Compilation and translations © Kenneth A. Mazzer 2011

Italian-American group

Introductory Notes

1. This is a compilation of lyrics for old Italian songs, from many sources. Some were found on the Internet, but mostly I listened to records and dug out the lines word by word, with the help of dictionaries and by asking native speakers. Many non-Italian speakers, like me, enjoy listening to the songs but can only make out a few words. The purpose of this compilation is to dig out a few more words, so that you can enjoy the meaning as well as the tunes.

2. There are thousands of Italian songs, but I limited this compilation to those I actually listened to (many times) and enjoy. Special thanks to Angelo Santin for providing much of the music, and to the late Patsy Diani for playing so many of them for us on his accordion.

3. Of course folk songs come from all over Italy, but most of this compilation is from the north, because those are the ones I grew up hearing sung at picnics and at the Italian-American Cooperative in Clifton, NJ. (But even at, for example, the Lombard picnics, southern songs like “Oe Mari” were included in the songfests.) I included a few from central Italy. Most of the songs from the south that I know are Neapolitan standards or more modern canzone, not folksongs. They are famous, the composers are known, and the lyrics are readily available from many sources. So it is not necessary to include them here. I just do not know the folksongs from the south, so they are not included (for now). One exception is “Luna Mezzo ‘o Mare” (a/k/a C’è la Luna, Salsiccia e Baccalà, etc.) because we all know that tune, and by now it is an anonymous folksong. There are many versions and dialects of that song; I just wrote down a few. (And later I added a few more Southern favorites.)

4. Your first reaction, after listening to about 30 seconds of some northern songs, may be to hit the “stop” button. Your impression may be that they are gloomy, repetitive, and boring, especially compared with the famous Neapolitan songs like O Sole Mio, Santa Lucia, Faniculi Fanicula, etc. So here is a primer.

In general:

Southern songs are lyric (moon in June, etc.), about lost love or falling in love. Northern songs are mostly ballads, narrating a story.

Southern songs are sung by one singer (and the ones we hear on records are good). Northern songs are sung by groups (some better than others), with a lot of call-and-response.

Many of the famous southern songs came from annual song contests, going back to the 1700s, so the composers are known. Most of the northern songs I have are “anonymous”, and there are several versions of each.

Southern songs tend to have complex melodies; northern melodies tend to be simple and repetitious.

Southern songs are meant to be sung or listened to for pleasure or for serenades. The northern ones are work songs, drinking songs and marching songs, although many of the ones I have heard have been arranged as waltzes or polkas, for dancing.

The south uses mandolins, the north uses accordions.

Of course, I am talking here about southern “canzone”. There are also plenty of anonymous southern folk songs, not as polished, with bagpipes, penny whistles, a weird instrument that sounds like making farts with your armpit, etc. etc. I just don’t have them (since I never heard them, growing up) but they are on Youtube.

On first hearing, some of the northern songs (especially when sung by an a cappella chorus) may sound sad and gloomy, but often the lyrics are cheery. There are some truly tragic songs included here, such as Povera Emma and Il Tragico Naufragio della Nave Sirio, but on the whole even when the story is about a young girl forced into a nunnery or having to go off to work in the marshes or rice fields, or seeing one’s girlfriend being cremated, there is humor in the words. You get the feeling that once the girl’s father has gotten over his anger the young novice will get to be with her boyfriend again, that the young will carry on, and so on. Even in the worst case, a common attitude is, “Well, if I don’t come back from the war, we will meet in heaven.”

5. I tried to limit the songs to ones no longer under copyright, and used a cut-off date of around 1920; that is, right after World War I (because so many of the most popular songs came from that war). One exception is the famous song La Montanara. It possibly may still be under copyright, although I doubt it. I decided to include it for the reasons specified in the notes to that song. Please inform me if any of these songs are copyrighted and should be removed.

6. Some on-line sources for lyrics and songs include:


Italian Books Consulted

The books I have read on Italian folk songs (all of which appear to be in the public domain) include but are not limited to the following, in addition to the ones already cited in this Introduction. When I quote from a book in these pages I try to give credit in all cases.

Canti Popolari Abruzzesi, collected by Tommaso Bruni, published by Adelmo Polla Editore, 1993 [with the date for the original, or at least earlier, edition being 1907].

