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De Gregori Sings Dylan in New York and History Returns to Being About Us

La Voce interviews the Roman singer-songwriter who after almost 50 years will perform in New York for the first time in his career

Francesco De Gregori in concert during his European tour, where he also performed in Paris and Brussels before arriving in Boston and New York (Photo by Enrico Torneria)

Following his performance in Boston, Francesco De Gregori will perform at The Town Hall in Manhattan on November 7th, to also bring “his” Bob Dylan in Italian: “I hope to have preserved his sound, which was the first problem that I took on, even before the lyrics”. Which song would you like to dedicate to the Italians in America? “It would be inevitable to tell you, ‘Viva l’Italia’, but I’ll also sing…”

After more than 25 years as a journalist, it scared me to feel my heart beat, almost taking my breath away. I answer the call to my phone interview with Francesco De Gregori: “Hello? Yes, this is Francesco De Gregori… Ah, yes, we’re speaking in Italian with New York, nice”.

Excitedly, I mumble that I saw him for the first time in Palermo, at the Favorita Stadium when I was 15 years old and he was singing with Dalla for the Banana Republic tour: “I remember the concert well. The stadium was bursting, I never saw one like that”. Now, Francesco gives me a reality check: “Stefano, you seemed younger by the sound of your voice”. I don’t ever refer to someone using the informal “you” in my interviews, and yet, I continue to call him Francesco without restraint.  “Come on, let’s start, because I don’t have much time”, and he says this with a disappointed tone in his voice, not as a star. “How much time can you give us, Francesco?” “I have only 10 minutes, then right away afterwards I have another interview…”  In the end, the interview will last double the amount of time, and those almost 20 minutes of conversation on the phone with Francesco De Gregori are far more intense than any other hour spent listening to prime ministers and secretaries and other high-profile people I have met in the past quarter century in New York. The reason for using that informal “you” while almost not being able to breathe due to my excitement, I will only understand at the end. When the interview is over and I thank him for making the decision to come to New York, where he will perform at The Town Hall November 7th, he reciprocates with kind words for La Voce. In that moment, I understand everything: in Francesco De Gregori, in his art put into music, I see and hear the history of a young kid in a penalty kick gone wrong, that first kiss, in that first demonstration with high school friends, I feel this impressive and excruciating need for justice and liberty after having watched Judge Chinnici blown up years before Falcone and Borsellino.

Indeed, all of the shocking emotion of feeling that I am also part of history, Sicilian-Italian-Italian American, in New York, who, while interviewing Francesco De Gregori in October of 2017, understands how much history we all still are, those who like him love Dylan, Shakespeare, and those feelings of love and justice spread by the art that travels in his songs.

The European tour has already begun, and De Gregori performs on stage, for the first time, without a beard and without wearing a hat.

Why did it take so long to come to New York?

“Obviously, New Yorkers didn’t invite me before now (he smiles, ndr). It’s their fault; I would have come even before. No, now I’m joking. I wanted to go on a small tour in the clubs, in Europe, to get out of Italy for a bit, where I’ve been playing these past years. Too many maybes. And so, I wanted to pull the plug with the Italian public and we organized this European tour. Now, I’m in Paris; I was in Munich, Zurich, then we’ll go to London. My agency suggested that I go to Boston and New York, overseas, and I was really happy to go. This is clearly a new experience for me. If someone had asked me 10 years ago, I would have come (he laughs, ndr).”

Dylan. Those who love you and know you, who read the biographies, know that you have been inspired by Bob Dylan. Does Dylan become more sentimental, more personal, or is he the same American Dylan, when he is transformed into Italian?

“I hope to have been able to preserve Dylan’s sound, which was the problem that I posed myself, even before the lyrics. Because it’s important to translate Dylan’s sound and that was the most difficulty thing to do. As for the lyrics, the drama, the sentiment of Dylan’s lyrics, I think Dylan originally wrote sentimental lyrics. Despite his surly and at times vitriolic demeanor on stage, if one were to analyze the lyrics to his songs, they would find a lot of emotion inside. And so, I didn’t do anything other than try to protect this sentiment, which in Italian doesn’t sound right. The word ‘sentimentalism’, you understand, can seem like something sugary, but it’s not that. Dylan always wrote about emotions, strong emotions; that’s what great writers do: Dylan does it the way Philip Roth does in his novels, the same way Shakespeare does in his sonnets or in his tragedies.  And so, I didn’t have to introduce this sentiment artificially in the Italian language, I tried to respect that which was already present in Dylan’s songs. And beyond sentiment, I’d define it as spirituality”.

