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"C'è la luna": Anatomy of an Italian-American "Folk" Song

"C'è la luna": Anatomy of an Italian-American "Folk" Song

Joseph Sciorra (June 14, 2008)
Pete Seeger singing "C'è la luna" (1967).

An Italian-American standard turns out to have a convoluted history that belies the simplistic label “folk song.”


Searching the web for references for Neapolitan music in the United States, I came across a fascinating video clip of American folk singer Pete Seeger performing an English version of “C'è la luna." Recorded for the 1967 “Rainbow Quest” TV series, Seeger’s tune is labeled “The Butcher Boy,” followed by Ralph Marino (I couldn’t find anything on him) singing in Italian. 

There have been numerous versions of this ethnic pop classic, from Lou Monte’s 1958 “Lazy Mary” to Morgana King’s (as Mama Corleone) rendition in The Godfather. This song is usually attributed as a “Sicilian folk song.” 

Seeger comments that the song made the 1932 “American Hit Parade.” “C'è la luna mezzo al mare” on the music charts during the Depression?! A couple of clicks and I found the intriguing back story on “Behind the Hits,” an informative site based on Bob Shannon’s and John Javna’s 1986 book of the same title.
Turns out the song is based on music and lyrics by Gioachino Rossini’s 1835 “La Danza (Tarantella Napoletana),” “Sicilian seaman” Paolo Citorello claimed authorship, the Italian Book Company of New York City copyrighted it in the 1920s, it was first recorded in 1927, it was involved in a lawsuit the following year, and it was a hit for Rudy Vallee in 1938 as a novelty number entitled “Oh! Ma-Ma! (The Butcher Boy).” And the rest is history, or, at least, buried history.

The web site has excellent resources, including the excerpted decision from the copyright case to several audio files, including a version by Italian-American Rockabilly singer Tony Martin (Tony Marchianda).
The Web site quotes folklorists Frances Malpezzi’s and William Clements’s Italian-American Folklore (1992), which claims that “this almost infinitely expandable song was collected from Sicilians in Tampa, Florida, in the late 1930s,” a reference found in Manuael Ramirez’s “Italian Folklore from Tampa, Florida” Southern Folklore Quarterly 5 (June 1941): 101-106. Could it be that the Sicilian folk of Tampa actually adapted any one of the recordings from 1927, 1928, 1930, as well as Vallee’s 1938 hit? 
It seems more than likely that this so-called "Sicilian folk song" actually entered the Italian-American repertoire through the means of mechanical reproduction, becoming, in turn, an "Italian-American folk song" through vernacular performances and the reinforcement of endless recordings, ultimately returning to Italy as an example of "exportable Italianess," a global pop phenomena.

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popular in Fascist Italy).

popular in Fascist Italy). Check out the 2007 documentary Tulip Time, by Toni Boniotti and Marco De Stefanis. juegos de bob esponja


Interesting story. I think such thigs are very frequent for the States. In fact this is a country of immigrants that is why there will always be such cases. At pdf search I've found Chinese-American songs. This is extraodinary, isn't it?

lruberto's picture

And don't forget the Dutch!

I just came across another direction the song traveled (, from Holland to Italy through the Trio Lescano (Sandra, Giuditta, and Caterinetta Leschan) a Dutch-Jewish “girl band” popular in Fascist Italy). Check out the 2007 documentary Tulip Time, by Toni Boniotti and Marco De Stefanis. -Laura R.

Trio Lescano

More about how this song travelled, read it on:

I found the song also in Ecco La Radio! a movie from fascist Italy in 1940. See my videos on Youtube.

sciorra's picture


Yes, my post was all about the Bob Shannon research. Are you the director of the documentary on Trio Lescano?


sciorra's picture

the song in Italy

This is interesting for the song's use in an Italian film. I'm curious about the song's documentation in Italy.

I just read about the documentary film on the Trio Lescano, which sounds interesting. Their story is fascinating.

I wonder if My Dutch Paesan knows about them.

Joey Skee

"folk" songs

This is quite an interesting story, although in many ways not overly surprising. Scores of other “folk” songs could be mentioned, whose story is equally complex (“Ah vous dirais-je Maman”, “Happy Birthday”, “Schlaf Herzens Sönnchen, mein Liebling bist du”, "Waltzing Matilda", also arias from Italian opera that became "folk songs", etc.). It all goes to show how the term “folk song” (charged as it is with strong Romantic and Marxist overtones) obscures, rather than help make visible, the dynamics constantly taking place between oral and written traditions. It would be to everybody’s advantage to simply drop it altogether; and indeed in Anglo-American ethnomusicology it is now used almost solely to indicate a peculiar, and ideological way of looking at certain repertoires, adopted in Western culture during the 19th and 20th centuries. Interestingly, however, whenever a tune coming from the written tradition gained a second lease of life by circulating orally in certain areas, German folklorists of the early 20th century used to speak of “gesunkenes Kulturgut” (implying that everything orally circulated originates in the written tradition – which is, of course, a fallacy). I prefer to speak of “processo di oralizzazione” and, in the reverse case, of "letterarizzazione".

Another fascinating song history, I myself investigated in a very old article of mine: "Io te voglio bene assaje: a Famous Neapolitan Song Traditionally Attributed to Gaetano Donizetti", The Music Review , XLV (1984), no. 3- 4, 251- 264. Also appeared in translation in: La Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana , 1985, no. 4, 642- 653 and Studi Donizettiani , IV (1988), 163- 182.

Marcello Sorce Keller