Humanist singer with an atypical path, Graeme Allwright, who died Sunday at the age of 93, introduced the French to "protest singers" (protest singers) from across the Atlantic, by adapting Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie or Leonard Cohen in the language of Molière.
"The positive impact of a song can be extraordinary. It gives me hope, and the faith" to deal "with injustices, wars, famines, the indifference that is taking hold," confided- he in 2014 in the newspaper La Croix.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand on November 7, 1926, Graeme Allwright discovered jazz, crooners and folk by listening to radio programs from the US military base in the New Zealand capital.
At 22, he obtained a scholarship to follow theater lessons in London, in the school founded by Michel Saint-Denis, voice of the show "Les Français parle au Français" on the BBC and nephew of the man of the theater Jacques Copeau.
The young man is recruited by the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Theater. But, in love with Jacques Copeau's daughter, Catherine Dasté, he declines the offer and the couple leaves to settle in France, near Beaune.
Graeme Allwright exercises a multitude of trades: agricultural worker, beekeeper, machinist and decorator for the theater, English teacher, mason, plasterer, glazier ...
- Hymns of May 68 -
This New Zealander, who did not know a word of French, gradually learned the language of Molière and the subtleties of his slang, which he used abundantly in his adaptations.
As his French improves, he reconnects with the scene, playing in particular in the troupe of Jean-Louis Barrault.
It was only at 40 that he started to sing.
"The idea may have sprouted in my mind when I interpreted some songs from Brassens and Ferré, during a tour with a too short Brecht piece, he said (...) I took my guitar and I went to sing American and Irish + folksongs at the cabaret de la Contrescarpe (in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris, editor's note), seven nights a week for little girls. "
The singer Colette Magny notices her voice, tinged with a hint of accent, and presents it to Marcel Mouloudji, who advises her to write around thirty adaptations and produces her first 45rpm "Le trimardeur" (1965).
His anti-militarist and deeply humanist contestative repertoire, drawn from the "protest singers", resonates with the aspirations of the French youth of the time.
"Little Boxes" (adaptation of Malvina Reynolds), "Up to the Belt" (Pete Seeger), "Who Killed Davy Moore?" (Bob Dylan), "Johnny" (original text) and especially "Le jour de clarté" (Peter, Paul & Mary), his greatest success, became the anthems of the protest in May 68.
- Touched by Cohen -
In 1973, he went to see Leonard Cohen at L'Olympia and came out deeply touched by the mysticism and sensuality of the Canadian, from whom he adapted numerous texts ("Suzanne", "Les soeurs de la méricorde" ...)
He sold out in his concerts and then posed as the first competitor to Hugues Aufray, another importer of folk in France.
But success frightens him. The one who is also known for "Sacred Bottle" distances himself by traveling through Egypt, Ethiopia, South America and especially India.
Between two trips, he returned to France where he resumed his concerts. In 1980, he shared the stage with Maxime Le Forestier, for a tour whose profits were donated to the association Partage pour les Enfants du Tiers-Monde.
He also continues to record. In the 80s, he returned from a trip to Madagascar with musicians who gave a new tone to his music. In 2000, he released a first album of jazzy inspiration, recorded with The Glenn Ferris Quartet ("So many joys").
Since 2005, the concerts of the barefoot singer, who continued to cross the Hexagon despite his advanced age, began with an unchanging ritual: a vibrant Marseillaise which he had "adapted" with pacifist lyrics. "For all the children of the earth, Let us sing love and freedom", he intoned ...
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