-- Songwriting/Influences: French language --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on songwriting in the French language.

  • March 1977 - Commenting on the song Vagabondage
    [Interviewwer is Hugh Richards]

    HR: "Vagabondage" is all sung in French...

    BC: ...sort of French, yeah.

    HR: Your albums have French translations, but this is the first you've ever sung in that language.

    BC: Well, I would have done it sooner if I could have, but that's just the first time that I've been able to write in French. Not that my French has improved so much, but it's the exposure to the work on the translations over the years with Marcel Mousette. But for that particular lyric, if you'll notice, there's a little credit for a guy named Blaise Cendrars who's a French poet from around the turn of the century and the early twentieth century. A contemporary of Hemingway, and people like that -- sort of the 1918 Paris scene. He was one of the Vagabond poets, only a modern-day one, and he write some really fantastic stuff. I came across a book of his things, with the French on one side and the English on the other. They were good translations done by competent poets. I didn't actually steal whole lines, or that, but I took enough out of it -- imagery out of his poetry -- that it became necessary to include his name on it.

    HR: The translation, "Drifting," somehow lacks something when it's not in French. The word "drifting" is only part of what the word "Vagabondage" represents.

    BC: Vagabondage. Well it means "bumming" but I didn't like the word "bumming," you know, in that context. I just ended up with that word because I couldn't think of anything better.

    HR: You said you captured images from Blaise Cendrars.

    BC: Partly because of the Blaise Cendrars poetry. The images were there, a lot but not all, but it started me. Sometimes with images, well, you look at a French word and if you translate it into English it comes out as an incredibly beautiful image. Like in "Vagabondage" for instance, "compass card" which is "rose de vents," in French meaning rose of the wind. What a beautiful image, but you have no way of knowing the fact that it's beautiful in English makes it also sound beautiful in French. So that's what has to be checked out. I've had some real clunkers that way.
    -- from An interview by Hugh Richards "Cheap Thrills" March 1977. Submitted by Dave Hedenstrom.

  • 2 November 1981 - On his period of French language songwriting

    Q: Speaking of French.. I was interested... a lot of your first albums had a strong presentation with the lyrics... a lot of the later albums, the American albums, haven't had any French references.

    BC: The songs are the same, it just happens that I'd written some French songs on the earlier ones.

    Q: Are you still writing any French songs?

    BC: No, like I say, I haven't written a French song since whatever the last one was... Badlands Flashback. Not by design, it just kinda worked out that way, I haven't got it together. So there haven't been French songs. In Canada, we still include translations... it's very important there. I guess it would be more important here, if we were going to do anything like that, to do it in Spanish.

    Q: Did you speak French as a young person?

    BC: No, I studied it in school, everybody does. The level of instruction is quite good...
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn Interview, Old Waldorf, San Francisco," transcribed by Charles Wolff, from a tape of an interview with Bruce Cockburn on November 2, 1981 at The Old Waldorf, San Francisco, CA.

  • 2 March 2002 - Commenting on conversing in French

    "'s not what I had hoped it would be by now. I can survive in French and I can read it reasonably well. I have a big collection of bandes dessin?es that I practice my French with."

    "But I'd hoped by moving here that I'd be using it all the time and be able to go beyond the survival stage and be able to carry on an intelligent conversation. But so far that hasn't happened."
    -- from "Cockburn fits right in: songsmith finds himself at home living in Plateau", Montreal Gazette, 2 March 2002, by Brendan Kelly.

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    Issues Index

    This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.