The best-known New Zealand singer you've probably never heard of, Graeme Allwright, has died aged 93. He was one of the first to introduce the songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to French audiences.
Graeme Allwright left New Zealand in 1948 to pursue an acting career in Great Britain. Life took a different turn however, and he ended up becoming one of France's most popular folk singers, famous for his translations of songs by musicians like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
For Radio New Zealand National's New Zealand music profile series Musical Chairs, Sam Coley catches up with Graeme in Paris in to discuss his long and varied career - and to hear the songs which made him a household name in France.
"Although Graeme Allwright may not be a household name in his homeland, his songs have become part of French culture, sung by all ages and respected for their messages of peace. Allwright was one of the first to introduce France to American folk music, including the protest songs of artists such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; in the late 1960s he became well-known for his adaptations of songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. The sleeve notes to his self-titled 1966 album describe Allwright as “a beatnik without a uniform,” likening him to a Kerouac hero. Allwright’s restlessness and passion for travel took him on a long journey towards his eventual success as a musician, and fuelled his wanderlust later in life."
"He was living in Saint Étienne when he first had the idea of translating the folk songs he loved into French. These initial attempts were well received by friends and family who encouraged him to perform them in public. This gave him the confidence to start playing regularly in small Parisian cabaret venues in the early 1960s, accompanied by Genny Detto on guitar. While performing in the Contrescarpe cabaret .... Allwright was eventually discovered by the well-known actor and singer Marcel Mouloudji, who felt the time was right for a bilingual singer with a left-wing perspective. He was impressed with Allwright’s ability to adapt the lyrics of revered contemporary songwriters such as Cohen and Dylan, a responsibility the New Zealander didn’t take lightly.
“It’s not easy – if you want to respect what they’re trying to say in the song – and also get it to rhyme and sing well. You mustn’t feel that it’s an adaptation or translation. You must feel that it’s absolutely a French version which is perfect.”
"He didn’t just sing protest songs – he joined in, and even found himself caught up in the middle of a riot in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Armed CRS police were moving in on his group of protesters from several directions. According to Allwright, it was a dangerous situation, but luckily he managed to escape by running off down a side street. Although his music become closely associated with the protest movement, the significance of the connection wasn’t entirely clear to him at the time. “The young people, the ‘soixante-huitards’ of 68, filled up the places where I was singing and were singing my songs. I realise now, afterwards, the impact of certain songs. I didn’t realise at the time how important that was.”