Kiwi musician 'as big as Bob Dylan' in '60s France

Bug-eyed bohemian: Graeme Allwright adopted a barefoot on-stage singing style early in his career.
Winton Cleal

Bug-eyed bohemian: Graeme Allwright adopted a barefoot on-stage singing style early in his career.

Graeme Allwright left postwar Britain to marry into a prominent French theatrical family without speaking their language. Years later he was a singer soaring to glory adapting North American folk songs into his newly mastered French.

"This guy was as big in France as Bob Dylan and at least as big as Country Joe McDonald," says Jean-Jacques Courtine, formerly of Paris University and now a professor in European studies at Auckland University.

"He [Allwright] literally translated the American protest songs for a whole generation of young French men and women who at the time did not have the knowledge of English which is common today," says Courtine.

Heartfelt: Allwright began singing a pacifist version of  the French national anthem a decade ago.

Heartfelt: Allwright began singing a pacifist version of the French national anthem a decade ago.

"I had always thought he was another American. I did not know at the time he was a Kiwi.

"His folk-song country-ish musical style and the ramblin' man anti-war content of his songs was totally in sync with the Zeitgeist and entirely incorporated into the Dylanesque moment of French youth's political life."

Allwright's 1968 version of Pete Seeger's Waist Deep in the Big Muddy became an  anti-war hit in France. Even more successful was his adaptation of Dylan's Who Killed Davey Moore,  about the 1963 death of the world featherweight boxing champion just after his defeat in the ring.

A Paris student revolt in 1968 brought running battles with riot police

A Paris student revolt in 1968 brought running battles with riot police

Allwright's sudden emergence as a star coincided with one of France's greatest social upheavals since the French Revolution.  A Paris student revolt in 1968 that brought running battles with riot police was accompanied in May by general strikes by millions of workers. The massive combined action rattled the conservative President Charles de Gaulle and paralysed the country.

The singer remembers running amid flying cobblestones, molotov cocktails, and tear gas from an army of riot police clashing with thousands of his student fans in the Latin Quarter.

But Allwright got a mainstream hit that year with Le Jour de Clarte (The Day of Clarity). The album gave the French public its first taste of Leonard Cohen and an insatiable appetite for more of him.

Allwright performed Suzanne duets in French with other European stars such as Greek singer Nana Mouskouri and ended up adapting 13 Cohen songs. He liked Cohen's  "blend of sensualism and mysticism",  and became friends with the Canadian.

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"I spent all night sometimes working his [Cohen's] texts," said Allwright, "searching for the right word to keep the rhyming and having it sing well. It's important [for the listener] not to feel that it's an adaptation or translation. The text must flow and breathe."

Cohen even regarded Allwright's versions as better than his own. While sounding very much like Cohen, Allwright had the better voice.

"I get inordinately happy when I hear my music or words on somebody else's lips," Cohen once said. "That is the way [Allwright versions] I would like to sing – in the French chanson tradition."

Once a household name, Allwright later found favour with "three-generation" audiences.  "The French are nostalgic," he says of the lingering demand for his songs, some of which are now French standards, notably Christmas ballad Petit Garcon, from Roger Miller's Old Toy Trains, which in 2014 became the official anthem of the French Telethon charity.

Also still popular are his Petites Boites from Malvina Reynolds' Little Boxes, popularised by Seeger, and Sacree Bouteille from Tom Paxton's Bottle of Wine.

Allwright has been, in his heyday at least, France's most famous and influential New Zealander, his foreign mystique aided by his bug-eyed, barefoot singing style and wanderlust. He's fasted for Ramadan in Algeria and spent weeks sharing space with street beggars in India.

Recently nearing his 90th birthday, Allwright was on stage breezily and aptly singing Willie Nelson's On the Road Again in another comeback with friend and country-folk singer Yanne Matis, 56, and her band near the Swiss border.

First wife Catherine Daste, a French theatre luminary, and three Allwright offspring joined him in singing his largely autobiographical and well-known Il faut que je m'en aille (I have to go away), first recorded in 1966. They were celebrating not only his milestone birthday but also his 50-year career as a performing artist who has forged a chapter in French music heritage.

"Absolutely not yet," the nonagenarian replied cheerfully last month when asked if he had any plans to retire from concerts or touring engagements. "My health is OK and my back problem is calming down," said Allwright, although his memory difficulties were apparent during the 15-minute phone conversation.

Changing the French national anthem "from a song of war to a song of peace" is his continuing "dernier combat [last battle]". For a decade he has led audiences with his version (co-written by Sylvie Dien​) of  the stirring La Marseillaise, altering its racist and war-mongering lyrics.

An amendment to the constitution of the French Republic is needed to alter the official text  (written in 1792)  that includes "let their impure blood water our furrows", a reference to invasion by Austria and Prussia.

Scarcely known in New Zealand, although always identifying himself as a proud Kiwi, the Wellington College old boy showed his home colours in his powerful Pacific Blues, a denunciation of French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

It was recorded live in a Paris Olympia concert 12 years before French agents, to his horror, in 1985 bombed the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland.

Mysterious disappearances from early 1969 at the height of his popularity had fans fretting, lending him almost cult-leader status. He had found himself ill-prepared for the adulation with crowded student hang-outs singing his songs. "Temptations" arose through meeting new friends while experiencing a loss of personal freedom. He even wondered if he was becoming "too French".

Rumours circulated in France during his absences that he was dead, but he would always pop up to record another of his final tally of 19 albums, give a few concerts, and then be gone again. He was already 40 when his singing career took off.

By the 1990s he justifiably claimed to know France better than most of its citizens. He had toured with his heartfelt renditions to every corner of the country and also sung in Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, and former French colonies and territories in Africa.

Several Auckland and Wellington concerts in 2005 fulfilled a long-held ambition to sing at home in a rare return. In tow was a French camera crew compiling a documentary, Graeme Allwright: Pacific Blues.

A street is named after him in Le Quesnoy, the northern French town freed by Kiwi troops in 1918 from German occupation. Rue Graeme Allwright contains the theatre where he last sang just two years ago.

At the age of 23 he had declined an invitation to tread the boards at Stratford-upon-Avon because he was about to settle in France.

His lack of French while working for father-in-law Jean Daste's theatre company, the Comedie de Saint-Etienne, naturally limited his acting, but various occupations gave him a command of the language and new opportunities. The 1960s social climate in France was ripe for a Left-wing bilingual singer.  

Born in Wellington in 1926, Allwright had musical parents with operatic and repertory connections. He aspired to be a professional actor, and in 1948 won a scholarship at London's Old Vic Theatre School. He also got help from theatre-going Prime Minister Peter Fraser after Fraser saw the young actor in Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts.

Allwright had been astounded to be invited to the prime minister's home, Hill Haven, in Harbour View Rd above Wellington, and found a  virus-stricken Fraser in bed  with "half an ear" on a parliamentary broadcast. Suddenly smoke started pouring from the radio. Allwright rapidly unplugged the contraption and rushed it outside. "It rather curtailed our meeting," he recalled, "but Peter Fraser's words to me were very kind."

Granted a "modest" government bursary, he worked at the Old Vic, which was unheated and still badly damaged from 1941 German air raids during the Blitz. The actor-student met the great actors Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

Anthony Quayle, another British acting luminary, was particularly impressed by Allwright in his school-graduation leading roles in The Playboy of the Western World and The Maid's Tragedy. Quayle tried to recruit him to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.

But Allwright was in love with Catherine Daste, an English-speaking French classmate, and their futures were committed to the other side of the English Channel. They married in France in 1951.

Allwright used his Wellington College woodwork skills as a sets carpenter and stage technician for the Comedie de Saint-Etienne in central-eastern France. Non-speaking and bit-parts on southern tours were his lot as an actor until his improving French gave him bigger roles.

He began vineyard strumming and reminiscing on wartime Wellington "revelations" from a flood of American soldiers who brought many new sounds to New Zealand. He had often heard their music in a school holidays job loading trucks with their camp supplies.

It was the prelude to a great  American folk-music revival that would peak in the 1960s social revolution when new bard Dylan's songs were embraced in the United States by the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Family and friends warmed to Allwright's interpretations of Woody Guthrie and Seeger, torch-bearers of American folk music. It encouraged a move in the early 1960s to Paris cabaret, where he persevered on the Left Bank "for peanuts" until discovered by celebrity actor-singer Marcel Mouloudji.

Mouloudji produced Allwright's debut album, Le Trimardeur (The Tramp), the title being a cover of Guthrie's Hard Travelin'. The impact was enough to get Allwright "known in the business".

In 1968 came Allwright's mainstream breakthrough album, Le Jour de Clarte (The Day of Clarity), with its cover of Peter, Paul and Mary's Very Last Day.

On New Year's Day, 1969, Allwright abandoned his wife and three young sons. He calls it " succumbing to pressures from raging popularity".

In the mid-1970s he lived for 18 months on Reunion Island, the remote French territory between Mauritius and Madagascar, with second wife Claire Bataille and their infant daughter.

Despite the collapse of both marriages, Allwright re-emerged on good terms with his two former wives and all four children. Bataille continued as his manager for decades after their brief marriage, and their daughter, Jeanne, in 2005 became the first of Allwright's children to visit New Zealand.

He combined with another leading singer, Maxime Le Forestier, in a 1980 fundraising at major concert venues for Third World children. Orphans of the Vietnam War and 1994 Rwandan genocide were among Allwright's causes in other years. Included was a 1992 concert to assist the family of a nine-year-old New Zealand girl, Kelly Turner, of Taupo, undergoing an acutely expensive bone-marrow transplant in Paris.

"I have now lived in France for more than six decades," Allwright says in a new biography due out in February, "but in my heart  New Zealand is still my home country,"  

  • Ken Fraser first interviewed Graeme Allwright in 1994 at his Place d'Aligre apartment, Paris, where he still lives.

 - The Dominion Post

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