The Singing Nun
Françoise Hardy she's not, but to American audiences The Singing Nun proved that the French language lent itself to folk music better than to rock. Hitting number one in November of 1963, "Dominique" was a catchy song that children could grasp and, like the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie," which was breathing down the song's neck on the charts, few in the U.S. could figure out the lyrics. Philips packaged this album in immaculate black-and-white with three color sketches included in an album portfolio inside the sleeve, three items drawn by the folksinger -- Soeur Sourire, which means "Sister Smile," the stage name for Jeanine Deckers -- known inside the Convent as Sister Luc-Gabrielle -- and to the outside world as -- not Sally Field's Flying Nun but -- the Singing Nun. With more than the three color paintings by Sourire, the expensive presentation has 12 pages inside the gatefold containing a story by K. Stanton about the Convent at Fichermont, which the writer says is "the very Waterloo in fact, where Napoleon met his defeat." Nine of the pages are sketches by F. Strobel which accompany Stanton's essays about the Singing Nun and her guitar named "Adele." The final three pages are the lyrics to these original folk songs, in both French and English. The music is very innocent, with Jeanine Deckers showing a flair for songs which lend themselves well to singing in class. It's hard to tell if the lyrics are cumbersome due to the translation -- lines like "to bring back the straying liars/He brought forth the Preaching Friars" in the hit "Dominic" ("Dominique") are interesting but don't flow as well as the French in a song that is as catchy as "Alouette," and was, at one point in time, just as popular. There are 12 folk songs in all; the only accompaniment is the guitar, sparse backing vocals, and sometimes a few quick handclap percussive sounds as in "Soeur Adele" ("Sister Adele"). The missed opportunity here is that this 1963 release could have been a tremendous tool for teaching students in America another language. Already being familiar with the melody of the hit, children of the early '60s could have spent time going over the included translations of the dozen songs and would have learned more about the language than was processed with the incessant word badgering this writer suffered through during two years of French classes in a Catholic school. As a work of art there is some substance here. "Lament for Marie-Jacques" does translate well, but the mind has to focus on the French lyrics on the page while listening, otherwise it all blurs if one can't understand what is being said. "Dominique" was a fluke hit, for sure, and there's no doubt the conflicts of life in a Convent and a music career stifled the voice of "Sister Smile." As an educational tool and exchange of art, though, The Singing Nun is a true artifact from the dawn of a very interesting musical decade. It's amazing that Philips Records put so much into the packaging, but consider that the entire album may have cost less to record than the paltry sum spent on the production of the hit's major competition from that year, the alleged 50 dollars spent to record "Louie, Louie." That the number one and number two hits of November 1963 probably cost under 100 dollars combined says something about the industry.