Francesco De Gregori

(by Francesco Ciabattoni, Georgetown University)


The songs of Francesco De Gregori are considered among the most refined and influential in the history of contemporary Italian music. His beginnings at Rome’s Folk Studio are influenced by Bob Dylan’s visionary hermeticism and displayed an interest for folk music, personal stories and collective historical experience. Through his unique, unassuming style, De Gregori is able to channel a shared symbolic unconscious by means of powerful imagery, to uncover the ills and shames of a nation and to unleash forgotten hope. After a collaboration with Antonello Venditti, Mimmo Locasciulli and Giorgio Lo Cascio, De Gregori produced several solo albums and others in collaboration with Lucio Dalla (Banana Republic, 1979; Work in Progress, 2010), his own brother Luigi Grechi (Il bandito e il campione, 1993), and Giovanna Marini (Il fischio del vapore, 2002). De Gregori’s exquisite art ranges from the charming simplicity and disarming beauty of “Buonanotte fiorellino” to the nightmarish return of totalitarian ideologies in “Rumore di niente” and politicians’ partial responsibility for mafia massacres in “Sangue su sangue” (Canzoni d’amore, 1992).

Placing emphasis on the shared experiences of private feelings and collective ideals, De Gregori expresses his civic commitment through the use of literary references to such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Eugenio Montale, Katherine Ann Porter, Manuel Scorza, Bertolt Brecht. De Gregori grafts his songs of civic commitment and antifascism into a Gramscian vision of history. Although no programmatic exposition of Gramsci’s philosophy of history is found in his lyrics, De Gregori’s vision of history, as articulated in such songs as “Generale” (De Gregori, 1978), “Viva l’Italia” (Viva l’Italia, 1979), and “La storia” (Scacchi e tarocchi, 1985) is a form of Gramscian-inflected historical idealism, which construes events as a process in which the people are protagonists and time is a social product of the complex and contradictory collective actions. Many songs display an interest for the subaltern layers of society, but present individuals from those groups in their private and poetic aspects, as happens in “La ragazza e la miniera” (Francesco De Gregori, 1990) and “Terra e acqua” (Viva l’Italia, 1979). While never embracing the radical historical materialism of Marxism, De Gregori situates his love songs within such a vision of social life as generated by capitalist practices.

De Gregori’s love songs preserve a space for the expression of the individual spirit through the deconstruction of classical love tropes: “Rimmel” (Rimmel, 1975) “L’uccisione di Babbo Natale” (Bufalo Bill, 1976), “Bellamore” (Canzoni d’amore, 1992). The style and originality of De Gregori’s love songs can be appreciated especially when contrasted with that of mainstream love songs in Italy from the 1970s onward, including the trite, “normative language” established by the Festival di Sanremo (Italy’s Grammy Awards). De Gregori’s lyrical and musical language in love songs departs radically from clichés and conventional norms of the traditional canzone italiana. Not only does he forsake conventional love formulas, but he rewrites them to subvert the musical and lyrical rhetoric of love songs. Both style and content mix elements of folk, lyrical inspiration and ethical/civic engagement. In fact, the 1992 album, titled Canzoni d’amore, contains only two songs that are explicitly about love (“Bellamore,” “Stella della strada”), while the nine others deal with political corruption, social imbalances and the possible return of fascism at the beginning of Italy’s second republic (“Rumore di niente”). Thus, love and politics, private feelings and the collective life of society proceed hand in hand in De Gregory’s poetics.

Many of De Gregori’s songs chronicle and critique the displacement of individuals. They tell an epic of migration within and outside of Italy, or to Italy from poorer countries. Italy is alternatively seen as a guest or host community, a perspective that blurs the boundaries. This epic, however, has nothing heroic about it: in “Stella Stellina” (Viva l’Italia, 1979) a young woman leaves her rural village in southern Italy to live in an industrialized city in the north, struggling to adapt to the changed environment. “Nero” (Terra di nessuno, 1986) emphasizes racial dynamics in contemporary Italy, a man of color has migrated to “a big city in the north” (the city is Latina, ironically not a large city nor in the north of the country). The song, from Terra di nessuno (No Man’s Land, a title that nullifies the validity of borders), problematizes the identity of a migrant of color who has traveled “from the outskirts of the world to a city,” even though his intellectual sensibility and sense of humor prove very akin to that of the western canon. Drawing from Kafka, “L’abbigliamento di un fuochista” (Titanic, 1982) features a young Italian migrant who boards the Titanic as a stoker and says goodbye to his mother on the pier. Finally, “Pablo” (Rimmel, 1975) tells the story of an immigrant in Switzerland who mourns his friend’s death at work while celebrating his living memory. Since a prerogative of pop music is to be performed and appropriated by large audiences, the question posed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (“Can the subaltern speak?”, which is indebted to Gramsci’s theory of the subaltern) becomes particularly relevant and can be answered in a rather complex way: if the subaltern appropriates and performs a song that was written by someone who does not belong to a subaltern group, can indeed the subaltern speak, or at least sing?

Folk music, or musica popolare (quite different from “popular music”; it instead translates as “music of the people”) is an important element of Italy’s identity, which attracted the critical attention of such ethnomusicologists as Alan Lomax, Diego Carpitella and Giovanna Marini. The folk music revival of the 1970s inspired several cantautori to blend elements of musica popolare from various regions of the peninsula with the influences of American blues, folk and pop. The influence of American and Canadian artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen is perceivable in the early production of Francesco De Gregori, who then introduced Italian folk songs into his repertory. To the cantautore, folk songs are an inspiration and means to channel the collective voice of the people against the establishment, of migrants who struggle to integrate or of minorities whose fundamental rights are violated (“Ipercarmela,” Bufalo Bill, 1976; “Stella stellina”; the entire albums Viva l’Italia and Il fischio del vapore).

In 2015 De Gregori returned to Bob Dylan by translating eleven of the American songwriter’s songs in De Gregori canta Bob Dylan – Amore e furto. De Gregori explained how love, imitation and theft are inextricably connected when writing songs or poetry.

De Gregori spoke at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò in New York on November 6, 2017. Click HERE to watch the interview.

Translated songs: