Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Jan 2015

This is my translation of a book review written by Stefano Luconi that appeared in Italian in the journal Forum Italicum (September 22, 2010). The book is by Simona Frasca and is entitled Birds of Passage: I musicisti napoletani a New York (1895-1940) [Neapolitan musicians in New York]. Luconi is an established and respected authority on Italian immigration in the United States and has taught at the universities of Padua, Pisa, and the Orientale University of Naples, among others. He has published a wide range of articles on the sociology and history of Italian emigration. His review:

Simona Frasca. Birds of Passage: I musicisti napoletani a New York (1895-1940). Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2010. pp. 215.

According to the infamous definition given by Franklin D. Roosevelt to demonstrate their substantial harmlessness during the Second World War, the Italians living in the United States were nothing more than a "a bunch of opera singers." Beyond the paternalism and Anglo-Saxon sense of superiority, however, that sentiment does testify indirectly to the central importance that music has played in the daily existence of Italian-Americans. And yet that topic has received but sparse attention even in the multifaceted development of research on Italian immigration that has developed in the United States in the last decade. It's enough to point out that a relevant entry on music is lacking even in such an authoritative and vast reference work as The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 2000). With that, we have to appreciate and receive with favor this work of an almost pioneering nature by Simona Frasca. It has been well researched, is extremely accurate, and is dedicated to the diffusion of Neapolitan song in the United States between the end of the 1800s and the entry of the U.S. into the Second World War.

The author approaches her subject by moving through a portrait gallery of those who were most representative of this genre of music, from the famous tenor, Enrico Caruso—not above inserting himself into the field of popular music—to women who today are only barely remembered, although they were popular in their day (judging by the number of their recordings) such as Ida Papaccio (name in art of Ada Bruges) or Gina Santelia. The book is really a series of success stories that shed light on the alternative experiences of this first generation of immigrants, generally consigned to survival in precarious and underpaid manual occupations. The insight offered to us by Frasca is significant in the way it describes the role of women; it focuses on the public and professional dimensions of the female musicians of the Little Italies, a role that has remained long in the shadows compared to the historiographic analyses of their roles as domestic servants and factory workers. Furthermore, personalities such as Caruso or Mimí Aguglia—the singer and actress who they say made as much as Eleonora Duse—contributed to the ethnic redemption of Italian emigrants. They helped to build a positive self-image, making popular music one of the instruments of integration that helped to overcome the prejudices that on a daily basis afflicted this national minority group from the moment it tried to insert itself into the society of the United States.

Yet Frasca does not limit herself to retelling individual biographies but goes into analyses of words and rhythms to reveal how they might have been contaminated during the transatlantic crossing from Italy to the United States. Crossing the ocean, indeed, made Neapolitan song subject to a process of hybridization, absorbing new linguistic codes of their new country. At the same time, thanks to the “nomadism of return” of some Italian musicians, at the end of the first decade of the 1900s Neapolitan song took on some of the trappings of American rhythms and an increasing use of standard Italian in a probable attempt to appeal to a greater international audience.

Another merit of this book is that it underscores very effectively the manner in which Neapolitan song meets modernity, emphasizing the union of the music with the consumerism of the industry of mass American popular culture. The triumphs of Italian-American musicians, indeed, cannot be explained except through their recordings and the diffusion of those recordings by way of commercial radio stations. This was a move away from the usual live broadcasting of traditional popular music that had marked Neapolitan song in Italy and was a sign of further integration of immigrants into their adopted country and of their ability to adapt. The very process of recording, according to Frasca, was a moment of integration for the Italian-American when you consider the presumably multi-ethnic make-up of personnel at the recording companies.

That last hypothesis, however, is very circumstantial and really needs to be backed up by more evidence from the author. In the same fashion, her research might have benefitted from a greater use of American historiography, such as, for example, is the case in the pages dedicated by Nancy C. Carnevaleto to the use of language by two icons of the Italian-American song, namely Eduardo Migliaccio and Louis Prima, in her recent monograph A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). Even more perplexing is the tendency of the author to use the adjectives napoletano and italiano as if they were synonyms, given the lack of national self-perception on the part of the immigrants.

It is precisely this sense of narrow provincialism (campanilismo) brought from the land of origin to the Little Italies that might have been the springboard into a deeper investigation of the role played by Neapolitan song in the transformation of the ethnic identities of those from Italy. For example, studies by Anna Maria Martellone such as “La ‘rappresentazione’ dell’identità italo-americana: teatro e feste nelle Little Italy statunitensi” ['Representation' of Italian-American identity: theater and festivals in Little Italies in the United States] in La chioma della vittoria, edited by Sergio Bertelli [Florence: Ponte alle Grazie, 1997: 377-86] have shown how the popularity of opera music within the Italian-American community helped its members overcome such regionalism and develop an increasing sense of common Italian identity. It thus would have been interesting if Frasca had dealt as well with the influence of this music as a kind of part of popular music such as the Neapolitan song.

In spite of these points, Frasca has written a valuable book that will have its place as an indispensable reference work for any future research in the field. I hope that Frasca will sooner or later deal with the later periods of and following World War Two with the same intelligence and competence that are so evident in Birds of Passage.

Stefano Luconi

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