This is always an odd question: what is the value of words? It’s strange that the answer comes from auctioneers, who seem to have a better idea of what song lyrics are worth than other people. The recent sale of Jacques Brel lyrics and memorabilia generated intense interest in Paris recently, as it coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Belgian’s death. So how much are they worth? Well, one set of lyrics went for the princely sum of $170,000 (€126,000) – not bad during an economic meltdown
Brel was a trailblazing singer through the sixties and part of the seventies. His raw, passionate performances are rarely equalled for their intensity and lyricism. He is the writer of “Dans le port d’Amsterdam” (covered by Bowie), “Moribond” (covered as “Seasons in the Sun”) “Ne me quitte pas” (If You Go Away) and countless others. Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and Sting are just a few of the many performers that dip into his repertoire.
The material for the French auction clearly comes from someone close to Brel, as it contains copybooks crammed with versions of his greatest songs that give a good idea of how we worked on the words to reach the incredible impact and humanity that were his hallmark. As one of the curators told The Economist, “For my generation, our ideas of love were shaped by Brel.”
Following a similar event organised in 2003, the Brel family tried to block the auction. “It is so hateful and mean. We tried all sorts of ways to have it banned,” the singer’s daughter France told Le Figaro newspaper. However, the foundation that she heads offered to buy the whole lot for €175,000. But it turns out they were well below the final prices, as the copybook with “Amsterdam” went for €126,000 alone.
Brel’s family had previously fought a battle to recover the rights to his work from his original long-time publisher. This means that the owners of the manuscripts have no rights over the actual words. I’m not sure how much that influenced them, as no one expects that owning Jimi Hendrix’s guitar would give them the right to the publishing too.
Brel is the subject of an exhibition at the foundation in Brussels, called “J’aime les belges” (I love the Belgians) as well as a documentary. For information, visit the Editions Jacques Brel.