Goodbye, Bella Ciao
- August 3, 2021
- Tobias Jones
Bella Ciao has been co-opted by activists and corporations the world over. Does Italy's most famous protest song deserve a beautiful goodbye?
There’s no song in the world now to rival ‘Bella Ciao’ as an anthem for rebellions and uprisings. Where people in vastly different contexts used to sing ‘The Battle-Hymn of the Republic,’ ‘The Red Flag’ or ‘The Internationale’, ‘Bella Ciao’ is now de rigueur, heard at almost every protest march and demonstration around the world. It was sung by protesting farmers in Delhi; at Occupy Wall Street demos in New York; it has been heard in protests in Israel against Benjamin Netanyahu (‘Bibi Ciao’) and in Colombia against Iván Duque Márquez (‘Duque Ciao’). Adopted by Kurds, democrats, ecologists, and anti-capitalists, the song has recently echoed through the streets of Turkey, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Mexico.
We’ve very possibly reached peak-‘Bella Ciao.’ When the song was used as the soundtrack for one of Netflix’s most successful series (Money Heist), it felt as if an insurgents’ battle-song had been exploited to give gravitas to a cops-and-robbers show. It has become – like Bob Marley songs – something you dread because it’s so achingly familiar.
The fact that it originates in Italy, with a chorus featuring the country’s two most famous words, gives ‘Bella Ciao’ a veneer of Mediterranean glamour and poetry. The simple, minor melody and wistful lyrics about finding an invader or imposter in your house, and asking someone to put a flower on your tomb, seem to cross all borders. Often, like some virtuoso display from the Russian steppes, it accelerates as anger rises in the lyrics. It’s a song so flexible that you can twist it any way you like: the Tom Waits-Marc Ribot version is hoarse and bare; the Chumbawumba one brassy and orchestral; Marlene Kuntz-Skin’s is doleful; Manu Chao’s bouncy and Spanish.
But the song is also so well travelled not just because of its simplicity, but because it has many different sources. It can go anywhere because it comes from everywhere. There was a comparable folk song in sixteenth-century France about a woman who sees her betrothed with a rival. She takes her own life and a flower grows on her tomb. ‘Fior di Tomba’ was sung by soldiers in the First World War. There are other songs which are remarkably similar: a Yiddish melody from the Balkans has often been included in collections of klezmer music, and the tune is near-identical to a nursery rhyme from Trento (‘my old Granny sent me to the well to get water…’).
Most people remember ‘Bella Ciao’ as a partisan melody (‘One morning I woke up with an invader in my house’), and it is, in Italian minds, always associated with the Italian resistance in 1943-5. The version we know today was first sung by the Maiella and Garibaldi Brigades as they fought north through Abruzzo and Le Marche in 1944. There’s a debate about whether or not the partisan version of the song is predated by a lament sung by women working the paddy-fields in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, part of the ‘Lombardy Blues’ repertoire: ‘the day will come when all of us work in freedom’.
If it’s impossible to be conclusive about the song’s origins, though, its post-war transition into a revolutionary anthem is clearer: it was sung in Prague’s Festival of Democratic Youth in 1947, and in the 1960s became a protest song, recorded by the anarchist songwriter Fausto Amodei in 1963, and by Yves Montand (the son of a Tuscan communist who fought in the French Resistance) a year later. It caused riots and protests in 1964 when it was performed at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds with one irate spectator heckling: ‘I didn’t pay a thousand lire a ticket to hear my cleaning lady sing on-stage.’
The song’s popularity on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain came about largely because of the Yugoslav film, The Bridge (1969), which used ‘Bella Ciao’ as a recurrent melody. Soon it was being performed all over Russia and China, a concert staple for performers as diverse as the Azerbaijani star Muslim Magomayev and the ‘red Elvis,’ American Dean Reed.
But if the song seemed clearly aligned with the left-wing, its reach extended because, in many ways, it was less threatening than many Italian Communist classics, such as ‘Fischia il Vento.’ In his book about politicised songs (one of dozens titled ‘Bella Ciao’), the historian Stefano Pivato writes that it was ‘more ecumenical than ‘Fischia il Vento.’ References to Lenin, Stalin and Communism were absent and thus it was ‘certainly less aligned to a single political point of view … with its reminder about the invader, so powerful in reunification memory, the song enables the myth of the Resistance to join that of the Risorgimento.’
Toni Verona, founder of the Ala Bianca record label which co-owns the copyright to the Amodei version, agrees that ‘Bella Ciao’ has ‘exploded in the last two or three years.’ He, too, puts that down to the non-political nature of the lyrics: ‘It’s a universal song, sung by the masses. There’s not a word about the Resistance, only about freedom, that dream of humanity.’ The fact that the co-owner of the copyright says the song ‘belongs to everyone’ demonstrates just how hard it is to enforce intellectual ownership of it. The version recorded for Money Heist, like many other covers, didn’t seek permission to use the song, simply assuming it was, like so many folk songs, public property.
In an era of overlapping catastrophes and encroaching authoritarianisms, it’s handy to have a catchy, secular song which signals dissent. But in its globe-trotting success, the song has lost its punch, becoming something strangely vague and unspecific. It has been used to sell burgers in Korea and has been sung by football fans to taunt knocked-out teams (‘Messi ciao’ and so on). It’s even used by far-right nationalists in Ukraine against ‘the invader.’ The song’s two word chorus – ‘bye beautiful’ – now sounds, to me, blunt and hackneyed. It’s heretical to say so, as ‘Bella Ciao’ is a sacred exhibit of radical credentials, but I now almost long for the rally in which we no longer sing it.