14 November 2013

Bobbejaan Schoepen

Flemish singer-songwriter, guitarist, comedian, actor and professional whistler Bobbejaan Schoepen (1925-2010) was a pioneer of the Belgian pop music, vaudeville and the European country music. He was the first Belgian singer who had an international breakthrough and who appeared in international films. He was also the founder and former director of the amusement park Bobbejaanland. And in 1957 he represented Belgium at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Bobbejaan Schoepen
Belgian postcard by World Music, Brussel. Photo: Decca.

Bobbejaan Schoepen
Belgian postcard by Samo Chips.

European Country Music

Modest Hyppoliet Joanna Schoepen was born in Boom, Belgium in 1925.

He made his stage debut in 1943 in the famous music hall Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. He sang the South-African song Mama, ‘k wil ‘n man hé. Neen mamma, nee, ‘n Duitseman, die wil ek nie. Want Schweinefleisch dat lus ek nie (Mommy, I want a husband. No mommy no, I don’t want a German ‘cause I don’t like pig meat.) The song was perceived as being anti-German, provoking a few Nazis who were present at the show to take him away. The Ancienne Belgique was closed for three weeks.

Shortly thereafter he was forced to go work in Germany. As an alternative he chose to sing for the Flemish workers doing compulsory labour. For this he was locked up for three months in the Dossin barracks in Mechelen from October 1944, without a hearing or a trial.

In 1945 he and his village friend Kees Brug formed the duet Two Boys and Two Guitars, which had a repertoire of imitations, poems and South-African and country songs plus a lot of improvisation and adventure. He started to use the name Bobbejaan, from a South-African song.

In 1947 he met manager Jacques Kluger, who arranged engagements for him to perform for the American and Canadian troops in Germany. In 1948 he had his first hit with De Jodelende Fluiter (The Yodelling Whistler). He was a virtuoso whistler, a gift he lost after an operation.

Bobbejaan became the first Belgian singer with international success. He toured through more than 20 countries, and performed with stars like Josephine Baker, Caterina Valente, Gilbert Bécaud, Django Reinhardt and Toots Thielemans, the latter two were guitarists in his band in respectively 1948 and 1951.

Bobbejaan (in America: Bobby John and in France: Bobbi-Jean) was the first to use modern material, his own touring bus and circus tent, and a system of artist’s sponsoring. He introduced European country music in Western Europe, and in 1953 he performed in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, one of the most important country music halls in the US.

Bobbejaan Schoepen
German postcard by Ariola.

Bobbejaan Schoepen
Belgian postcard by Decca.

Cult Phenomenon

In 1957 Bobbejaan Schoepen represented Belgium at the second Eurovision Song Contest with the song Straatdeuntje (Street Tune). The performance is memorable in featuring a whistling solo. Schoepen is rumoured not to have known which song he was to perform at the Contest until he arrived, only rehearsing his entry a few days before performance. Belgium ended up tying for eighth place with the Swiss entry (out of ten entries).

He had more luck with the international hits Ik heb eerbied voor jouw grijze haren/Ich hab Ehrfurcht vor Schneeweißen Haaren (I honour your grey hair), the parody Café zonder bier/Ich steh an der Bar und ich habe kein Geld - covers of A pub with No Beer by Slim Dusty, and the chanson Je me suis souvent demandé (I was often asked).

He performed another hit song, Kili watch (a cover of The Cousins), in the German film Davon träumen alle Mädchen/That's What All the Girls Dream About (Thomas Engel, 1961).

He appeared in five film musicals in both Belgium and Germany. starting with Ah! 't Is zo fijn in België te leven/Ah, it's so good to live in Belgium (Jacques Loar, E.G. de Meyst, 1950) and ending with Bobbejaanland  (Vladimir Sis, 1971) .

The absurdist comedy De Ordonnans/At the Drop of a Head (Charles Frank, 1962) became a cult phenomenon, when the band Dead Man Ray made a tour with the film in the 1990s.

Bobbejaan Schoepen
Dutch postcard by Editie Harry Botschuijver, Amsterdam, no. A 15. Retail price: 18 ct. Photo: World Music Company, Bruxelles. The song Anneliese (1953) was composed by Hans Arno Simon (music) and Aleda-Jan Reno (Dutch text).

Belgian postcard by S.P.A.D.E.M., no. A 92-11. Sent by mail in 1974.


From the 1970s on, Bobbejaan Schoepen focussed entirely on Bobbejaanland, which he had founded in 1961. The park, which was managed by Schoepen and his family, expanded to one of the most popular amusement parks in the Benelux.

When Bobbejaan was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 (he would later recover from this illness) he decided to sell the park.

Since the sale in 2004 he focussed again on his musical career. In 2008 he released his newest album, Bobbejaan. It got favourable reviews and a lot of media attention in Belgium.

In 2007 he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award (ZAMU Award) in the Ancienne Belgique for his pioneering role in the Belgian music history. In 2008 the International Whistlers Convention gave him as the first European a place in the Whistlers Hall of Fame. In 2009 he was made Officier in de Kroonorde (Officer of the Crown Order), by the Flemish government.

Schoepen was a true professional who was able to turn his jazzy country-guitar playing, his deep, angelic voice and his wacky sense of humour into a trademark. Between 1948 and 1970 he sold more than five million copies from his repertoire of nearly 600 songs.

Bobbejaan Schoepen suffered a cardiac arrest in a hospital in Turnhout in 2010. The day before he had enjoyed his 85th birthday. He was married to Dutch former opera singer and photo model Josephina (Josée) Jongen, who passed away on 13 September 2013. They had five children: Robert ('Bob jr.', 1962), Myriam (1963), Jacky (1964), Peggy (1968) and Tom (1970).

Bobbejaan Schoepen
Belgian postcard by Imp. Laline s.a., Jemappes. Publicity card for Nordbräu Beer.

Sources: Bobbejaan Schoepen, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

1 comment:

Bunched Undies said...

Didn't know there were Flemish country singers! So many interesting stories on EFSP!