Migrant Songs

Claudio Zonta SJ

 Claudio Zonta SJ / Music / Published Date:30 July 2021/Last Updated Date:12 September 2021

Free Article

The theme of migration has been part of the Italian popular music scene since the beginning of the 20th century, for example in songs such as Nebbi’ a la valle (Mist in the Valley), a traditional lament from Abruzzo about olive pickers in the Maiella area. This ballad was later recorded with the title Cade l’olivo (The Olive Falls) by Giovanna Marini and Domenico Modugno, and  became more famous as the hit Amara terra mia (Bitter Land of Mine). The main theme is the pain felt in leaving your own land, which, in the song, is described with the same emotion as leaving one’s love: Farewell, farewell love, I go away / Bitter land of mine, bitter and beautiful.[1]

This song speaks of an internal migration that involved detachment from one’s roots and family affections, themes also found in E cantava le canzoni (And He Sang the Songs) (1978) by Rino Gaetano, which tells about the movement from the South of Italy to the North: And the emigrant left  / And he carried supplies / And two or three magazines / And the emigrant left /  Returning from the country / With a photograph of Bice / Beautiful as an actress.[2] The text, through the repetition of “and” at the beginning of each verse and the percussive rhythm, almost reflecting a forced march, makes palpable the length of the journey, while the refrain And he sang the songs he heard at sea,[3] with words in the Sicilian dialect recalls nostalgia for the abandoned land, as well as the change of rhythm typical of popular songs.


La Civilta Cattolica

Songs of emigration

The songs of the 1970s also deal with and bear witness to the phenomenon of Italian migration abroad, that is, the migration that forced people to go beyond national borders. This flow knows three broad phases: the first from 1861, after the Unification of Italy; the second after the Second World War; and the third in the 1970s.

Amerigo (1978) by Francesco Guccini belongs to this period of Italian migration. He explains the song to Massimo Cotto in the volume “Un altro giorno è andato” (Another Day Gone): “I have always been fascinated by the idea of a song about Enrico, my great-uncle who emigrated to America. There is a continuous comparison between his America – marginalized, fatigued, defeated – and mine, made up of myths and what I imagined, journeys of fantasy. The images do not overlap, but remain distant from each other: his America of work and blood, toil in the morning and evening […], and my America, a sweet country, a world of peace.”

Guccini remembers his already elderly relative with shaved skull and a mysterious strange device / A hernia belt that looked like a gun holster. These were signs of a hard life in the mines: And it was work and blood and it was equal fatigue morning and night. […] Anthracite sweat in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri. […] He returned as many do, with little money and his youth now over.[4] Even the music tries to emphasize the roughness and harshness of the miners’ lives. The sound of the guitar is measured, rhythmic and constant as the pickaxe of the miner who splits the rock in order to survive. In other parts it takes up some typical techniques of American songwriters, who were starting to denounce the exploited conditions of workers.

Migration to the United States by Italians also appears in Francesco De Gregori’s album Titanic (1982), through three tracks, which constitute a trilogy: L’abbigliamento di un fuochista (The Stoker’s Clothes), Titanic and I muscoli del capitano (The Captain’s Muscles).

The first song recalls the structure of the dirge Il pianto della Madonna (Our Lady’s Weeping), by Jacopone da Todi, in the dialogue between the Madonna and Christ on the cross. In De Gregori’s song a painful dialogue between mother and son is recounted, once the young man has decided to emigrate, and then embarking on a ship sailing to the United States, becoming one of the many crucified of history. The Roman singer-songwriter was inspired by Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel America, in which the protagonist Karl Rossmann embarks on a ship bound for New York, and makes friends with the stoker.[5]

The drama is expressed from the very first stanzas from the mother’s point of view: Son with what eyes, with what eyes must I see you / With worn-out pants and these new shoes.[6] We note the repetition of the term “eyes,” which intensely reflect the mother’s anxiety, and the sense of obligation in “must”: a need imposed by the pain of the awareness that it will be the last image that will remain impressed on her memory. The mother’s torn heart is also signaled by “worn out pants,” which indicates the misery of a laborious, and “new shoes,” an expression of the hopes of a mother who desires the best for her son.