Francesco De Gregori (Photo by Enrico Torneria)

So, do you think that Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize? Even if he didn’t go and accept it?

“The Nobel Prize to Dylan was more than well-deserved, provided that we clear up one thing that has often been misunderstood, at least here in Italy. Many have wanted to believe, or have believed, that the Nobel Prize had been awarded to him for his lyrics, therefore considering his lyrics as autonomous poetry with respect to a musical work of his. Had it been that way, it would have been wrong. In reality, the Nobel was awarded him for his complex works, which is made of music, words, and I think, even of performance. Therefore, it is the artist in his entirety that is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. And this is more than fine with me, because it would be as if today we’d given a Nobel Prize for literature to Shakespeare; let’s go back to him.  Even Shakespeare wrote about things not because they were to be read, aside from the sonnets. He wrote about things that needed to be represented. Dylan does exactly the same thing, and therefore belongs to literature exactly as Shakespeare belongs to literature. This is the way I understand it. And I believe that the Academy of Stockholm guessed right, and gave the award to Dylan’s songs, not the lyrics of Dylan’s songs, bootlegging them as poetry, because the lyrics of Dylan’s songs are not poetry”. 

This week, Italian language in the world is celebrated. This year, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation will celebrate it through cinema.  But Italian music, considering also opera, is famous world-wide. If I understood correctly, you will bring Dylan, here to New York, in Italian. You’re not afraid to perform Dylan’s songs in Italian?

“I am not afraid to sing Dylan’s songs in Italian overseas. I’ve already done it in Zurich, in Munich and in Brussels last night (Wednesday, ndr), in front of an audience that, in reality, was also largely Italian. But I’m not afraid to do it in America, because I’ve been to various Dylan concerts. The last one I went to was in Paris, and Dylan sang “Les feuilles mortes”, by Yves Montand, a famous French piece which belongs to the tradition of the French chansonnier, in the American version, I don’t know by whom translated, maybe by him, this I don’t know.  But he sang, in Paris, in English, a traditional French piece. Because it’s the music that takes over, the music wins. Dylan was right to not raise any concern, and I don’t plan on raising any concerns: this will mean that the people, the Americans that will be there, will understand it is the homage of an Italian that uses his beautiful language, because we are speaking of a beautiful language, Italian is a beautiful language, to translate a great American musician. It shouldn’t backfire, we’ll see (he smiles, ndr)”

And did you translate or did you seek help?

“No, I translated everything myself. I cut a record with 11 Italian translations, 11 of Dylan’s songs, and I translated them myself. And it was a job, on the one hand, very, very exciting, and on the other, very full of responsibility and difficult. Since I don’t speak the language, I’m not fluent in English, I consulted some literary translations by Alessandro Carrera, who is an Italian philosopher that teaches in Houston, and that wrote a book on the literal translations of Dylan’s songs, and for certain things I also based myself on it, to understand. After which time, I translated lyrics that could work well enough to be sung”.

(Photo by Enrico Torneria)

You were able to remain “De Gregori” through various generations of Italians. How do you explain this? Do you think it’s typical of singer-songwriters, therefore not just you, but rather Italian singer-songwriters that are able to touch various generations with their success? 

“I think so. Because during the 70s and early 80s, there was a formidable wave of singer-songwriters in Italy. I’m not going to sit here and list all of them, but you go from Lucio Dalla, to Bennato, to Venditti, to Baglioni, different, very different in their style, Pino Daniele. There was a huge development of talent and we wrote, all of us, each from one side or another, about things that were never wiped away with time. Today, clearly, it’s a different type of music that many listen to. Everything has changed: today rap, which didn’t exist, is perhaps the dominant genre in the world, all of this however was added to the work by Italian singer-songwriter music during those years, it didn’t substitute it; the work that we did hasn’t been nullified; it still exits. So much so, that I can verify it, personally, when I hold concerts.  That people come, and young people come. Clearly, people come that are also my age, your age or people 40-45 years old. But also 20-year-olds come, that weren’t even born when I started to work and to write”.