Canti Popolari Inediti Umbri, Liguri, Piceni. Piemontesi, Latini, Raccolti e Illustrati, collected by Oreste Marcoaldi, Genoa, published by R.I De’ Sordo-Muti, 1855.

Canti Popolari Romani con un Saggio di Canti del Lazio, collected by Giggi Zanazzo, Rome, published by Arnaldo Forni Editore, 1907.

Canti Popolari Toscani, collected and annotated by Giuseppe Tigri, Florence, published by Barbèra, Bianchi and Comp., 1860.

Canti Popolari Toscani, selected by Giovanni Giannini, Florence, published by G. Barbèra, 1902.

Canti Popolari Toscani, Corsi, Illirici, Greci, Vol. IV [Canti Illirici], collected by N. Tommaseo, Venice, published by Girolamo Tasso, 1842.

Canti Popolari Umbri Raccolti a Gubbio e Illustrati, collected by Giuseppe Mazzatinti, published by Nicola Zanichelli, 1883.

Fable and Song in Italy, by Ellen Mary Clerke, London, published by Grant Richards, 1899.

Folk-Songs of Italy, The, by Miss R. H. Busk, London, published by Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co., 1887.

Nuovi Canti Popolari Veneziani, collected by Domenico Giuseppe Bernoni, Venice, published by Tipografia Melchiorre Fontana, 1874.

Renaissance in Italy: Italian Literature, Vol. IV, by John Addington Symonds, Davos, 1881.

In addition, I found an excellent source for lyrics in “Canti popolari del Vecchio Piemonte” [compiled by?] Tersilla Gatto Chanu, Rome, Newton & Compton, 1998.

7. Note that there are incomplete portions and questions about many of the lyrics. I will be grateful for any suggestions and corrections. What I want to avoid, however, is “correcting” a dialect word into “proper” (standard) Italian. At the same time, though, a note on the translation of an obscure dialect word into standard Italian would be most appreciated. Please send all corrections and comments to

8. At the last minute I decided to add some comments on the songs. I will roughly translate the titles, as best I can. I will add a short summary of the song (necessarily, that will not include many of the best lyrics). And I will give each song a “grade” as to how much I like it, based on the tune as well as the lyrics included here, plus historic value and the like.

9. At the end of each letter of the alphabet there is a family recipe, starting from antipasto on through dessert. One general note: As many Italian-Americans have remarked, a lot of the food they grew or raised in their gardens and served at home is nowadays considered gourmet, or even trendy or effete. But this was and is just everyday fare for working people.

10. At the beginning of some of the lyrics (maybe someday by all of them), and on the home page, you can click on the audio player where you can hear some bars of the melody. These are amateur renditions of the tunes. They may help if you already knew the song but may have forgotten it. If, however, you do not know the song, please do not take this as a measure of its quality. Find a better version on Youtube, iTunes, etc.

11. You can click on a photo to see an enlarged version.

12. There is a mystery, at least to me, about old sources in English on Italian folk songs, in particular “The Folk-Songs of Italy” by Rachel Harriette Busk, London, S. Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co., 1887 and “Spanish and Italian Folk-Songs” by Alma Strettell, London, Macmillan & Co., 1887. These books contain compilations of “folk-songs” plus explanations of their structures. However, almost none of the songs in them resemble the ones that I am familiar with. They consist of sonnets and other complex poetic forms. (One exception is the sampling of “stornelli“, but stornelli verses consist of only three or four lines, so, by definition, are not complex.) Think of folk songs in English: Barbara Allen, Wildwood Flower, Red River Valley and so on. Many are ballads with rather repetitive melodies and refrains, similar to the Italian songs in this compilation. Our work songs (blues, sea chanteys, etc.), too, are not complex and have call-and-response verses and repetition, and so do the Italian work songs I have found. Even the examples of troubadour songs I have researched seem much more “sing-able” then the examples in the above books. Why is this? Both books mention collaborating and consulting with Italian scholars and aristocrats, and disparage the degenerate new songs heard on the street as sung by peasants and townsfolk. My suspicion is that these authors were told by the snooty upper-class Italians whom they consulted that the elaborate poetic forms they cited were folk songs, because they did not know, or looked down on, songs actually sung by common folks. In support of my theory there is the case of Tchaikovsky. During his stays in Italy, around the same time as the above authors were writing their books, he actually listened to town folk singing songs with simple melodies, which he adapted into his compositions, and those songs are still sung today.

