Sometimes great lyrics are about the words we use. The thoughtful and insightful way we describe an event or emotion.
That may be the case for “L’oiseau et l’enfant”, but I don’t speak enough French to be sure.
However, I do know an inspired lyrical structure when I see one.
“L’oiseau et l’enfant” (in English, “The bird and the child”) won the Eurovision Song Contest for France in 1977.
But don’t let that put you off — this song is a thing of beauty.
I know Eurovision isn’t for everyone. Some of the songs and some of the acts rather invite us to write out own jokes, but I applaud the fact that Eurovision is all about writing of an original song, just for its own sake.
Winning is rarely about getting a big star to perform your song. That tends not to work as well we you might think.
Rather, Eurovision is all about trying to write a great song that pretty much unknown artists, at least unknown outside their home country, perform a freshly-written song to the best of their ability.
Of course, not every entry is an instant classic…or even a classic at all.
Over the years, an increasing proportion of entries seem to be composed by people who’ve been drinking rather too much of the illicit hooch they’ve been brewing in the old tin bath outside their shack deep in the woods.
But writing songs at any time is hard. When national pride is at stake, there’s a temptation to overdo it a bit. So I don’t want to be too critical.
I’d prefer to celebrate a contest…however idiosyncratic and open to cheap jibes it may be…that’s all about writing a good song. In today’s celebrity-obsessed world, that’s quite refreshing.
When it comes to song lyrics, I’m a fan, not an expert. So I’m sure there’s a fancy word for the way Joe Gracy structured the lyrics for “L’oiseau et l’enfant”. But I adore the results.
Joe Gracy was the pseudonym of a French singer/songwriter of Spanish origin. His real name is Jose Graciano (some sites show that as “Graziano” — I can’t be certain which is correct). He wrote and performed dozens of songs between the early 1960s and the mid-1980s.
But none as famous as “L’oiseau et l’enfant”.
With composer Jean-Paul Cara, he achieved a level of international success with “L’oiseau et l’enfant” that neither would repeat.
Of course, Jean-Paul Cara composed a beautiful tune, but Joe Gracy’s lyrics…and especially the structure of them…were every bit as beautiful as Cara’s tune. Perhaps even more so.
The meter is so precise. There isn’t a single place where Marie Myriam has to fudge her delivery a little because she’s got too much, or too little, to work with.
If you’re never tried your hand writing song lyrics, I can assure you that’s one of the hardest things to do. So much so that very few popular songs even bother trying anymore.
On rarity value, if nothing else, a song that’s written to such a strict meter is a joy to behold.
But that’s not all.
Joe Gracy pulls off one of the neatest lyrical tricks imaginable, and something I can’t recall any other hit record doing in such a comprehensive way.
I fully accept that this is only something a “lyric nerd” would be interested in, but here it is…
The last word of each verse is repeated as the first word of the next verse. Not just occasionally, for effect, but every single time.
I struggle for the words to describe how inescapably beautiful that is as a structure for song lyrics, and how talented you need to be as a lyricist to pull that trick off and make it sound entirely natural.
The entire song is brilliant, but my favourite passage is this one. It’s the last two lines of one verse, followed by the first two lines of the next…
Comme l’oiseau bleu survolent la terre
Vois comme le monde, le monde est beau
Beau le bateau dansant sur les vagues
Ivre de vie, d’amour et de vent
(Rough English translation in my rudimentary French — Like the blue bird flying over the earth/See how the world, the world is beautiful/Beautiful is the boat dancing on the waves/Drunk on life, on love and on wind. And apologies for any French speakers — I’m not sure how to get the French accents to appear on my English-format keyboard.)
I love how the word “beau” is used to anchor both verses, and for good measure there’s an internal rhyme is thrown in with “bateau”.
That lyrical structure underpins the whole song — each verse ends, and the next one starts with the same word. It’s the most deliciously satisfying way to structure a set of song lyrics…
Belle la chanson naissante des vagues
Abandonnee au sable blanc
Blanc, l’innocent, le sang du poete
Qui en chantant invente l’amour
Translating the subtleties of this is beyond my French language skills. But I do like the way that “blanc” and “innocent” when spoken in French gives a nice internal rhyme, just like “beau” and “bateau” in the section quoted above.
The level of lyric-writing skill required to make a structure like this work is far beyond anything a journeyman lyric writer could come up with. I could spend all day just admiring how beautiful an effect this creates.
For a song that won the Eurovision Song Contest for France, “L’oiseau et l’enfant” was a more international effort than you might initially suspect.
Lyricist Joe Gracy was of Spanish origin. Composer Jean-Paul Cara, born in Montpelier, holds up the French flag. And singer Marie Myriam (real name Myriam Lopes Elmosnino) was Portuguese.
I don’t think any of that matters as our world can sometimes be too insular and insufficiently understanding of other cultures.
Marie Myriam gives a great performance. It draws on the classic French “chanteuse” style but dials it back just a little to avoid the over-emoting which can divide opinion. We all like listening to Edith Piaf from time to time, but if she was the only singer you ever listened to, you’d be emotionally drained after just half an hour.
The production is interesting too. Although “L’oiseau et l’enfant” is, at its heart, quite a sad song, the production treatment softens that a little, making the net effect poignant rather than depressing.
My French isn’t good enough to know just how sad the song would sound to French ears. But I’m guessing that all the talk of boats on the high seas being blown around on the waves and birds flying away by themselves hints at a less-than-joyful storyline.
I don’t know for sure. All I do know is that “L’oiseau et l’enfant” has one of the most beautiful lyrical structures you will find in any record anywhere.
You don’t need to understand French to appreciate a set of lyrics as beautiful as these, or to appreciate the great job Marie Myriam does delivering them.
You can enjoy “L’oiseau et l’enfant” in all its glory whatever language you speak.
Here’s Maria Myriam to show you how…
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here…https://open.spotify.com/track/5Yv3QyH7waV0k2L95L5t4T
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.