The drama continues with the mother’s awareness that her son, although still physically in front of her eyes, is already heading elsewhere: Son with one foot still on the ground and the other already in the sea.[7] It seems that the poor continue to suffer their deprived condition wherever they go: Oh mama they steal my life when they make me work / For a few dollars in the boilers, below sea level.[8] The presence of the consonant “m” almost simulates a stuttering of syllables, perhaps reflecting fear of the unknown, or out of a negative presentiment toward this black ship that they tell me cannot sink.[9]

In the final part of the song there is also a hint of the prejudices that people have toward foreigners: And you’ll go and confuse your face with the faces of other people / And you’ll probably get married in an American brothel / And you’ll have children with a strange woman who doesn’t speak Italian.[10] The mother’s fear is exacerbated by the fear that her son might get lost, mixing with other people – i.e. with a people that is not his own – and end up marrying a “strange” woman – a foreigner to Italy – who has other customs and traditions that are not understood and recognized, because they are different from those of his own culture.

In Titanic – “a long litany recounting the first days at sea of a ship that is more than a ship, a shining symbol of modernity, of blind faith in technology”[11] – there is also a reference to emigration. In fact, in addition to those who travel first class, we find those who travel in order to escape misery: “But who said that in third class, third class is a bad way to travel / this berth looks like a double bed, it’s better than being in a hospital / they have always called us peasants but here they treat us like lords / and when it rains we can stay inside but in good weather we come outside.[12] From the point of view of language, the passage is full of terms belonging to the sphere of poverty, such as “third class,” “peasants,” which is the antithesis of “gentlemen”; and the syntax also belongs to an uneducated style, with the doubling (“that when”), typical of colloquial language and little education.

Migration to South America is also recounted by the singer-songwriter Ivano Fossati, in a song with an evocative title, Italiani d’Argentina (1990), with a poignant refrain – We broadcast from a house in Argentina / With the radiophonic expression of those who know / That the distance is great / The memory bad and close / And no tango ever again / Will please us[13] – that underlines the distance from one’s native land, a memory that still causes a deep pain and that no music, not even the seductive and enveloping Argentine tango, will be able to heal.

Songs of immigration

Italian songs also bear witness to the migrations that have taken place into Italy, such as those from Albania. From a historical-political point of view, it also had at least three different phases: the first starting in 1991 and the second in 1997, caused mainly by the bankruptcy of much of the nation’s financial sector, which caused a period of poverty and misery.  The third phase was in 1999, when the war in Kosovo broke out, during which about 100,000 Albanians left their country.[14]

These migrations are also recounted in the famous film Lamerica (1994), directed by Gianni Amelio, set right after the end of Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania and the economic collapse caused by the transition to capitalism.

The singer-songwriter Samuele Bersani, remembering the first phase of this immigration of Albanians, wrote the song Barcarola Albanese (1994). The song has a simple structure with a piano accompaniment. Its low notes create an undulating motion, almost a sea swell, which the sound of the strings also emphasizes. The lyrics begin in medias res, with the refugee already on the ship – metaphorically described as a walnut tree – which has survived the sea crossing and is about to land on the coast: I’m going fast over this walnut tree / Out of danger / The waves are glass, meters high / But I’m overcoming them / The sun is moving and you can already see the coast.[15] The waves are compared to glass, because of the pain that the splashes of the brackish and icy water cause to the faces of the sailors. And if the shore is a metaphor of hope and joy – We will be free forever / We will be able to visit Rimini – reality soon shatters dreams: Come away! There are the policemen / What a disappointment, there is no television.[16]

The text describes the collapse of expectations through a symbol – there is no television – which represents the commonplace according to which it is thought that immigrants, seeing television commercials expressing the happiness and serenity of Italian families, decide to leave their country to try their luck in Italy. From the joy of arrival, one quickly moves on to a sense of precariousness, which becomes the existential condition of the emigrant who lives in limbo, conditioned by being in a hostile and foreign country far from home; the expression per ora son vivo (I’m alive for now) indicates the temporariness of existence, living in the present, without knowing what will happen tomorrow.

The song concludes with music, accompanied by sung vocals and the sound of thunder in the background, hinting at the drama of the situation.

