Francesco Guccini

by Cristina Perissinotto (University of Ottawa)

Francesco Guccini, born in Modena in 1940, is one of the best-known Italian cantautori. His career spans about 50 years, during which he recorded 16 original albums and performed in countless concerts. Although he is no longer performing, his signature voice and impassionate ballads make him one of the most iconic folk singers of his generation. In 2001, Guccini relocated from Bologna to Pàvana, his ancestral village in the Apennines, where, between 2011 and 2012, he famously moved his musicians and an entire recording studio in order to tape his last album (Ultima Thule) and shoot a documentary about this effort (La mia Thule). During the same year, still in Pàvana, he announced that he was finished with concerts and albums, and retired from the musical scene. 

Life goes on, and the imposing singer-songwriter now focuses his artistic inspiration on writing mystery novels (with Loriano Macchiavelli), and autobiographical collections. Before retirement he had already penned an excellent autobiographical trilogy: Cròniche epafàniche (1991), Vacca d’un cane (1993), and Cittanòva blues (2003). In these books, he uses an idiolect that sets the Italian language in the context of different dialectal soundscapes, depending on where the books are set. Cròniche epafàniche, dedicated to his childhood in the Apennines, delighted readers for its narrative ease and strong imagery, brought about by his original linguistic choices. For example, in a passage dedicated to his childhood pastime of fishing in the local creek, he writes:

è più facile prenderli, i pesci, con le mani, quando il gorello dello sfioratore del botàccio va in secca, e nelle pozétte qualche pesce rimane: una volta, quando c’era più pesci, usavano anche le nasse di stroppe che ora sono rinsecchite e inerti nel Maganzino. (17)

(it is easy to catch the fish with your hands when the basin of the creek dries up, and some fish are left in the small puddles: in the past, when there were more fish, they even used fishing traps made out of willow branches that are now dried out and inactive in the warehouse) (17)

Guccini’s importance as a cantautore in the history of Italian music cannot be overestimated. His ballads blended ethics and poetics, satire and indignation, past and present.

Even those who are not familiar with his vast body of work have come across some of Guccini’s early songs, such as “Dio è morto” (Folk Beat n. 1, 1967), inspired in the title by Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and in the lyrics by Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”:

Ho visto  
la gente della mia età andare via  
lungo le strade che non portano mai a niente 
cercare il sogno che conduce alla pazzia
alla ricerca di qualcosa che non trovano

(I have seen the people of my generation walk away / on roads leading nowhere / pursuing a dream that leads to folly / seeking something they can’t find)

One of his other famous ballads is “Auschwitz,” also known as “La canzone del bambino nel vento” (Song of the Child in the Wind) written after reading an autobiographical book by Vincenzo Pappalettera entitled Tu passerai per il camino:

Son morto che ero bambino
sono morto con altri cento.
Passato per il camino
e adesso sono nel vento.

(I was a child when I died
I died with one hundred others
I went through the chimney
and now I am in the wind)

Guccini is the author of “L’Avvelenata” (Via Paolo Fabbri, 43, published in 1976) one of the most scurrilous songs in the history of the Italian musica cantautorale. It constitutes a powerful act of indignation, peppered with swearwords. If in the beginning it felt scandalous, later on it became a symbol of the intensity of the personal protests that characterized the 1970s.

Guccini always claimed to be more of an anarchist than a communist. “La locomotiva,” (Radici, 1972), with which he ended all of his concerts, is one of his signature songs. It is a long anarchist ballad about a railway engineer, Pietro Rigosi, who, at the turn of the 19th century, tried to hurl a locomotor against a passenger train, to protest against the difficult living conditions at the time.  

In his canzoniere, Francesco Guccini sends a strong ethical message that is poetic, politically engaged and often satirical. For all these reasons, Dario Fo once called him “la voce del movimento.” Influences on his music and texts are Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, as well as Édit Piaf.

As far as his own iconography, he was famous for performing with a bottle of wine under his chair. “Al rosso saggio chiedi i tuoi perché,” (You ask the red sage your questions) he writes in “Un altro giorno è andato.” (Un altro giorno è andato/Il bello, 1968). In his lyrics wine is a companion of many a night; the “red sage” he mentions in that song is in fact a metaphor for red wine.

Francesco Guccini is probably the only cantautore who made his own private address the title of one of his albums. Via Paolo Fabbri, 43, in Bologna, has become a necessary pilgrimage for anyone who admires his musical and poetic productions.

His poetry is inspired by his vast literary knowledge, which transpires in innumerable references, from Carlo Collodi to Alessandro Manzoni, from Jack Kerouac to John Dos Passos, from Guido Gozzano to Carl Barks. The depth and the literary value of his body of work resulted in a large number of awards, including, in 1992, the prestigious Premio Librex-Guggenheim Eugenio Montale for the section “versi in musica.”

Gozzano in particular was greatly influential for Guccini’s most intimate lyrics. In fact, the author is indebted to crepuscularism both in his atmospheres and in stylistic choices. For example, the famous song Incontro, (Radici, 1972) describing a dinner, after many years, with a high school friend, Guccini mentions that the cutlery had the color of nostalgia (stoviglie color nostalgia). One can hear, in this romantic and nostalgic song, a reference to Gozzano’s long poem “Signorina Felicita,” (I colloqui, 1911) in particular a reference to Felicita’s eyes, described by Gozzano as cutlery-blue (“azzurri di un azzurro di stoviglia”). The most evident borrowing from Guido Gozzano is, however, Guccini’s adaptation of “La più bella,” a poem that Guccini set to music with the title “L’isola non trovata.”

In a recent interview (for Diego Bianchi’s talk show, Propaganda live) Guccini laments the disappearance of those who used to populate “his” mountains, and therefore the watering down of that particular culture, and of his own roots. The search for his roots is one of the major themes of his canzoniere, in particular in his 1972 album Radici. The song he dedicated to his uncle Amerigo, who emigrated to the United States and only returned to Pàvana an old man, exemplifies his attention for his family history.

The theme of Pàvana as the locus amoenus where many of the contradiction of life are resolved is one of the most enduring themes of his lyrics. His last album, Ultima Thule (2012), recorded inside the mill that has belonged to his family for several generations, is replete with childhood memories, including the sound of the millstone that kept grinding day and night when he was a child.

Another important theme in Guccini’s productions is time. In the eponymous song of his last album, “Ultima Thule,” he bemoans the passing of time, which brought an end to the marauding escapades with his closest musician friends:

Io che tornavo fiero ad ogni porto
dopo una lotta, dopo un arrembaggio,
non son più quello e non ho più il coraggio
di veleggiare su un vascello morto.

Dov’è la ciurma che mi accompagnava
e assecondava ogni ribalderia?
Dove la forza che ci circondava?
Ora si è spenta ormai, sparita via.

(I proudly came back to every port
after a fight, after a boarding,
I am no longer that person and I no longer have the courage
to sail on a dead vessel.

Where is the crew that accompanied me
and supported every mischief?
Where is the strength that surrounded us?
It’s gone now, gone away.”

(“Ultima Thule”, Ultima Thule, 2012)

We should not worry about this melancholy last song. Guccini’s buen retiro in the Apennines is a destination for fans and scholars alike. He does not even seem to mind the frequent interruptions or his legendary status among his admirers. In the hope of meeting him in Pàvana one day, we look forward to his next mystery novel.

Translated songs: