Monday, September 4, 2017

The Longest Farewell - "Adieu, Foulard"

My long time folk music friend Rick Daly from Connecticut had a bit of extra time on his hands a year or so ago so he decided to look up the translation of the word foulard, part of the name of a lovely and heartbreakingly sad old French song from Martinique whose proper title is "Adieu foulard, adieu madras." Now people of Rick's age and mine likely know what "madras" means, if for no other reason than the brief fad that swept the country around 1960 of madras shorts and madras shirts. If you recall, those items were generally sold in inauthentic plaid-like patterns, and they were made from really cheap cotton and even cheaper dye in the city of Madras (since renamed Chennai) in India. What was distinctive about them was that when they were washed, even in the coldest water, the dyes would streak or run and the original pattern would turn into something approaching a psychedelic vision, giving rise to the term "bleeding madras." The fad didn't last very long because the dye often clung to the inside of the washer and/or dryer and could ruin the next load of clothes, and the garments themselves seldom survived more than three or four trips to the laundry machines. So why is someone apparently composing a musical ode saying goodbye to cheap shorts? Friend Rick was even more puzzled when he found out that foulard is usually translated as "headscarf" or even "headkerchief," which apparently renders the title into English as something like "Goodbye  Headscarf, Goodbye Cheap Cotton."

Of course, the song's title means nothing of the sort.  The picture above shows Martinican women  dressed in their traditional foulards and madras, a costume that likely dates back to the era of slavery, when as slaves they were dressed in the cheapest material available to their masters. I believe that I detect in the colors and flourishes of these designs a kind of quiet rebellion against bondage, as the women long ago made an artistic virtue out of brutal necessaity - as if to say "You may control our bodies but you cannot confine our souls, and we choose to adorn those bodies with color, beauty, and grace." A second glance at this picture demonstrates how brilliantly they succeded in doing exactly that.

Yet the song whose published title was originally  "Adieu les jolis foulards, Adieu tous le madras" ("Farewell to the pretty scarves, farewell to all the cotton clothes") did not emanate from these women but rather from a member of the masters class, an aristocrat from pre-revolutionary France named François Claude Amour, marquis de Bouillé. De Bouillé was a cousin of our friend the marquis de Lafayette, and like his cousin  de Bouillé was a brave and able soldier who also played a key role in our revolution by keeping British forces in the Caribbean occupied in defending themselves against  de Bouillé's raids and attacks and hence unable to aid their country's forces in North America proper. Prior to that war, de Bouillé had been the governor of the French Windward Islands, which included Martinique and where de Bouillé lived for two years. It was during that governorship, probably in 1769, that de Bouillé composed the song that he seems to have called “Les adieux d’une créole,” or "The Farewells Of A Creole Woman."

Right off the bat we have a number of problems understanding both the context and the meaning of the lyric for several reasons, and these center on the multiple and if I may say radically differing understandings of what is meant by créole and its English counterpart "Creole." Today, both terms imply a person of racially mixed ancestry (usually African and European but also possibly Native and Euro or even Native and African) in the Caribbean or Louisiana. But to the French of de Bouillé's 18th century, the word could also mean a white French person who was born in the island colonies and not in France proper, much as the British in the same century coined the derogatory term "American" to describe people of English descent born in North America and whose birth implied a lack of refinement and common couth.* Like the French, our Anglo-Saxon forbears also used the term "Creole" at times to refer to their own Euro-Caribbean colonists who may have dared to inter-marry with other white but non-English folks of (God forbid!) French or Spanish descent. Look back at the character of Bertha Antoinette Mason in Brontë's Jane Eyre for an example of the disastrous results of such nation-mixing (as the Brits saw it, at least).

If you're still with me after that paragraph, you may be wondering "so what?" Well, here's what: with all the variations over the centuries in the French lyrics, we are left wondering exactly who is saying goodbye to whom. In a remarkable and moving essay published a few years ago and called "Singing By Heart: A Meditation On 'Adieu foulard, adieu Madras,'" Dr. Sarah Waisvisz of the Department of English at Carleton University in Canada, herself a woman of mixed ethnicity including a Martinican grandmother, suggests that the lyric is to be sung by a créole woman to her departing French lover, perhaps even de Bouillé himself. This would fit with both de Bouillé's original title and with Dr. Waisvisz's emphasis on the chorus, which she translates as meaning "“My darling is leaving/sadly, sadly, it is forever.” Waisvisz also stresses the utter finality of "adieu" - the word is not a simple "goodbye" in French (that would be the more common "au revoir" or "à bientôt," roughly "see you next time") but rather "farewell," or to give it its proper weight in English "fare thee well." It is, as Waisvisz asserts, "a song  of goodbyes.... a song of diasporas. Of exiles. Of loss. Of a lost home impossible to return to, impossible to find again, but impossible to ignore."