Beyond the borders

The phenomenon of migration, with its problems of poverty, hard work and racism, is not only attested in Italian song, as can be seen in Deportee – Plane Wreck at Los Gatos by the popular American balladeer, Woody Guthrie. He was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, and is considered the first true American folk singer. He later inspired musicians like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and writers like Kerouac. His songs describe the daily life of workers, the struggles for rights, strikes and the fight for survival. He himself says, “I saw the hundreds of thousands of stranded, broke, hungry, idle, miserable people that lined the highways all out through the leaves and the underbrush. I heard these people sing in their jungle camps and in their Federal Work Camps and they sang songs I made up for them over the airwaves.”[17]

The song Deportee recounts a true story: on January 28, 1948, in California, 28 Mexican workers died in a plane crash. They were about to be forcibly repatriated to Mexico because their residence permits had expired. They were seasonal workers, mainly employed to pick fruit. The radio report announced that “only” deportees had died. Guthrie wrote the lyrics of this song, which was set to music 10 years later by Martin Hoffman, and sung for the first time by Pete Seeger in 1958. It has remained a song symbolic of the struggle for the rights of workers, of migrants, a tale that recalls injustice toward the poor. It has been interpreted by the singer Joni Mitchell in 1964, and later by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and also by Edoardo Bennato.

The song begins by describing the harsh conditions in which Mexican seasonal workers find themselves: The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting / The oranges are packed in the creosote dumps / They’re flying you back to the Mexico border / To pay all your money to wade back again. Workers are equated with goods to be transported, “packed” to be brought back across the Mexican border to the places they came from.

The author’s point of view considers the clichés with which seasonal workers are viewed: Some of us are illegal, and others not wanted / Our work contract’s out and we have to move on / Six hundred miles to that Mexican border / They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves. It is not difficult to observe how these prejudices regularly accompany foreigners, especially if they are poor and looking for a land to live on. “Outlaws,” “rustlers” and “thieves” are in fact terms that can still be read and heard daily on social media today when talking about migrants.

The song’s refrain contrasts the narrator’s point of view with that of the press: Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita / Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria / You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane / All they will call you will be “deportees. In fact, the radio announced that “only” deportees died, but Guthrie calls them by name: Juan, Rosalita, Jesus, Maria, showing their value against those who want to belittle them. This dynamic of depersonalization has occurred throughout history, in the violence in the concentration camps, in the many shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea, and also with respect to those who continue to die from Covid-19 every day in hospitals: the sheer number creates invisibility and numbness, depriving the person from human value.

Raising awareness

Woody Guthrie’s Deportee is also featured on a double album, entitled Yayla: Musiche Ospitali (2018), by Centro Astalli of Rome (Jesuit Service for Refugees) released by the record labels Appaloosa Records and Downtown Studios of Pavia. This musical project – concluded with the recording of a double album – has behind it a long period of observation, reflection and life experiences in the world of forced migration. It has two “Pillars of Hercules”: the first, in the Mediterranean Sea, crossroad of cultures and religions, theater of clashes and encounters of civilizations, around which Europe was conceived; the second is represented by migration, described by the term “yayla,” which indicates, in Turkish, the transhumance, the seasonal migration of the shepherds of Anatolia with their flocks to the mountain pastures.

The album constitutes a true musical journey undertaken by musicians, actors, writers and refugees. It is a human experience based on cultural encounter, crossing the border of distrust, which is revealed in a music that is lost among seemingly limitless geographies. People remain migrants: migrating is in their nature, both when the journey is one of choice and discovery, and when pain and exile tear the soul. Among the many artists who have participated in the musical project are Edoardo Bennato, Antonella Ruggiero, Saba Anglana, Neri Marcorè, Erri De Luca and Valerio Mastandrea, who have sung and acted, sometimes playing together with refugee musicians.

In the album, Deportee is sung by Italian-Canadian Sara Jane Ceccarelli, in a duet with Paul-Jones Kokou, originally from Togo, who translated part of the lyrics into French, showing how the issues addressed are still current and the rights of seasonal workers are still far from being confirmed in a dignified manner.

In the album there are also some stories of refugees on their journey before arriving in Italy, interpreted by actors such as Donatella Finocchiaro, who is accompanied by the sound of Isaac De Martin’s guitar and the violin of Alaa Arsheed, a Syrian musician from Suwayda, who fled to Lebanon in 2011 because of the war, and then arrived in Italy. Also interesting is the song Ithaca or Milan, a sound encounter between the Syrian violin of Alaa Arshed and that of Michele Gazich, author of the song. In his music Gazich keeps traces of multiple cultures, from Istanbul to Zadar, from Saint Louis to Venice, all places in which his family has lived.

