Canicules, Courgettes and Creedence.
Summer in France is a wonderful time. The children are out from school, holidays are being anticipated and, in the villages, the night markets have started. The night markets are really just a big party for the commune. In our village, we hold a night market every Thursday throughout July and August; they will usually consist of a few local producers selling their wares – bread, cheeses, maybe some craft stalls. There will also be food for consuming during the evening, barbecued meats, quiches, the ubiquitous ‘pommes frites’ (“chips” to you lot) and, of course, a bar, selling wine, beer, and soft drinks. There’ll be picnic tables laid out in a designated area and there will, usually, be some live music played by local musicians. These are great evenings and really bring the local community together, starting around 6 in the evening and going on until around 11 pm. People eat together, talk, laugh, maybe dance a bit, once the alcohol starts to flow. The rural French do “community” extremely well and we’re all included. Our village and surrounding areas boast Brits, Dutch, Danish, Belgian, Portuguese, Americans and several other nationalities alongside the French, all are welcomed and all are made to feel properly included. It’s a far cry from the picture painted by the UK’s red top press and the suggestion that the French have “always hated us” and that events at Dover are some sort of punishment for the UK leaving the EU. The few French I’ve encountered who are aware of these comments are, generally, quite bemused. As one friend commented to me “why would we want to punish the UK for leaving the EU? Surely they’ve already punished themselves enough!”
It has, of course, been very hot here and throughout Europe as a whole, as even the UK gets in on the effects of climate change. Here we expect a couple of weeks or so when the mercury gets up around 35C but, this year, we’ve had highs of 38C where we are and, further south and towards the coast, temperatures of 42C were recorded. Les Canicules, the heatwaves, are nothing new for France, though the temperatures are definitely higher than they once were; thankfully, French houses are built to deal with this heat. Older houses have walls up to a metre thick and we all have heavy shutters on the windows. When the temperature climbs you just shut everything up and close the shutters and the house stays remarkably cool inside. It’s something I like to keep reminding myself about as we head towards more circa 40C temperatures this week. On the plus side, the vegetable garden is doing very well and the crops are responding positively to the heat, helped by the fact that there’s no hosepipe ban here (yet) and we have a number of large water butts distributed around the property, so we can keep things well hydrated. We’re currently enjoying a glut of courgettes and cucumbers!
And so, to the music. I’ve been ruminating a great deal on why Americana isn’t making as much impact in France as it seems to in other parts of continental Europe and I think it has to be down to the language. The French are, rightly, very protective of their language and prefer songs that are sung in French. When my own band plays we always draw a decent crowd from the non-French residents, mainly Brits and Dutch, but we only get a few French in the audience and I guess that’s understandable when you’re playing a genre of music that draws heavily on the English language. Maybe it’s time to find a fiddle player and start learning some Cajun songs! Or start looking for songs that can be transferred into French, though it’s a language that doesn’t lend itself to the twists and turns of a country or bluegrass tune. This is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t have any European Americana to offer this time round. What I am going to offer is some vintage tracks that I’ve been reminded of following a bit of crate diving at local brocantes. I’ve mentioned brocantes before, the French markets that are somewhere between an antique fair and a car boot sale. They can be a godsend for vinyl junkies like me. There’s not a lot of good albums to be found for us Americana fans but, every so often, in amongst the mounds of albums you’ll find by a variety of French artists you’ve never heard of, and Johnny Hallyday, who most non-French have heard of but never actually heard, you might find a real gem. A recent bout of crate diving for me turned up a good copy of Joan Baez’ “Diamonds and Rust” album, for the princely sum of 3 euros, and I’d forgotten just what a good album it is. Her voice can often be a little too pure for some of her song choices and that’s probably true of her cover of Jackson Brown’s ‘Fountain of Sorrow’ on this album, but the backing is stupendous, with a jazz meets country feel, courtesy of Larry Carlton and Joe Sample on guitar and keyboards respectively, alongside the great Red Rhodes on pedal steel. The whole album is top drawer with a distinct jazz influence among the musicians, who also include the likes of Tom Scott and Dean Parks. It’s a very underrated album and that bittersweet title track is still among her best compositions.
On the subject of great musicians, I also recently unearthed a copy of “Delaney & Bonnie & Friends On Tour with Eric Clapton” and what a line-up that band boasted, with Dave Mason on guitar, Bobby Whitlock on keyboards, Carl Raddle on bass, Jim Gordon on drums – it’s no wonder Clapton would rather play with them than his own band (Blind Faith) when Delaney & Bonnie toured with them as their support act. Blue-eyed country soul at its best. Finally, I dug out a double album I didn’t know existed, “Creedence Clearwater Revival Live in Europe”. This is an album recorded on a European tour in 1971, when the band were down to a three-piece, following the departure of rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty. It’s a fascinating album, hearing the band live as a three-piece and, while I’m not convinced that anyone really needs a thirteen and a half minute version of ‘Keep on Chooglin” that takes up the whole of one side of one disc, tracks like ‘Travelin’ Band’ show they really weren’t diminished by the lack of a second guitar!
And that brings me to the end of July’s View From Across La Manche. August is the big holiday month in France, when everyone who hasn’t already gone on holiday joins the great migration out of the cities and much of the country shuts down for the month. In keeping with this tradition, I’ve decided that this column will be on holiday in August and will return late in September.