Which of your songs, written even many years ago, best represents, according to you, the present and current events?

“This is a very tough question. I don’t know if there is one or if there are more than one. I don’t know, some ‘love’ songs that I wrote, are still ok today, because when you talk about sentiment, about passion, that’s never dated. If you write Rimmel’ or ‘Buonanotte fiorellino’ in ’74-’75, you talk about emotions or situations that each of us can still live today, or that were lived even 500 years ago, always going back to Shakespeare. Other songs that are more tied to current events, such as songs like ‘Viva l’Italia’ or ‘La storia’, at certain points can seem dated to me, but not even that much, because the songs in any case always have a margin of sane and noble ambiguity. In other words, I have never spoken about political news in my songs. I have spoken about political and social concepts. So, I think that they’re still current even now. And I’m referring to ‘Viva l’Italia’, which is a song that I will be performing in these evenings, and when I sing it I feel that it still has a current significance and it doesn’t only refer to the period of time in which it was written”.

You referred to “La storia” before, which in my opinion is an absolute masterpiece of yours: “We are history, nobody feels excluded”. What do you think of the new people in power today, and of Earth’s powerful? Do you still think that music and the guitar help to remember that it is the people that make history? Is it still like that?

“I don’t know. When I wrote it, I was evidently very convinced of this. Now, I don’t know. But I don’t know because of everything that belongs to the political sphere in the world of today, the political tensions that human beings have between them, therefore we’re talking about war, conflicts, or we’re talking about problems tied to immigration, we’re talking about problems tied to an American presidency, or French presidency, or a very particular and difficult situation in Italy. I am very much removed from all of this: it’s been two or three years that I don’t pose any questions to myself anymore concerning these things, it doesn’t impassion me. I live the life of a citizen. I pay taxes. I think that the most noble gesture that a politician can make today, and I believe myself to be a politician, is that of paying taxes. Once you’ve paid them, to also take interest in that which is happening around the world, seems to me at my age, at 66 years old, a luxury that I can’t allow myself. I prefer to look outside my window, or read a book, or even, simply, stupidly think of myself, or of my friends, or of the relationships that I have”.

(Photo by Enrico Torneria)

Francesco, last question, even if I have many, because I wish to respect the time that you have. For the Italians that are in America, or the Americans of Italian origin, do you have a song in particular, within your large repertoire, that you’re thinking of dedicating to them? To these Italians that crossed the Ocean?

“It would be almost inevitable to answer you, ‘Viva l’Italia’, because it is a song that recalls a feeling of pride, of belonging to this nation, that perhaps, those who left, who live in America or in other European countries, feel this feeling of belonging more than we who live in Italy feel, and therefore perhaps see the more strenuous aspects of our country. Being overseas means regretting, having the ‘saudade’, as it is said. So, ‘Viva l’Italia’ could be the first immediate answer, almost banal, because it bears witness to an affection for a nation that perhaps they desire from far away. But also  ‘Titanic’, comes to mind, which is a song about that voyage, unfortunately coming to an end tragically, that wanted to connect, in a short amount of time, Europe to America. And this seems to me, how can you say, symbolic of that which has happened in the years to come and is happening today, always faster. That is, the continents are moving closer together, languages blend, social identities mix, children or grandchildren of a German or a Chinese today are American. America has always been this big globe of hospitality, this big cultural melting pot. And so, perhaps ‘Titanic’, beyond the dramatic historical ending in and of itself, can be a song considered to be a bridge between cultures.  And it’s also a song that is fun to play, it’s more rhythmic and less solemn, once in a while it also makes you laugh, at least for me, some of the characters that I put in it make me laugh. And therefore, it’s a good song to bring”.

Translated from the Italian by Emmelina De Feo


Tickets for the concert in New York 

Tickets for the concert in Boston

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