Jono Manson, American singer-songwriter and producer, translates into English L’isola che non c’è, by Eugenio Bennato, under the title “Never Land,” an evocative and famous song that puts into tension dream and reality, desire and hope, in search of a world where there is greater justice and solidarity: Neither hate nor violence, neither soldiers nor weapons / Maybe it’s just the island that isn’t there, that isn’t there.[18] The song is also symbolic from the point of view of the geographical places it manages to touch: in fact, the song was recorded in a New York, by Jono Manson, another part in Pakistan by Saif Samejo, a musician and singer of the Pakistani Sufi folk group The Sketches, while Edoardo Bennato, author of the famous song, re-recorded some verses in Naples.

With different eyes

The process of migration to Italy of refugees from the wide basin of the Mediterranean has provoked in the singers a dynamic of reflection that has led them not only to describe the dramas that the migrants have experienced, but also to identify with them, trying to experience the same feelings they experienced in the moment of escape from their land. The song Stiamo tutti bene (We’re All Fine) by Mirkoeilcane, presented at the Sanremo Festival in 2018, shows the point of view of a child of seven and a half taken away from the last soccer game: Tackle, dribble, shoot at goal / And the goalie can do nothing about it,[19] reminiscent of another little boy, Nino, the protagonist of the hit La leva calcistica della classe ’68 (Footballers Born in ’68) by Francesco De Gregori, who picked up a ball that seemed bewitched, / Next to his foot it remained glued, / He entered the area, shot without looking / and the keeper let it pass.[20]

So too Mario, the child of the song We’re All Fine, must suddenly leave the soccer field, symbol of play, of the game, that is, the fundamental experience of childhood, to embark on a rubber dinghy: Sitting in half a meter of space / And like me and the other two hundred / All intent on praying / And I would just like to get up and dribble.[21] The dramatic journey is seen through the eyes of a child and, while listening, it is inevitable that one wonders how much of those children’s childhood, their growth and serenity is being taken away: how will they become adults, after their childhood has been torn and wounded?

A more adult point of view is present in the song “Rock” (2006) by Gianmaria Testa: Here’s a guy shouting / and you have to leave / and my father he’s not here / he’s left alone to chew the road / because he says that well / it’s gonna be war anyhow / wherever you go / I left him at home on the doorstep.[22] The Piedmontese singer-songwriter is the interpreter of detachment – in the same way, on the Italian side, as in the song mentioned above, L’abbigliamento di un fuochista (The Stoker’s Clothes) – which focuses on the uprooting of affections: the last farewell of a son who will no longer be able to see his native land or his father. The “door of the house” becomes the limit that, once crossed, will lead to the unknown, without security and certainty. And it is precisely a home, a job, a land, a family that the migrants seek, attempting the journey based on the last hope that keeps them alive.

Migrant music

Music can be more than a reflection and a narration of migrations: currently, in fact, there are migrant musicians composing music that testifies the intertwining of different cultures.

In recent years, the migratory process has reformulated the idea of music in Italy as well, provoking – with a process, in some respects, similar to Blues and Gospel in the United States after the deportation of African slaves – blending and mixtures that have generated different sounds, maintaining a national imprint, but with colors that derive from the Mediterranean basin and Africa.

An expression of this new musical style may be found, for example, in the Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio. In the pages of their website we read: “The Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio was founded in 2002 by artists, intellectuals and cultural operators with the desire to enhance the Piazza of the Esquiline Hill in Rome, from which the group takes its name, the multi-ethnic district of the city, par excellence.” As can be seen from the programs presented, they start from the classics – such as, for example, operas such as Carmen, The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni – which are revisited with an ethnic influence: African and Indian percussion, oud, kora, as well as instruments of the classical tradition and rhythms belonging to the whole Mediterranean basin.

There are also more individual and pop expressions, such as that of young Chris Obehi, who escaped from Nigeria and, after a journey lasting five months, passing through prisons in Libya, managed to land on Lampedusa. His debut album is entitled Obhei, which in Esan language means “hand of an angel,” and includes, in addition to his own compositions in English and Italian, an interpretation of the song in Sicilian dialect Cu ti lu dissi (Who Told You So), a tribute to the singer Rosa Balistreri. With the song Non siamo pesci (We’re Not Fish) he won the “Targa SIAE Giovane Autore” at the Music Against Mafia Awards. It is a song that recounts excerpts of life and the feelings of those who decide to leave: That day I left home and hoped to return soon / sometimes life cannot be predicted / I heard a groan in the darkness / and all I saw was a child at the bottom of the sea / forced to live as a fish.[23]


As we have seen from this musical journey, the song has become a constant spokesperson for the struggle and pain of those who have been forced, due to poverty, war or lack of rights, to undertake journeys in search of a better life.

Songs, moreover, have always denounced, narrated and interpreted aspects of migratory phenomena, both when they involved internal displacement and when they turned into movements of emigration and immigration. They have told, finally, individual stories that could become a symbol of universal value, of respect and welcome, echoing the words of Pope Francis, who, during the Mass for the sixth anniversary of his visit to Lampedusa, said: “They are people; it’s not just about social or migration issues!”[24]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 8 art. 8, 0821: 10.32009/22072446.0821.8

[1] Addio, addio amore, io vado via / Amara terra mia, amara e bella.

[2] E partiva l’emigrante/ E portava le provviste / E due o tre pacchi di riviste / E partiva l’emigrante / Ritornava dal paese / Con la fotografia di Bice / Bella come un’attrice.

[3] E cantava le canzoni che sentiva sempre a lu mare.

[4] Colpiva il cranio raso e un misterioso e strano suo apparecchio / Un cinto d’ernia che sembrava una fondina per la pistola, segni di una vita dura in miniera: E fu lavoro e sangue e fu fatica uguale mattina e sera. Sudore d’antracite in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri. Tornò come fan molti, due soldi e giovinezza ormai finita.

[5].  Cf. F. De Gregori, I testi. La storia delle canzoni, Florence, Giunti, 2020, 229.

[6] Figlio con quali occhi, con quali occhi ti devo vedere / Coi pantaloni consumati al sedere e queste scarpe nuove nuove.

[7] Figlio con un piede ancora in terra e l’altro già nel mare.

[8] Ma mamma a me mi rubano la vita quando mi mettono a faticare / Per pochi dollari nelle caldaie, sotto al livello del mare.

[9] Questa nera nera nave che mi dicono che non può affondare.

[10] E andrai a confondere la tua faccia con la faccia dell’altra gente / E che ti sposerai probabilmente in un bordello americano / E avrai dei figli da una donna strana e che non parlano l’italiano.

[11]. Cf. F. De Gregori, I testi…, op. cit., 233.

[12] Ma chi l’ha detto che in terza classe, che in terza classe si viaggia male, / questa cuccetta sembra un letto a due piazze, ci si sta meglio che in ospedale. / A noi cafoni ci hanno sempre chiamati ma qui ci trattano da signori, / che quando piove si può star dentro ma col bel tempo veniamo fuori.

[13] Trasmettiamo da una casa d’Argentina / Con l’espressione radiofonica di chi sa / Che la distanza è grande / La memoria cattiva e vicina / E nessun tango mai più / Ci piacerà.

[14]. Cf. O. Mehillaj, “Cenni sulla storia dell’immigrazione albanese in Italia”, in www.adir.unifi.it/rivista/2010/mehillaj/cap1.htm

[15] Vado veloce sopra questa noce / Fuori pericolo / Le onde sono dei vetri, alte dei metri / Però le supero / Il sole si sposta e già si vede la costa.

[16] Saremo liberi per sempre / Potremo visitare Rimini…Vieni via! Ci sono i vigili / Che delusione, non c’è televisione.

[17]. W. Guthrie, My Life, 1947.

[18] Niente odio né violenza, né soldati né armi / Forse è proprio l’isola che non c’è, che non c’è.

[19] Scarto, driblo, tiro in porta / Ed il portiere non può farci niente.

[20] prese un pallone che sembrava stregato, / accanto al piede rimaneva incollato, / entrò nell’area, tirò senza guardare / ed il portiere lo fece passare.

[21] Seduti in mezzo metro di spazio / E come me e gli altri duecento / Tutti intenti a pregare / Ed io vorrei soltanto alzarmi e palleggiare.

[22] Qui c’è uno che grida / e si deve partire / e mio padre non c’è / è rimasto da solo a masticare la strada / perchè dice che tanto / sarà guerra comunque / e dovunque si vada / l’ho lasciato alla porta di casa.

[23] Quel giorno ero uscito da casa e speravo di tornare presto / a volte la vita non può essere prevista. / Ho sentito un gemito nell’oscurità / e tutto quello che ho visto era un bambino in fondo al mare / costretto a vivere da pesce.

[24].  Francis, Homily of the Mass for the seventh anniversary of his visit to Lampedusa, at www.vatican.va