C’era un ragazzo che come me… (by Sarah Annunziato, The University of Virginia)

In a May 2013 post on his Facebook page, Gianni Morandi explained the origins of the song, C’era un ragazzo che come me with the following anecdote:

It was the summer of 1966, when a boy of 20, or slightly older, left Siena with his guitar to find his fortune in the capital. It was Mauro Lusini. In Rome, in a restaurant, he met the great Franco Migliacci, who had written Volare with [Domenico] Modugno. He played him a ballad that he had composed himself, with made up English words. Franco was so struck by it that in five minutes, right after eating, he wrote the lyrics to There once was a boy who, like me, loved the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, a song that would change my career. The first time that I heard it, it gave me goose bumps. Lusini was recording it and he did not have any intention of letting me sing it. Even Migliacci, my producer, and co-author of the song, did not want me to sing a piece so different, that spoke of war and a soldier killed in Vietnam. In the end, I succeeded in convincing them both to let me record it. Then, with time, after Mauro´s version and later mine, there were many others, performed by singers from around the world. How strange the fate of some songs is! (Pagina Ufficiale Gianni Morandi, Facebook Post, May 26, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/giannimorandiofficial/videos/10151979994803438/; my translation).

Gianni Morandi went on to perform this song at the third annual Festival delle Rose in October of 1966. The ballad eventually captured the attention of the American folk singer, Joan Baez, who covered it during her concert in Rome in May of 1967, an event which made C’era un ragazzo che come me popular worldwide.

This piece belongs to a robust canon of protest songs that many Italian singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s produced in response to the Vietnam War. While C’era un ragazzo che come me was more of a mainstream song, many of the others fall into the genre of contemporary folk music. Characterized by lyrics that examined the social and political turmoil of the times, in Italy, folk was the preferred style for expressing the dissenting views of both progressive intellectuals and the working class (Antonio Fanelli, Contro Canto: Le culture della protesta dal canto sociale al rap (Rome, Donzelli:2017), 4, 47). While many of the Italian anti-war songs of the Vietnam era harshly criticize the American intervention in that nation, they also evince support for the Vietnamese people, and compassion for the young Americans sent into battle.

C’era un ragazzo che come me exemplifies this sympathetic view of the soldiers. The song narrates the war time experiences of a young American musician, from the point of view of his Italian friend. The opening lines are significant:

C’era un ragazzo
che come me
amava i Beatles
e i Rolling Stones.
There once was a boy
who, like me,
loved the Beatles
and the Rolling Stones.

In these verses, we see a clear parallel between the song’s narrator and its young protagonist, both of whom are really just carefree boys (ragazzi) with a passion for music. This approach of drawing comparisons between anonymous Italians and those more directly affected by the Vietnam war was common in many protest songs of the period, such as Leoncarlo Settimelli’s America (1968). C’era un ragazzo che come me however, does not solely focus on the similarities between its American protagonist and its Italian narrator, but rather concentrates most on the suffering that the young solider experiences in Vietnam.

 

Capelli lunghi non porta più,
non suona la chitarra ma
uno strumento che sempre dà
la stessa nota ratatata..
He no longer wears his hair long
he doesn’t play the guitar but
instead he has an instrument that only plays
one note: rat-a-tat-tat.

The young man trades his long hair for the soldier’s shaved head, and exchanges his guitar for a gun. The loss of both his hair and his instrument represent the near instantaneous passage from adolescence to adulthood, brought about so rapidly by the war. The following verses reinforce the idea of lost innocence by vividly depicting the death that surrounds the soldier in the jungles of Vietnam. Ultimately, as the song describes, he too, becomes a casualty:

Non ha più amici, non ha più fans,
vede la gente cadere giù:
nel suo paese non tornerà
adesso è morto nel Vietnam.
He has no more friends, no more fans
All he sees is people falling down
He’ll never return to his country
now that he has been killed in Vietnam.

C’era un ragazzo che come me ultimately stands in opposition not only to the Vietnam War, but also to the practice of conscription, which it evokes in the verses that discuss the arrival of a letter that interrupts the protagonist’s journey through Europe. In this regard, it is similar to other protest songs of its time, such as Guerra per forza (War Against My Will, Illario Da Costo and Luciano Filippi, 1969). Together, the cannon of anti-war songs from the Vietnam era provide the present-day listener with a fascinating glimpse into the often neglected Italian response to the tumultuous events which engulfed American society in the 1960s and 1970s. A version of “C’era un ragazzo che come me” was recorded in 1967 by Joan Baez, singing in Italian.