After reading many other books on Italian folk songs, I stick to my conclusions above. I find it hard to believe that many of the “songs” in the 19th century collections were not in fact poems. In any case, one of the most common forms in the old collections was the “Rispetto” (as in “paying respect to”; Ellen Mary Clerke translated Rispetti as “love-greetings”), usually with a romantic theme. Rispetti usually consist of eight lines. The same, or similar, form is also known as “strombotto” or (in Sicily) “canzune”. In Venice and the northeast there is a similar form called “Villotta” or “Vilota” but that seems to usually be of four lines.

Miss R.H. Busk, in her book cited herein [page 121] notes that the “Venetians have another dance-song called Furlana, which is danced to a quicker step than the Vilote and by women alone.” I believe the furlane originally came from the nearby region of Friuli, because people from there call themselves furlani. And there are several examples on Youtube showing that, at least in recent times, both men and women participate in the dancing.

Another common form of song or poem (most definitely sung) is the “Stornello”, usually consisting of three lines, with the first and third lines rhyming exactly and the second line ending in a close rhyme. Stornelli are also called (in various regions) “ritornelli”, “fiori” or “ciuri”, the reason for last two being that very often the first line refers to a real or fictitious flower. One source says that “stornello” is derived from the expression ”a storno”, which means “bouncing back and forth”, and in fact most of the stornelli I found in recordings and on Youtube are in the form of one singer poking fun at the other and then the other singer responding in kind. This is especially popular in Rome and is called “stornello dispetto” (scornful) or “stornello malizioso” (malicious). I have read that going way back to ancient times, different groups in stadiums would mock each other with stornelli. Busk recorded that in Venice “gondoliers would stornellare one against the other, just like the husband-men in other districts.” There are also “stornelli amorosi” (love stornelli).

For a fuller explanation of these terms I recommend Renaissance in Italy; Italian Literature Vol. IV by John Addington Symonds, pages 162 – 181. Most authors agree with Symonds in deciding to simply call the two forms Rispetti and Stornelli, so that is what I have done.

In addition, there are ballads, narrative songs, work songs, soldier’s songs, drinking songs, children’s songs, dance songs, evening and morning songs (serenades and mattinate), lullabies and prayers, all of these being more representative of the ones I have heard.

13. Acknowledgments
Special thanks to Therese Cooper, who provided recordings made in 1976 of folksongs sung by her father’s family (Andreoli) and her mother’s family (DellaBella), from the municipality of Samolaco in the province of Sondrio. Therese and her mother also provided confirmation of the lyrics to O Scior Sindich, found in the book Samolaco Oggi E Ieri by Amletto Del Giorgio. Two songs from Samolaco (O Scior Sindich and Sulla Montagna) are now included in this compilation. If we can decipher the lyrics to more of Therese’s songs they will be included, too.

One inspiration for this website was the book Dolomite Legacy: San Vito di Cadore to America (Gateway Press, 2006) by Eileen Menegus Debesis. My grandmother was born in San Vito, and I had learned a bit about the area from my family and from Cadorin gatherings in New Jersey, but Eileens’s book (available on, etc.) provides the history and culture of that region in detail, as well as some stories about the Cadorin who settled in my hometown in New Jersey. Eileen also suggested the addition of a few songs to this compilation, songs that she had sung as a member of a choral group while she was in San Vito, and she kindly confirmed the lyrics.

The Casa Italiana in Washington DC ( is a wonderful resource for Italian language and culture. I thank its president, Dr. Joseph Lupo, and Father Ezio Marchetto, pastor of Holy Rosary Church next door to it, for their kind suggestions and encouragement. I am especially grateful to Flavia Colombo, Assistant Director at Casa Italiana, for her help in transcribing several of the songs (12 so far . . . ) and for her patience with my rudimentary Italian.


One thought on “Introduction

  1. This website is comprehensive and clear. Wonderful job! A lot of hard work.
    I left a comment about the photo, and received the message, “in moderation.” What does that mean?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s