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Italian American Victrola-Spinning

Italian American Victrola-Spinning

Laura E. Ruberto (March 20, 2013)
Laura E. Ruberto
Italian American Music Store Labels, Found on 78s and Their Sleeves

From a Massachusetts living room to a California garage—collecting and preserving Italian American soundscapes.


This is a blog post about a collection of seventy-five LPs, 78s to be more precise. But it’s also a story about transnationalism, pre- and post-World War II Italian migration, and how everyday kinds of entertainment can end up having interesting implications for how scholars document cultural histories and how we collect and preserve those histories, especially outside institutional contexts.
A few years ago, Genesio Murano, a family friend, gave my parents his collection of 78s (see attached pdf below), because he knew that they had a working Victrola. Others had previously done the same so that my parents now have dozens of boxes of 78s (well, some are actually 80 RPMs) neatly organized in the garage of their California ranch house.  But Genesio’s collection was unique in that the records were all Italian/Italian American recordings.
The collection is exclusively Italian in nature but covers a range of musical styles: opera, folk, and popular song. There’s also a lot of linguistic diversity, with recordings in Italian, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Barese, and English. The composers and performers are both Italian and Italian American. The packaging and printing, often both in English and Italian, tell us these were made with an immigrant consumer in mind. Adhesive labels from three different music stores all on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy (John Cerabino, Caruso Phonograph Co., and G. Quaranta) are still visible on a number of the records/sleeves and a Victor catalogue pamphlet, listing the available Italian-language records was neatly folded among the wax.

John Cerabino Advertisement from the New York Evening Telegram, 1916

Caruso Phonograph Co. Advertisement from the New York Evening Telegram, 1916


A section of the Victor Catalogue, found among the Murano Family LP Collection
There are some real gems in this collection: familiar names of composers and singers (e.g., Enrico Caruso, Eduardo Migliaccio/ Farfariello, Carlo Buti) as well as some obscurities (e.g., Giuseppe Spilotros singing “La predica di un prete Barese,” “A Barese Priests’s Sermon”).
Many of the pieces document significant cultural/political moments in Italian and Italian American history; they are so-called topical songs:  e.g., “Il Funerale di Rodolfo Valentino” (“Rudolph Valentino’s Funeral”); “'A Morte 'E Sacco e Vanzetti” ( “The Death of Sacco and Vanzetti”); “Partenza delle truppe Italiane per l'Africa” (“The Italian Troops Departure for Africa"). While others sound today like musical snapshots of an Italian American neighborhood (“Tony, the Ice Man” or “O Store ‘e 5 e 10”).

But what’s really special in this collection is less any individual piece but rather the existence of the collection as a whole and that it was kept together well after anyone was listening to the music any longer.
The Murano family history includes stories of transnational migration across multiple generations and countries; a criss-crossing of time, place, and people. Genesio inherited the record collection from his father, Gerardo, who had emigrated from Cairano, Italy (province of Avellino), to Caracas, Venezuela, and eventually to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Along the way he worked as a carpenter and a barber and played the guitar, sometimes with Don Alessio's Banda di Cairano. Genesio and his father are both part of the post-war wave of Italian migration—Gerardo arrived to the U.S. in 1952, Genesio in 1954. However, the LPs originally belonged to some of Genesio’s extended family who had emigrated to Pittsfield well before World War II, especially Gerardo’s siblings, Lucy Murano and Leone Murano.

La Banda di Cairano, circa 1948
Like Genesio, my father, Raffaele Ruberto, also emigrated from Cairano after World War II. He and Genesio knew each other as children in Italy, but their family’s respective migrations took them on different routes (although their fathers were in Venezuela together). Only in the last dozen years or so have they met up again in both California and Cairano. Which brings us back to the records.
The Murano family collection has been preserved—across geographies, generations, and families. Presumably, the records moved from different spaces, different homes, from living rooms to basements, to boxes, to attics, garages, moving trucks and cars. The everyday stories of the individuals who bought them, played them, listened to them—the personal stories written inbetween the groves of each record—are to a great extent lost.
On an institutional level, there are a handful of archives which focus on Italian American cultural and political history, and seldom is much made of Italian American music (the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center should be noted here as an exception, given that it holds an extensive collection of Italian American sheet music and the papers of main artists, although not their recordings). See the exhibit, Chist'è New York: The Mark Pezzano Collection of Neapolitan Sheet Music from New York, for an example of parts of Italian American music history which has been to a great extent overlooked.
Much of immigrant everyday forms of entertainment, even those forms which are part of the age of recorded technologoy (popular music, early radio and television) has not been taken seriously or at least not taken seriously enough by archivists and curators. A lot of early, ethnic-specific, reproduceable mass media was not well preserved and rarely documented on an institutional level. Looking at music collections such as this one becomes a window onto a cultural history of how immigrants and their families lived, socialized, entertained, and customized their lives.

(Many thanks to Genesio Murano for sharing with me details about the collection and his family and to Raffaele Ruberto for cataloguing the entire collection--attached as a pdf to this post.)

Addendum (April 16, 2013)- a new CD, -PAESE MIO BELLO: HISTORIC ITALIAN AMERICA- has just been released with a number of these Italian American early musical recordings.


Murano.Family.LPs_.March_.2013.pdf [open]
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