Given that, this week, I’m writing about songs for NYFOS, I’d be remiss if I didn’t select at least one song in a foreign language.
As a show tune fan, I would have had a few options to choose from—“Dites-Moi” from South Pacific, say, or “Abbondanza” from The Most Happy Fella—but why be doctrinaire? Besides, one of my all-time favorite songs of any provenance came to me via an EMI collection of French popular chansons, Paris by Night, one of those many evocative international anthologies that were released in the first decade of the compact disc.
“J’Attendrai” was first recorded in French by a chanteuse named Rina Ketty in 1938 (it had originated as an Italian song a couple of years earlier), but achieved its lasting fame—or at least its lasting impact—as sung by Tino Rossi. Tino (short for “Constantino”) Rossi was a European phenomenon whose charms, alas, never really crossed the Atlantic. He was born in Corsica, which made him rather exotic to French audiences when he caught on in the early 1930s. Rossi was a combination of Desi Arnaz (his “Latin lover” persona); Dean Martin (a kind of louche, but safe, romanticism); and Bing Crosby (capturing the sentimental streak, and Rossi was also a movie star in France). Rossi also had a Crosby-like confluence in that he represented a reliable lodestar during the Second World War and even achieved a Christmas classic—“Petit Papa Noel”, which did for French listeners in the mid-1940s what “White Christmas” did for their stateside counterparts. When Rossi passed away in 1983, the New York Times stated that he had sold 200 million records.
Listening to his beseeching crooning (do the French call it “crounant”?) on “J’Attendrai,” one can easily apprehend Rossi’s immense appeal. “I will wait,” he sings, “Day and night, always, I will wait for you to come back . . . time comes and goes, leaving me nothing but the sound of my beating heart, and still—and so—I will wait.” Needless to say, the song’s popularity—which coincided with the occupation of Paris—had a great deal to do with the separation anxiety, romantic and existential, of the Second World War.
The song itself never really enjoyed one of those cognate adaptations of other French ballads on the American pop charts, such as “La mer/Beyond the Sea” or “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”/”I Wish You Love.” There was one version, called “I’ll Be Yours” recorded by Hildegarde during the war, but although the lyrics scan, they never capture the tenacious devotion of the French version, or, indeed, of Rossi’s rendition.
“J’Attendrai” is, to me, a kind of musical widow’s walk: it extols the virtues of resolute commitment, even as it wraps itself in a shawl of nearly anxious melancholy. It doesn’t matter what the singer is actually waiting for—the return of a lover, or a husband, or a sane and compassionate presidential administration—what matters is that we know the singer’s faith in that inevitable return is unshakable, even through the worst of tempests, “like patience on a monument,” as Shakespeare wrote, “smiling at grief.”
[I did, in fact, devote an entire episode of my radio program, Broadway to Main Street to show tunes in French: “French Accent”. You can listen on iTunes by clicking here]
Dino Oliveri, music
Louis Poterat, words (French version)