San Felese National Anthem
By Tom Frascella Jan. 2012
At our 2011 Christmas Luncheon I made a remark about teaching some of our young members how to sing the San Felese national anthem. A few “older” members who understood the reference laughed, some of the folks in attendance who were not of San Felese ancestry probably thought I was referring to the Italian National Anthem, but most people there were simply too young to understand the reference.
Sometimes I forget that with the passing of time many of our traditions are getting lost or not being passed on to the next generation. You probably have to be at least fifty-five years old to remember when and how the song I was referencing was even sung. Therefore this might be an appropriate time to discuss the song and explain its history.
First, despite what it is called the song is not a national anthem and not from San Fele, The song is of San Felese-American origin although I think that the folk tune that accompanies the words is probably an old Italian folk melody. It is a song that harkens back to our ancestors earliest days as immigrants in America working as contract labor. In other words the song dates back to the 1860’s thru 1880’s.
To set the back drop for the song, many of our ancestors came to America as contract labor, signed up for five to seven year stints building railroads, bridges or as labor at some of the public projects of the era. The work was hard, and often placed them in remote locations where living conditions were more or less tent city arraignments. They labored nine months a year and ten to twelve hours a day for wages that were often forty percent less than what “American” workers were paid for the same work. They carried their belongings with them and often these possessions consisted of little more than one change of clothes if that. And then there were the winter months to contend with.
In winter project work and pay would stop. There was no such thing as employee benefits or unemployment benefits. Groups of immigrant San Felese / Lucanian men, temporarily unemployed would drift back to the poorest, cheapest and often dirtiest shelters they could find which generally meant the five points of the lower east side of New York city. There they would rent a shared room and stack ten to twelve people in without heat, running water or any kind of healthy amenity to wait out the freezing Northeast winters. If they were lucky they would find occasional day work, digging latrines, hauling waste, collecting rags, shining shoes, singing and playing musical instruments on street corners etc. This was the way they passed the long dark winters often wearing in layers all the clothes they owned.
Photo: J. RIIS “ How the other Half Lives”
There was certainly nothing pleasant in the circumstances that they found themselves. In addition to the general hardship, the lack of sanitation in their living conditions made life threatening disease an ever present danger. One can only imagine the depths of despair and depression those long lonely winters 3,500 miles from home created. Indeed, none of them knew whether or not they would survive their contracts and return home or if they did survive whether their loved ones would be alive to greet them. It is natural for us to ask, how did they cope with these circumstances?
I think the key to their survival was their faith and their support of each other. They kept each others spirits up. One of the ways they did this was developing a song, a kind of music therapy and game all wrapped up in one. As I understand it the way the song worked was that it had two parts sung to a simple catchy melody. In the first part of the tune the singer would create lyrics that would complain about some absolutely miserable job he found himself doing at the time. He would complain about the job, how much he disliked doing it here, there and everywhere. In the second part of the song he would declare what he would rather be doing, which often involved some reference to being back home chasing a plump wife around a very big bed, singing and dancing with his girl friend or something of the sort. I think we can all get the picture.
Now the interesting thing about the song was that it didn’t have any set words. Each singer in turn was expected to fill in his own disagreeable job or personal preferences for a better more enjoyable occupying activity. Each participant would try to out do the previous rendition. Usually they tried to say something that was clever or at least funnier then the previous singer. In this way they would pass the time, share the misery and remember or look forward to happier times.
Now of course they would sing this in their local San Felese dialect and so it would sound a bit rough but folk songs are best sung in folk language. The song probably represents the oldest American-Italian folk song that I am aware of. It goes back to a time when mostly men without their families were immigrating and so the sense of missing their wives and families was at the forefront of their thoughts. Last year in an effort to try to preserve the song we tried to write it basic form down.
Thanks to Theresa LiVolsi, this sanitized version is what we came up with;
Non voglio fare piu il sciannetore oh li,
Non voglio fare piu il sciannetore oh la,
Per fa la amore ci voglie li figlia
Zomba la rindinella come voglia fa
Tutti li giorni sempre quello
Zomba la rindinella come voglio fa
Which we translated as;
I do not wish to be a shoe shiner here
I do not wish to be a shoe shiner there
For to make love we need girls
To sing and dance
All day long
To sing and dance
Of course through the years I have heard many of my parents’ generation recollect in conversation that their ancestors had spoken about being “bootblacks” as the song here implies as it was one of the first “independent” occupations that many of our ancestors could work at when they arrived. As they had limited if any English language skills simple business transactions were about all they could do without language help.
We have made some effort to check with our cousins in New York regarding whether they recall the song being sung in their communities. So far we haven’t found anyone there that recollects the song. It would appear that the song held on longer and remained more popular in the Trenton area than in New York. I believe that a possible reason for the longer popularity of the song locally is related to the how and why the song became known as the San Felese National Anthem in the Chambersburg section of Trenton at the turn of the 20th century.
What I was told was in the early 1900’s when Italian immigration began to peak the new arrivals, who were often from other regions of Italy, would sometimes complain about the living and working conditions they found here. The San Felese who in many cases had been here for decades would respond that the new arrivals had no idea how bad conditions used to be for them. As a way of saying that you had to make the best of it and keep your spirits up the San Felese would sing their little song. The response from the new arrivals would be, we know you were here first and here you go again singing the San Felese National Anthem. The old timers would think that calling the song that was funny and they keep signing it. I think that is how it continued to be sung.
One of the things that I found interesting when I would hear my grandparents’ generation sing the song was that sometimes the women would join in the signing teasing out the lyrics in their own way. One of the observations that Prof. Stia makes in his book is that because of the long work related absences of the men, the women of San fele had to assume greater family and village responsibilities. As a result, San Felese women became quite independent and assertive in their own right in the late 1800’s. Prof. Stia reflects that the labor situation caused a major cultural shift within the village from a male dominated culture to a more equalized partnership. I think that women joining in the singing of the lyrics was their way of asserting that they too had to deal with difficult circumstances. I always found that there was a certain equality between the sexes in the way they would both contribute to the song. But anyone who grew up in a San Felese-American household knows that women were very much a part of all decision making
Hopefully, the above helps open a little window into the past from which we can appreciate an aspect of the degree of sacrifice so many of our ancestors made making a home for us.
© San Felese Society of New Jersey
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