Does the Brel classic song have Irish roots?
One of popular music’s most remarkable songs, “Dans le port d’Amsterdam” made famous by Jacques Brel, has now been linked to an old Irish song called “Since Greybeards Inform Us That Youth Will Decay” by T. Toms.
In 1814-16, Beethoven (no less) was asked to transcribe 20 Irish songs (lieders) for the Scottish publisher George Thomson. They include this melody (WoO 153 n°4), which was later recorded by the Music Group of London amongst others. Journalist Serge Llado has created a mash-up of the two recordings, which is quite simply stunning. Listen to the Brel/Beethoven mash-up here. Source: Si ça vous chante.
Inevitably, the question of plagiarism arises. It’s hard to defend, as Brel – one of the world’ most powerful lyricists – died many years ago. He can’t provide any insights, and the song is public domain anyway so no one is going to challenge it.
Brel vs Toms vs Beethoven
But it is an intriguing possibility. Did Jacques Brel have access to obscure lieders transcribed by Beethoven? What’s interesting also is that both songs stand out by very powerful yet different lyrics. I can’t resist adding them, as they are almost Shakespearean (in a good way):
Since greybeards inform us that youth will decay,
And pleasure’s soft transports glide swiftly away:
The song, and the dance, and the vine, and the fair,
Shall banish all sorrow and shield us from care.
Away with your proverbs, your morals, and rules,
Your proctors, and doctors, and pedants, and schools:
Let’s seize the bright moments while yet in our prime,
And fast by the forelock catch old father Time.
Tho’ spring’s lovely blossoms delight us no more,
Tho’ summer forsake us, and autumn be o’er;
To cheer us in winter, remembrance can bring
The pleasures of autumn, and summer, and spring:
So when fleeting seasons bring life’s latest stage,
To speak of youth’s frolic shall gladden our age:
Then seize the bright moments while yet in our prime,
And fast by the forelock catch old father Time
Incidentally, if you try them over “Amsterdam”, they work perfectly. But wouldn’t “Old Father Time” have been a better title?
If anyone knows anything about T. Toms, I’d appreciate some more information.