20 September 2011

C'est une maison bleue...

One of the best known songs in French popular music is about San Francisco. Nearly forty years after it was recorded and released, you still hear it on French radio all the time. The auteur/interprète — singer/songwriter — of the song is a man named Maxime Le Forestier.

Le Forestier has been an influential figure in French music and on the radio since the late 1960s. Maxime is his stage name; his birth name was Bruno. His father was somehow British (either by birth or ancestry — it's not clear) and his French mother lived in England for several years.

Maxime Le Forestier's first album, released in 1972, has
become known as l'album à la rose. All the songs
on it are worth learning by heart.

Last night a show about Le Forestier and his songs was broadcast in prime time on France 3 television. Born in Paris in 1949, Maxime Le Forstier is about one month older than I am, and I've been listening to his music since the early 1970s. His lyrics are always in impeccable French, and the song called San Francisco (1972) is no exception. His voice is pleasantly rich, and his songs are little poems that are satisfying to learn and listen to.

Here's the original version from the 1972 album, with video
taken by French tourists enjoying a trip to San Francisco.

Another of Le Forestier's well-known compositions, for example, is titled Comme un arbre (also 1972), and it's a song about a tree that grows on a street in a big city, with its roots imprisoned under a metal grate, suffocating in the exhaust of the cars that surround it. The city has to be Paris, and this was one of the first songs I learned when I lived for a year in Normandy in 1972-73. It's probably my favorite Le Forestier song, for many reasons.

The house that Le Forestier called la maison bleue
was painted green for a long time.

But back to San Francisco. That's the name of the song that has become emblematic in France — of California and America, of the 1960s, and of Maxime Le Forestier as a young songwriter. The reason it's so frequently played these days is that the song is 40 years old (1971) this year and the maison bleue in San Francisco has finally been identified. Le Forestier and his older sister Catherine spent some time there in about 1970. The house was then home to a group of young people living in a commune. Le Forestier's song says the people living there have "thrown away the key," an image of the freedom he experienced in San Francisco.

Here's Le Forestier in a recent photo taken in front
of the famous
maison bleue in San Francisco.

It turns out that the "blue" house is located at 3841 18th Street, between Church and Sanchez in San Francisco's Castro district, just steps from Mission Delores Park. Listening to the lyrics of Le Forestier's song, you'd get the idea that it was in a less urban neighborhood than that one. The blue house is ...adossée à la colline, he sings, on y vient à pied, on ne frappe pas... (it's "backed up against the hill, you arrive there on foot, there's no need to knock...".

In the music you can see the fog (Le Forestier's lyrics mention "swimming in the fog"), smell incense, and feel warmth. I'm not sure if my memory is good, but to me that neighborhood is not on a particularly steep hillside, but never mind. I would have imagined that the house was up at Twin Peaks somewhere, or in the Haight, somehow suspended up over the landscape in a place where you can see the skyline and the lights of the city at night. Le Forestier says he wrote the song when he got back to Paris, thinking it would be a good present to give his San Francisco friends.

It turns out that, until recently, the maison bleue had been painted a pale green color for many years. Now its owner has had it repainted in blue, and a plaque has been put up commemorating Le Forestier's time there and the famous French song that the house inspired. It's a little bit like somebody identifying the cabarets that Joni Mitchell sang about when she wrote "I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive..." and putting up a plaque to commemorate her (and maybe David Geffen).

Here's a more recent performance of the song by its author.

I'm a firm believer in listening to good popular songs as a way to learn expressions, pronunciation, grammar, and the rhythm or "music" of a foreign language. If you want to learn French, you can't go wrong listening to Maxime Le Forestier's songs (among others). So here are the lyrics:

San Francisco

C'est une maison bleue
Adossée à la colline
On y vient à pied
On ne frappe pas
Ceux qui vivent là
Ont jeté la clé

On se retrouve ensemble
Après des années de route
Et on vient s'asseoir
Autour du repas
Tout le monde est là
A cinq heures du soir

Quand San Francisco s'embrume
Quand San Francisco s'allume
...San Francisco
Où êtes-vous ?
Lizzard et Luc

Nageant dans le brouillard
Enlacés, roulant dans l'herbe
On écoutera
Tom à la guitare
Phil à la kena
Jusqu'à la nuit noire

Un autre arrivera
Pour nous dire des nouvelles
D'un qui reviendra
Dans un an ou deux
Puisqu'il est heureux
On s'endormira

Quand San Francisco se lève
Quand San Francisco se lève
...San Francisco

C'est une maison bleue
Accrochée à ma mémoire
On y vient à pied
On ne frappe pas
Ceux qui vivent là
Ont jeté la clé

Peuplée de cheveux longs
De grands lits et de musique
Peuplée de lumière
Et peuplée de fous
Elle sera dernière
A rester debout

Si San Francisco s'effondre
Si San Francisco s'effondre
...San Francisco

Listen to the song and sing along. That's what French people do, as you can see in the video above.


  1. Oh, this is wonderful :) Thanks so much, Ken. I really enjoy this kind of music, both in French and in English. I love music that is melodic and tells a story poetically.


  2. Thank you Ken! I love that song and didn't know the story behind it. I am rushing to work but will come back and view the videos.

  3. Merci Ken

    We are getting into Autumn and this is a very difficult time of the year when I think of my parents. This song brings back some nostalgic memories from my childhood - listening to nice French songs whilst doing our homework in the verandah on those muggy hot evenings. I still remember all the lyrics of that song .

    Thank you again.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this talented man with us. His artistry at the guitar is Wonderful. Now, to learn that French...but what a fun way to do it. Susan

  5. I really enjoyed listening to the song Ken and trying to sing along,my French is not good but I keep trying and this is a good way to learn pronunciation.

  6. Maxime Le Forestier is one of our most favorite French singers. Thanks for all the great information and the videos.

  7. This is a great post, with the music too. I hadn't heard of him before.

  8. Ken, I shared this with my French-4 class today, and was delighted to see the present participles and past participle adjectives in the lyrics, since we are focusing on them in this unit :))

    Could you translate adossée à la colline kind of like, "perched up on a hill", do you think?

    (aaaahhhh too funny... my verification word is "housl" and it's written in blue :)))

  9. Judy, probably "built on the side of a hill" would be a good translation.

  10. What a treat today's post is. I remember how much I enjoyed listening to Le Forestier's music in '73-'74 when I worked in Paris for the Illinois Year Abroad Program. BTW, that piece of trivia connects to Walt's post today as well, as our Paris office was located on the rue Soufflot, opposite a hamburger joint. I think it was a Wimpy's back then.

  11. Wow, fun! Thanks so much! When I was getting back my French in the early 90's, I listened to and translated a slew of songs by Jean-Jacques Goldman. I still recall the moment when it dawned on me what a "poisson rouge" was (from Reprendre C'est Voler).

    I learned a new word today: adossée.

  12. Thanks for this! Of course I watched the France 3 documentary and here is the video link to it: http://www.pluzz.fr/maxime-le-forestier-c-est-une---.html
    I'm also sending it to my high school friends. Such a pleasure to see our friend, who was still Sylvia in school.
    As with many of you, I really learned French via Maxime Le Forestier, Julien Clerc, Brassens and others. The joy of realizing I was understanding a song was incredible.

  13. Hi Ellen, tell us more about Sylvia? Who is she? I mean, is she Psylvia in the song?

    I once attended a Julien Clerc concert in SF. It was interesting to see how many people were there (5000 or so) and to see how they sang along with his songs. So did I.

  14. If you go to my facebook my page and search my friends, you'll find her. I don't know exactly when she went to S.F.; she was at Woodstock in '69. There's a "Life" cover with a girl sitting on a guys shoulders jsut being happy. That's her. I don't know when she added the "P" to her name. In high school (all girls), we were both in the band. I remember her as always laughing at something or other. From more recent communications, I think she's the same. I'm glad that a bunch of us classmates have reconnected. In most cases, I'm becoming acquainted with women I really never knew 40+ years ago. And several of them come through Paris now and then. There are four here now and we're meeting for lunch tomorrow! Psylvia, I do remember and if we manage to take our trip out west next year, I'll try to see her and a few more who've settled in northern CA.

  15. Hi Bob, yes, it was 21 rue Soufflot. I followed you in that job, spending the '74-'75 school year there working with Fred. The next year I stayed in Paris and it was Pierre W. who was the director. Wonder what ever happened to him? I remember the Wimpy's, which is now a QuickBurger. The current McDo across the street was a big traditional-style French café. That was nicer.

    Chris, yes, Goldman is another singer who is worth knowing, for sure. He's been singing for 30 years now.

    Ellen, thanks, amazing. I had no idea you knew Psylvia. She must be an interesting person.


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