All or Nothing at All:
The Towering Drama of Neapolitan Song
When I was a kid, my father talked about how Jimmy Roselli sang in the real Neapolitan dialect, unlike Jerry Vale, who appealed to a more American audience. In Neapolitan dialect, Napoli becomes Napule and Sorrento becomes Surriento. The funny thing is that my father didn’t even understand Neapolitan. He might have known a few words, but like most Italian-Americans his age, he didn’t grow up speaking Italian.
Years after my father died, I read about Roselli and the Canzone Napoletana tradition. I was inspired to visit the one place where Canzone Napoletana still lives, E. Rossi & Company, at the corner of Mulberry and Grand in New York’s Little Italy. Rossi & Co sells articoli Italiani Italian goods: Neapolitan coffee pots, spaghetti makers, clothes, and religious statues and icons. Rossi’s had originally been a publishing house; they published Neapolitan songs and sold the records, too. E. Rossi & Co has a unique catalog of sheet music that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, but these days it looks more like an Italian five-and-dime store.
Having grown up in New York City, I had known the store all of my life. I just didn’t know the history and importance of E. Rossi & Co. I only knew what you could see through the window; the trinkets and the kitchenware.
Even though it was only a few subway stops away, I called before I went down to the store and spoke to Ernie, the grandson of the original owner. Ernie was immediately friendly and talkative on the phone.
“Are you related to Ted Fiorito?” Ernie asked when I told him my name. He was referring to the famous bandleader and composer from the 1930s and ‘40s. I said that I wasn’t. “You should tell people you are!” he said, jokingly.
When I walked into the store, I found Ernie sitting on a stool behind the counter. From where he sat he could work the cash register, pull down CDs from the rack, and show statues of holy saints on the shelves. Ernie was a portly man with a gentle face. He was about sixty. He had a healthy head of messy gray hair and wore reading glasses.
“I’m the guy who called earlier,” I said.
Ernie smiled and we shook hands. In the piles of spaghetti strainers and bread slicers stacked up behind the counter, I spotted a guitar.
“I see you play guitar,” I said. He nodded. “I do too,” I said.
While we talked, people in the store interrupted to ask prices for espresso pots, a soccer ball decked out with Italy’s national colors, a jacket embroidered with a map of Italy¾the renowned boot.
I asked him to show me his Jimmy Roselli CDs. “Jimmy used to come here to drop off his CDs for the store,” said Ernie. “He brings them himself and looks around for sheet music.”
Reaching into a stack of CDs, Ernie pulled one out and popped it into the player. Roselli’s “Torna a Surriento” filled the store. I knew the song because my father had often sung the opening lines: “Vide ‘o mare quant’è bello; spira tantu sentiment.” See how beautiful the sea is; it inspires immense feeling in me.
Ernie handed me the CD cover. It had a picture of a woman playing a guitar, like a vintage label on a can of tomato sauce. He cranked up the volume, and Roselli sang like he’d been stabbed in the heart and could no longer breathe. Everyone in the store looked up when Roselli’s voice rang out, as if it was thundering from heaven. From God. Ernie didn’t seem to care that the music was very loud. When he turned the music off, the blast of explosive sound was swallowed by a sudden silence.
I asked Ernie what kind of music he played on guitar. He then reached behind the counter, pulled out his guitar, and said, “I’m going to sing you a song now.”
A woman approached the counter to purchase a few items: a pair of cheap slippers, a framed picture of the pope, a few red-white-green Italian boot magnets. As she thrust them towards the counter to pay, Ernie waved her away with a hand.
“Now I play a song. You pay later,” he said.
He started strumming. As he sang, the first few notes were loud and slightly out of key, but his voice was strong. His voice got louder and steadier with each word. His face twisted, his mouth curved to one side when he sang. He sang with heart, like he was crying.
I turned to look at the woman who earlier had told us she was a tourist from Austria. She stood near the counter holding the slippers, tears running down her cheeks. She was wiping the tears with a tissue. It felt strange to stand next to her, helplessly, while she cried. Seeing her response to the song made me flush with emotion, too.
When Ernie finished, everyone clapped enthusiastically. He put his guitar down and sat behind the register again. The Austrian woman had now dried her tears, so she stacked her items on the counter to pay for them.
After she’d left, Ernie asked, “What happened to that woman?”
“You made her cry,” I said, thinking that she must have felt the same pang in her gut as I had. “Maybe your song reminded her of someone; maybe she was married to an Italian, or her father or grandfather was Italian,” I added. La Canzone Napoletana pulls at your heart strings.
When I visit my mother, I often talk to her about music and play songs for her. My mother has always been strong-willed and in control of her emotions. I once played Pavarotti singing Neapolitan songs for her. She said that she’d grown up listening to those same songs.
“When I hear that music, it hits my right here,” she said, pointing to her heart. I could see that her eyes were wet with emotion.
