Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Getting to know Fabrizio De André, no. 1

De André’s first original song release was a single in November 1961, when Italian pop music was filled with songs not unlike “Volare” – orchestral/big band arrangements, big emotional gestures, and subject matter that was often romantic, silly or both. Check out the winner of the 1960 San Remo Festival, “Romantica” by Tony Dallara for a taste:

Or look how American 1950s rock and roll was translated into Italian on this must see video of “24,000 Kisses,” released in 1961 by Adreano Celentano:

Into this mix of musical frosting, the 21-year-old Fabrizio De André released “The Ballad of Mike” (click to go to translation).

Based on a newspaper article, it tells the story of a man who hanged himself in prison, there for having killed a guy he thought was trying to steal his girlfriend. He doesn't get a proper burial because the Catholic Church at the time believed those who took their own lives were “sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funeral rites without public scandal of the faithful.” The theme of the harshness of Church and State will surface again in De André’s work. (De André wasn't the first to want to make a more real-life music; that trend in Italy probably started in 1958 with a group called Cantacronache, who were influenced by the likes of Georges Brassens, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.)

The pairing of the lyrics and the music is noteworthy. If you didn't know what the song was about, I don’t think you could guess it from the sound of the music and the voice alone. The minor key verses transition to major key choruses that have a lightness at odds with the lyric content, and with no hint of darkness or anguish in De André’s voice.

While this contrast may seem strange, it's perhaps instructive to know that De André's first band, started when he was 16 years old, was a country western band with an English name - The Crazy Cowboys & The Sheriff One - in which he played banjo and sang songs like "Oh Susanna" and "My Darling Clementine." There is a tradition in older American folk, blues and country music of songs about disasters, tragedies and other sad stories of the day, and it was not uncommon for these songs to be set to music that was tuneful or toe-tapping.

I don't know the extent of De André's familiarity with this strain of American music, but it's an intriguing line of possible connection.

It’s interesting to recall what other musical icons-to-be were up to at the time. On the one hand, The Beatles were tearing it up in the Cavern Club in November 1961, inspired by the same 1950s rock and roll that inspired 24,000 Kisses. On the other hand Bob Dylan was making a name for himself at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, having been reviewed very positively in the New York Times. The Beatles would soon enough destroy the bubble-gum pop of the 1960s with a music much more vital, real and fresh, while Dylan would create his own brand of anti-pop built on deep rural strains of black and white folk music. And the fall of 1961 saw the first Motown release to reach Number One, "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes.

And here's what I was up to in 1961 - that's a Hawaiian steel guitar, for the uninitiated, and boy was I square:

Hope you enjoy this first installment of what will be a desultory tour of this blog and the music of Fabrizio De André.

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