Commentary on “Il suonatore Jones” (Julianne VanWagenen)
“Il suonatore Jones” (Fiddler Jones) is the most famous song from the Genovese cantautore’s 1971 concept-album Non al denaro non all’amore nè al cielo. The album was inspired by nine epitaphs from an American book of poetry by Edgar Lee Masters called The Spoon River Anthology; the title comes from a line describing Suonatore Jones in the opening song “La collina”:
“The Hill” (Edgar Lee Masters, 1915)
Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
“La collina” (Translation, Fernanda Pivano, 1943)
Dov’è quel vecchio suonatore Jones
che giocò con la vita per tutti i novant’anni,
fronteggiando il nevischio a petto nudo,
bevendo, facendo chiasso, non pensando
né a moglie né a parenti,
né al denaro, né all’amore, né al cielo?
“La collina” (By Fabrizio De André, 1971)
Dov’è Jones il suonatore
che fu sorpreso dai suoi novant’anni
e con la vita avrebbe ancora giocato.
Lui che offrì la faccia al vento
la gola al vino e mai un pensiero
non al denaro, non all’amore né al cielo.
Masters’s Spoon River Anthology was the best-selling book of poetry to date in the United States when it was first published in 1915. It is a compilation of 244 free-verse poems, all of which, except the introductory “The Hill”, are epitaphs told from the point of view of citizens of the imaginary village of Spoon River, Illinois, who lie dead and buried in the town cemetery. The book’s success made Masters a sensation nationwide, but since then his name and works, including Spoon River, have largely faded into oblivion in the U.S. In fact, when his face was printed on the U.S. 6-cent stamp in 1970, most Americans could not identify him. Yet, in Italy at that time, his name and work were still well-known and the cantautore, Fabrizio De André, was about to reignite Masters’s popularity with his 1971 album. Francesco Guccini, too, has a song that mentions Masters; his 1974 “Canzone per Piero” in the line “He’s a smart guy, you know, he reads Edgar Lee Masters” [È in gamba, sai, legge Edgar Lee Masters]. The song was the first of its kind be included in the reading list for Italian high school exit exams.
The difference in Masters’ divergent legacies in the U.S. and Italy is largely a result of the very different mythology the figure of Masters and his Spoon River has accrued, which begins with Spoon River’s first translation by the antifascist writer and Americanist, Cesare Pavese, and his student, Fernanda Pivano. The story goes that 26-year-old Pivano, with the help of Pavese, subverted Fascist censors by requesting to publish Antologia di S. River, knowing that ‘S. River’ would be interpreted as an abbreviation of the saintly ‘San River’. The supposed ruse worked and Einaudi managed to get the book past the censors on March 9th, 1943. Pavese and Pivano thus became literary partisans. During the years of the most intense resistance to the Fascist regime, they were subverting the Fascist State and Fascist culture, with pens rather than swords. This story, though widely considered apocryphal, is retold in nearly every new edition, as Spoon River and Italian partisanship have become strictly correlated in the mythology surrounding the book.
When De André released his album in 1971, he included a full-spread interview with Pivano, and in so doing, he linked Pivano’s and Pavese’s original partisanship with his own countercultural stance during the 1970s. He ends the interview thus: “Fernanda Pivano is for everyone an author. For me, she is a 20-year-old girl who begins her professional career by translating a libertarian’s book while Italian society has other tendencies entirely. It happened between 1937 and 1941, when this really meant being courageous,” in a clear reminder of the historical and political stakes.
Fernanda Pivano often remembered how she saw verses of her translation painted on buildings in 1943 and 1944 as a form of youthful subversion of Fascism, while in 1969 Pivano’s translation of the anarchist epitaph, “Carl Hamblin,” was carved on the anarchist-hero Giuseppe Pinelli’s tombstone after his death in relation to police corruption after the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan.
Antologia di Spoon River was considered to represent a revolt against conformity in Italy during WWII, and when De André released his 1971 album, he guaranteed that legacy. Fiddler Jones, remembered in De André’s “Suonatore Jones”, is the hero of the album and acts as a representation of the cantautore himself.
As a musician, Suonatore Jones resolves the inability to communicate, which De André recognizes, as many others before him, as a characteristic of the modern era. In the album’s first epitaph, “Un matto,” the theme of incommunicability is introduced: “You try to have the world in your heart / and be unable to express it in words [….] You too would go looking / for the words certain to make yourself heard” [Tu prova ad avere un mondo nel cuore / E non riesci ad esprimerlo con le parole […] anche tu andresti a cercare / Le parole sicure per farti ascoltare]. That ‘make yourself heard’, which in Italian is farti ascoltare, becomes lasciarti ascoltare when Jones describes why he plays for those who demand it of him: “you like to let yourself be heard” [ti piace lasciarti ascoltare]. Thus he implies that in the modern world musicians exist in a unique position; they do not have to fight to be heard, listened to, understood, but rather they have the pleasure of people seeking them out to listen. Musicians act as a space of communication for a modern community that struggles to find it.
Beyond the role of the musician, Jones represents the potential of the individual to free himself, to “wake up” liberty and to leave the diverse constructs “protected by barbed wire” [protetta da un filo spinato], which have confined other citizens of Spoon River. Jones chooses to leave the field untilled, and ultimately he leaves the field itself, because, as he says: “I saw liberty sleeping / in the cultivated fields” [Libertà l’ho vista dormire / nei campi coltivati]. This, for both Masters (the libertarian) and De André (the anarchist), is symbolic of a desire to create a society that is not controlled by the religious (Puritan for Masters, Catholic for De André) and bourgeois superstructures that confine individuals to act within certain productive parameters with final goals of achieving heaven and gold.
Check out this video of Jovanotti performing “Suonatore Jones” from the cemetery in Illinois where the man who was supposed to have inspired Edgar Lee Masters’ fictional character is buried.
There is also an interesting documentary, Ritorno a Spoon River, that was made in 2015 by the Italian film-maker duo Francesco Conversano and Nene Grignaffini. It was set in central Illinois and commemorates the centennial of the original publication of Spoon River Anthology.