It’s extremely rare when my main two nerdy obsessions – harp guitars and Disney – overlap in any way. I’d certainly count this as one of the more unusual.
Yes, it’s a YouTube clip of the famous Paris vocalist Serge Singer with this trademark harpe guitare performing the 1955 hit “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” (Pronounced “Dah-vie” – as you will hear below.)
Harpguitars.net’s intrepid French correspondent Benoit Meulle-Stef has long kept me informed on “Singer sightings” – none of which have yet made it to the web site (I apologize!). Time to correct that, though by the time I’m done, you may be asking me “Why?”
Serge Singer – the stage name of one Dutchman Sjoerd de Jong – put out a couple albums in the 1950s featuring an interesting French-Italian hollow-arm harp guitar. Patterned after the Settimio Gazzo instruments popularized by Pasquale Taraffo in Genoa and beyond, it is a more modern instrument with full geared tuners and large jazz-guitar-style fretboard markers. It has a curious carving of a stylized face attached to, or integral with, the headstock. As for its inspiration or meaning, I haven’t a clue.
Fragments of Singer’s rather colorful life can be gleaned in the magazine article displayed below and a web article about his one-time girlfriend, “fantastic realism” painter Ellen Lorien (originally Ellen de Jonge and referred to as Ellen Singer in the magazine spread).
The author writes:
“Shortly after the war, in 1948, she (Ellen) travelled to France and explored its various regions, making studies of its landscape. Finally, in 1950, she came to live in Paris permanently. Together with a musician named Sjoerd de Jong, she lived a more Bohemian existence in Paris on a houseboat on the Seine near Porte de Plaisance.
“At first, Sjoerd de Jong earned money as a street musican while Lórien made watercolour portraits of children. But with time, Sjoerd was performing at the Moulin Rouge under the name of Serge Singer, and their boat ‘the Siegried-Eric’ was home to guests like Charles Aznavour and Julietta Greco. Or, they’d visit Maurice Chevalier, whose boat was just down the quai from theirs.
“The couple toured through Italy with Josephine Baker, and Singer performed during the intervals. A Dutch television studio even recreated the inside of their boat to film a special on the couple in 1952.
“In 1954, Lórien broke with Singer, and continued on her own in Paris.”
This magazine spread presents the houseboat and a sampling of the couple’s “Bohemian lifestyle.”
Note the different harp guitar on the bed. Here are additional images of it, from a session where Singer performed with the French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens, and a another magazine find by Benoit:
Pretty interesting that Singer owned a couple of interesting (though still anonymous) 6 + 6 harp guitars in the 1950s. So, when I heard about the new YouTube Crockett clip I couldn’t believe my luck. I could now see and hear exactly what kind of a harp guitarist Singer was!
And…not so much.
At least in this clip, he’s not only not a harp guitar player, he’s barely a guitarist, playing just 3 first position chords – all while looking at his left hand so he doesn’t screw up. He doesn’t do anything with his right hand but strum with his thumb, then a plectrum. He never once touches a sub-bass string. His one and only skill? He’s a magician with that pick. We first see it after a close-up camera switch, so who knows where it came from. But then he switches back from pick-to-thumb with an instantaneous sleight of hand, and the thing just vanishes. I am truly astounded.
He is far from the first singer or instrumentalist to use a harp guitar just for show. There are plenty of amateurs and even professionals then and now who assumed the floating sub-bass strings were there simply for extra resonance.
Singer was born in 1914 and died in 1986. This intriguing video shows him to be a character to the end. He seems to have visited, and been interviewed in, what must surely be his old houseboat (?!) – which is somewhat the worse for wear. His beard wilder than ever and, missing a tooth or two, he even sings Davy Crockett for us again!
Legitimate harp guitarist or not, I still wish we had more clips of him – and in his normal attire rather than as a costumed Disney character.
So, there you have it – the brief harp guitar story of Serge Singer, King of the French Frontier. I was born in 1955, so was obviously too young for the coonskin cap craze. I find it delightfully charming (or is that kitsch?) that Serge wasn’t too old for it.
(I love how the unfortunate mammal’s tail perfectly echoes his instrument’s fingerboard!)