Cantacronace, leading on to the development of an Italian style of singer-songwriter illustrating the canzone d’autore. Haworth examines the attitudes to their art of the best-known French practitioners of the genre—Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, and Léo Ferré—and draws on contemporary critical discussions, some by little-known figures such as Jacques Charpentreau and France Vernillat, and others by influential arbiters of taste, such as the poet Pierre Seghers, publisher of the well-known ‘Poètes d’aujourd’hui’ series, which included the [End Page 623] three major French singer-songwriters. The latter trio has often been seen by subsequent commentators in opposition to the commercial popular music industry of the time, but this is less clearly delineated by the critics of the period, most of whom recognize the unavoidable compromises these three figures had to make to reach their popular audience. In Italy this debate is foregrounded from the start by reactions to the San Remo song festival, rapidly dismissed as too commercial, leading to the creation of a school of socially committed songwriters called the Cantacronace, which included intellectual figures such as Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino among its founder members. The opposition between commercial pressures and artistic ambitions became a major theme of discussion, unlike in France, and this led to the creation of a generation of singer-songwriters for whom the imitation of role models such as Brassens and Brel became a badge of authenticity, as with the careers of Fabrizio de André and Giorgio Gaber. It would be interesting to compare this evolution with similar developments in Greece and Spain, as seen in Dimitris Papanikolaou’s Singing Poets: Literature and Popular Music in France and Greece (Oxford: Legenda, 2007), only briefly mentioned here, and in The Singer-Songwriter in Europe: Paradigms, Politics and Place, edited by Isabelle Marc and Stuart Green (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2016). One cannot help observing that in spite of his partly Italian family and education, and his residency in Tuscany from 1970 onwards, Léo Ferré appears to have been much less of an inspiration for Italian singer-songwriters than for their Spanish and Catalan equivalents. As the wide-ranging influence of the model of the chanson française becomes more clear, so the limitations of the approach of discourse analysis become more evident in explaining the success of figures such as Brassens, Brel, and Ferré, and the extent to which they were unrecognized and unacknowledged precursors of celebrated Anglo-American singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, and even Lennon and McCartney.

Peter Hawkins
University of Bristol


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