Listening to a song in an unfamiliar language can be freeing. For me, bad lyrics can render an otherwise great song unlistenable. But as long as the singer, the production and the melody work, foreign-language lyrics can be clunky or insipid or cliched with me none the wiser. If an English-language version of the song is recorded with bad lyrics, though, a puzzle emerges: were the lyrics this poor in the original or did the poetry get lost in translation?
“The Three Bells” is an English rewrite of the French-language song “Les Trois Cloches,” first recorded in the mid-’40s by Édith Piaf. The lyrics center on the triptych of church bells that chime at the birth, marriage and death of a man (“Jimmy Brown”) in a secluded village. I suppose the concept of the song is the circle of life, or how one incident can mean something different at various points throughout a person’s life, but “The Three Bells” only does half the work: listing the title events and expecting that to be enough. I’m relieved there’s no final “here’s what we really mean” verse, but at the same time commenting that bells ring during three important life episodes isn’t enough of an observation to base a song around. The third-person narration that focuses exclusively on these three events in Jimmy Brown’s life adds a layer of distance that makes him seem more like a didactic illustration than an actual human being.
The Brown family are capable singers, if not particularly inspiring. Their “country” singing (actually closer to The Fleetwoods than to Johnny Horton) neither improves nor detracts from the song, but is just there to carry it along. The melody is easy enough to listen to, but not particularly memorable. And so it all comes back to the lyrics. “The Three Bells” isn’t terrible, just flat and a little trite. Whether “Les Trois Cloches” offers greater philosophical insight, I can’t say. But at least the French lets me imagine that it might. 4
Hit #1 on August 24, 1959; total of 4 weeks at #1
18 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.87% through the Hot 100