I keep a guitar at my mother’s apartment to play when I visit. Sometimes I’ll play a few songs for her. She’s a tough audience. She looks at me over her reading glasses. This makes her eyes look bigger. I feel like I’m performing for an instructor at Julliard. If I can play for my mom, I can play for anyone.
One time, I played a traditional British Isles tune that had taken a long time to learn. The song is called “Martinmas Mass,” also known as “South Wind.” When I finished, I looked up. I was proud that I could finally play the song from beginning to end, and in front of someone.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“I was waiting for you to do something?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You played it nicely. It’s a pretty song. But it’s like, nothing happens,” she shrugged.
After I recovered from that comment, I realized that she was absolutely right. Unlike the song I played, the Neapolitan song tradition is dramatic. It is sung like the singer is on fire, like life or death is on the line. There is no middling. It’s all or nothing at all. Reflecting the desperation of the region the songs came from, it is a song tradition associated with ebullience, melancholy, joy, and fatalism¾all wrapped together.
Many of the songs deal with being faraway from a loved one, lontano. There is often the mention of lacreme, or tears. There are remembrances of the beautiful Southern Italian landscape, of flowers and sunshine. These songs were written by and for Southern Italians who, from about 1880 to 1920, had fled poverty and oppression in their own country and now lived in distant places, like Canada, the United States, and Australia. Although they could never return to their home country to make a living, they could fantasize about it.
The Neapolitan song is typically sung in the bel canto style, which originated from Italian opera. Bel canto focuses on breath control, resonation, and natural approach. It emphasizes story telling. It’s vulnerable, but it’s strong.
Many of the Neapolitan songs are world-famous because they were carried to new countries by emigrants from Naples and Southern Italy. The music was also popularized abroad by Enrico Caruso, who took to singing the popular music of his native city in his encores at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in the early 1900s. Caruso is responsible for the fact that operatic tenors since then have been required to know these songs.
While the Southern Italians brought their vitality and strong bodies to work in the countries they adopted, they also brought their musical traditions, their dreams, and their longings. The American music industry can be traced back to Caruso. He was one of the first recorded vocalists, and his records sold wildly. It can be said that Caruso’s rock star success and fame launched the music industry as we know it today.
Caruso also popularized the bel canto style. Bel canto’s long, elegantly phrased notes allow the vocalist to be expressive and to tell a story. You can draw a line from the Italian Romantic songs of Rossini and Bellini sung by Caruso to Sinatra. This legato singing style even found its way into jazz. I once heard that when asked how to interpret a particular jazz standard tune, Miles Davis told John Coltrane to play it “like Sinatra sings.”
As Mark Rotella wrote in his book, Amore: The Story of Italian American Song [New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. 2010], bel canto was passed on from Sinatra to Motown and became the singing style most associated with American music. Bel canto is warm, it’s vulnerability and invites the listener in to hear the story behind the words. Along with building railroads, bridges, and highways, Southern Italians changed the world through song.
What follows is a list of resources about the Neapolitan Song tradition, along with links to, what I consider to be, definitive versions of the songs.
A number of years ago, E. Rossi & Co was forced to move out of the location they had been in for a hundred years. The film Closing Time was made by an Italian woman from Rome who was visiting the United States and was so struck by E. Rossi & Co’s story that she dropped everything and made a short film on the spot. Here is a link to the documentary: http://www.folkstreams.net/film,174
The Neapolitan Heart
Another wonderful film that outlines the history of Neapolitan Song is The Neapolitan Heart. There are performances by singers from Naples, as well as an interview with Jimmy Roselli. Here is the link to The Neapolitan Heart on YouTube.
Some Neapolitan Songs and Vocalists
There are many versions of “Core ‘ngrato,” but my favorite is by Giuseppe di Stefano. He sings it with the reckless abandon of a defeated lover. You can hear the wretched sadness in his voice when he chokes singing that his lover doesn’t remember him anymore.
Enrico Caruso sings great versions of all of these songs. His delivery is something of a high wire act; we’re never sure if he’s going to be able to hit the high note, or come careening off a passage to land in the right place. But he does. Sadly, however, the recordings aren’t crisp. Some remixes have isolated his stunning voice, but the instruments behind him sound like bicycle horns. “Core ‘ngrato” (Ungrateful Heart) was written in 1911 by Salvatore Cardillo, an Italian composer who had recently emigrated to the United States, with lyrics by Riccardo Cordiferro (real name Alessandro Sisca). It was adopted by Enrico Caruso but it is not known whether he commissioned Cardillo and Sisca to write it. It is the only well-known standard Neapolitan song to have been written in America. The song’s title comes from the heartfelt passage, “Core, core ‘ngrato, te haie pigliato ‘a vita mia! Tutt’ è passato, e nun nce pienze cchiù!” Ungrateful heart, you have stolen my life! It’s all over and I don’t think about it anymore!