This understanding helps us to grasp the title, if indeed it is a woman addressing a man. She appears to be saying something to the effect of "Goodbye my love - you will miss all the color and passion of me, your island woman of forbidden love, and I know you will never return." It works equally well for me - perhaps even a bit better -  if in some of the gender-neutral lyrics it could be the Euro man regretting his departure from the passion and romance of his island lady - with her foulards and madras - to return to the repressed culture of his native land.

With that in mind, I'd like to present as the first version of the song the one of this group that is perhaps the least traditional but at the same time the most apprehendable to those of us who speak English. It is a solo by Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio for an album that was never released until Collector's Choice did so forty years after the tracks were laid down:

The English translation that Shane employs here is accurate in terms of the emotion of the tune if not literally in terms of the meaning of the French lyrics. The straightforward and very simple folk accompaniment allows the primary emphasis to fall on Shane's superb evocation of the emotion of loss that is at the heart of tune.

Next is a much more recent and modern-sounding pop vocal by Tanya St-Val, a lady of Martinque's island neighbor Guadeloupe. She is abetted by male vocalist Kali here:

St-Val is an accomplished singer of both operetta and jazz, so I suppose she can be excused for investing the vocal with a bit of that post 1980s female pop singers' breathiness. For me, however, the female/male interplay here covers a multitude of sins, as do her multi-tracked final choruses. Really good, and the song more as I think that Dr. Waisvisz understands it.

St-Val's fellow Guadeloupean, albeit from two generations before her 1966 birth, Gilles Sala delivers the number with a simple folk accompaniment but with a dramatic and highly-trained pop vocal style:

Sala's approach is more what I think we would have gotten from his contemporaries like Franks Sinatra, Andy Williams, and Jerry Vale had they attempted a rendition of the song.

Finally, a lovely solo instrumental on classical guitar arranged by Roland Dyens and performed with sensitivity and technical skill by Edwin Erpenbach:

Dyens' arrangement and Erpenbach's rendition invest the tune with the more complicated and jazz-inflected chording that was favored by yet another Guadeloupean, Henri Salvador, in his major 1957 hit version of the number.

For some people, perhaps once in a lifetime, your heart is so broken, so shattered by a loss so profound that you know it can never be made completely whole again, as does the speaker in this song. Never. The finality of that realization and the necessity of trying to continue living in spite of it is, for want of a better phrase, sublimely human. And for those who know whereof I speak - "Adieu, foulard" is your song.

*Regarding the term "American" above: take a look back at Jonathan Swift's great 1729 satire "A Modest Proposal," the one where Swift suggests that the answer to poverty in Ireland is that parents raise babies to be sold for meat. Swift writes: "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ..."

My friend Bakersfield Dan Hartfield pointed out that Bob Shane's almost certain source for his version, complete with the English lyric, was San Francisco world music pioneer Stan Wilson, whose vast knowledge of folk and pop numbers contributed mightily to the repertoires of the early Kingston Trio as well as to other Bay Area pop folk acts like The Gateway Singers and The Limeliters. Shane was largely mentored in professional entertainment by Wilson (and Josh White as well), and the extent of Shane's debt to Wilson can be heard in Wilson's own surpassingly lovely rendition of "Adieu, Foulard":


Here is a translation into English of the oldest version of the song:

Good-bye lovely scarves, good-bye Madras
Good-bye golden necklaces
My sweetheart is leaving me
Alas! Alas! It is for ever

Good-morning, Mr Governor I come to submit a request
To ask your permission
To leave my sweetheart to me

My young lady it is too late
Your sweetheart has already embarked
The ship is close to the dock
And is ready to sail

Good-bye lovely scarves, good-bye Madras
Good-bye golden necklaces
My sweetheart is leaving me
Alas! Alas! It is for ever...