“A Cartulina e Napule”
Published by E. Rossi & Co, “A Cartulina e Napule” (A Postcard from Naples), sung by Giulietta Sacco, is a song about longing for Naples and the Southern Italian diaspora. With tears in her eyes, the singer tells us how she misses Naples from her new home in America. This would have resonated very strongly with the newly arrived Italian immigrants.
Jimmy Roselli recorded many of the Neapolitan songs and also sings variations of them. His version of “Malafemmena” is one of my favorites.
I also like Mina Mazzini’s version. Whereas Roselli’s is like a man riding a bull, hers is slow and delicate. Mina is a soprano known for her range of three octaves. A pop singer in her early years in the 1970s, Mina has always possessed the power and drama of the Neapolitan song. Louis Armstrong famously declared her to be “the greatest white singer in the world.” Songs like “Se Telefonando,” with music and arrangement by Ennio Morricone, are powerful masterpieces. “Se Telefonadano” builds dramatically through escalating tonal transitions. Mina’s voice soars through Morricone’s sophisticated arrangement of melodic trumpet lines. Mina has since performed other songs, like “Core ‘Ngrato,” “Maruzzella,” and “Aggio Perduto Suonno,” in the Neapolitan tradition.
“Malafemmena” was written by the Neapolitan actor Totò (Antonio de Curtis) in 1951. It has become one of the most popular Italian songs, a classic of the canzone Napoletana genre, and has been recorded by many artists.
“O Sole Mio”
Luciano Pavarotti sings a heart-shattering rendition of this song, which will make your eyes overflow with tears.
Of course, many others have sung it well, too. “’O Sole Mio” (My Sunshine) was written in 1898. Its lyrics were written by Giovanni Capurro and the music was composed by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi. There are other versions of “’O Sole Mio” but it is usually sung in the original Neapolitan language. “’O Sole Mio” is the Neapolitan equivalent of standard Italian il mio sole.
“’O Surdato ’nnammurato”
“’O Surdato ’nnammurato” (The Soldier in Love) is a famous song written in the Neapolitan language. The words were written by Aniello Califano and the music composed by Enrico Cannio in 1915. The song describes the sadness of a soldier who is fighting at the front during World War I, and who pines for his beloved.
Like so many of these songs, there are several terrific versions of “O’ Marenariello” (The Tiny Sailor). This is because the melodies are lush and romantic, and they allow the singer to embellish the vocal lines with fioritura. Pavarotti delivers a towering version of “O’ Marenariello.” Sergio Bruni’s version is more pensive, but powerful, too. The version most Americans know is by Vito Rocco Farinola, or Vic Damone, as he is better known, and is entitled “I Have But One Heart.”
“O’ Marenariello” was written in 1893 by Salvatore Gambardella with lyrics by Gennaro Ottaviano.
“Torna a Surriento”
Once again, there are many great versions of this song. However, Jimmy Roselli sings it like a man filling the Neapolitan valleys with his enormous voice.
“Torna a Surriento” was composed in 1902 by Italian musician Ernesto De Curtis to words by his brother, the poet and painter Giambattista De Curtis. The song was copyrighted officially in 1905, and has since become one of the most popular Neapolitan songs, along with other hits in the genre, such as “O Sole Mio,” “Funiculi Funicula” and “Santa Lucia.” De Curtis wrote a number of Neapolitan songs: “Voce ‘e Notte,” “Non ti Scordar di Me,” “Ti Voglio Tanto Bene,” and many others.
“Piscatore ‘e Pusilleco”
Claudia Villa sings an impassioned version of this song. Villa sings, “Piscatò, ‘sti parole sò llacreme” (Fisherman, these words are my tears), and we believe every word. The tears pour right into our own hearts. “Piscatore ‘e Pusilleco” was written in 1925, with music by Ernesto Tagliaferri and lyrics by Roberto Murolo. Murolo was an important composer, performer, and scholar of Neapolitan song.
“Primo Amore” (First Love) by Carlo Buti can only be described as heavenly. Buti was born in Florence, but, in part due to Caruso’s influence on Italian singers, he had to sing some of the Neapolitan canon. His unique warm and melodic tenorino style of high quasi-falsetto phrasing sung in the mezza voce makes his voice quiver like a violin bow.
“Aneme e’ Core”
“Aneme e Core” (Soul and Heart), as sung by Connie Francis, is like listening to bright sunshine. Unlike the torrent of storms that Neapolitan songs evoke, her renditions are calming and peaceful. Connie Francis was born Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero in Brooklyn in 1937, and her career remains active to this day.
There are also versions of “Anema e Core” recorded by Pier Angeli, Jimmy Roselli, and Roberto Murolo that are terrific, each in their own way. The song was first introduced in 1950, sung by the opera tenor Tito Schipa. The composer was Salve d’Esposito, and the original lyrics were written by Tito Manlio.
Mike Fiorito lives in Brooklyn, NY. His stories have appeared in Narratively, Mad Swirl, The Good Men Project and Brownstone Poetry. He is currently working on a short story collection called “Crooners”.