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THE GROUNDBREAKERS – ITALIAN-AMERICAN VOCALISTS BEFORE ROCK AND ROLL

ESSENTIAL QUESTION

How did the careers of Italian American vocalists in the first half of the 20th century reflect the experiences of Italian American immigrants and attitudes toward them in the wider American culture?

OVERVIEW

More than 3 million Italians immigrated to the United States in the early years of the 20th century, establishing the largest immigrant community of the period. Like many other immigrant groups, these new Americans – generally poor, sometimes illiterate – faced numerous challenges in assimilating into the larger society, from limited job opportunities to outright prejudice.

Beginning in the 1930s, and to a greater degree in the 1940s and 1950s, a group of Italian-American male vocalists achieved great success as recording artists and performers. In this lesson, students will examine the careers of these artists and what they reveal about society’s attitudes toward the Italian-American community.

“In Frank Sinatra’s voice,” argues Mark Rotella in his 2010 book, Amore: The Story of Italian American Song, “you can almost hear the suppression of decades of immigrant frustration and anger. This was the time when Italian Americans entered the mainstream of empowerment, and when they broke into popular culture.”

Students will investigate what these singers, from Sinatra to Tony Bennett and Dean Martin, brought to popular song, and why their particular style of singing made such an impression on the American public.


Louis Prima, 1947     |     Credit: William P. Gottlieb

VIDEO

IMAGES

OBJECTIVES

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The general history of Italian immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
    • The contributions of important Italian-American male vocalists to American music in the first half of the 20th century, including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin
    • How the careers of these artists reflected attitudes toward Italian Americans in the wider culture
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Examine how the careers of particular artists reflect attitudes in the society from which they emerged
    • Evaluate the extent to which the Italian roots of these singers influenced their style of performance
    • Common Core: Students will closely examine multiple sources of information, including texts, graphs, videos, and photographs, to make inferences and answer questions (CCSS Reading 1; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)
    • Common Core: Students will draw evidence from these sources and discuss how the success of the early Italian-American vocalists reflected the immigration experience of the time period (CCSS Writing 2; CCSS Writing 9)

ACTIVITIES

Motivational Activity:

1. Display this painting on the board and discuss:

  • Whom do you see in the picture? How would you describe them? For example, do they appear to be wealthy? What do they appear to be doing?
  • Where might they be going?
  • What is the mood of the painting? Do they look happy?
  • When do you think the painting was painted?
  • Inform students that the painting is called Leaving Italy for a Better Life and was painted in the 1890s. How does knowing the title and origin of the picture change their interpretation of it?

2. Distribute Handout 1: Immigration from Italy, and discuss:

  • What trend is shown in the graph? What period saw the greatest wave of Italian-American immigration?
  • Approximately how many immigrants came to the United States from Italy between 1900 and 1909?
  • Why do you think so many immigrants came from Italy during this time period? (Answers will vary; make sure students understand that immigration was largely a function of poverty in Italy and the perception of the United States as a land of opportunity.)

3. Display the photograph of the “Little Italy” neighborhood in New York City around 1900, and discuss:

  • Why might many Italian immigrants have lived in large cities? What might they have been able to find there that they were less likely to find elsewhere?
  • Do the immigrants in the picture appear to be wealthy? What evidence does the picture offer as to what kinds of things they did for a living?
  • Why might immigrant groups have commonly settled together in communities such as “Little Italy”?

4. Display the cartoon from 1888, and discuss:

  • How does the cartoon depict Italian immigrants?
  • What does this cartoon suggest about the feelings of many Americans toward Italian immigrants in the late 1800s?
  • Based on what you have seen in the cartoon and in the other images, what challenges might there have been for Italian immigrants in gaining acceptance into American society during this period?

Procedure:

  1. Explain to students that in this lesson they will go on an audio-visual gallery walk around the classroom to observe images and view videos of Italian-American entertainers from the first half of the 20th century. After visiting all the stations, students will be asked to hypothesize about how the lives and work of these entertainers reflected the changing experiences of the immigrant community. The entertainers are:
  2. The instructor will need a large poster board or sheet of chart paper for each station in the gallery walk. Each of the handouts in this lesson should be printed out and mounted in the center of a separate piece of poster board or chart paper. Each poster board or chart paper should be displayed in a separate space in the classroom, facilitating student movement around the room during completion of the lesson.
  3. If equipment permits, set up a computer listening station below each poster, allowing students to watch the appropriate videos as they move from station to station. If this is not possible, play the videos for the class as a whole.
  4. As students move from station to station, they should write their reactions to the images, text, and recordings in the open space on the poster board with fine-print markers. Students should respond to the questions posted at each station. In addition, they should be encouraged to read what others have written and respond directly to them.
  5. After students have had sufficient time to view all the stations and listen to the recordings, reconvene the class, and discuss:
    • In what ways are the recordings similar? As a group, do these vocalists have a distinctive sound? If so, what are its characteristics?
    • Why do you think so many popular male vocalists were of Italian descent? Was it just a coincidence? Or did they perhaps have an artistic sensibility that resonated with the public?
    • How might Enrico Caruso’s enormous success be different from that of the singers of Italian descent who came after him? Do you think his example might have encouraged Italian Americans to view singing as a career path that was open to them? How might Caruso’s success have made it easier for American society to embrace singers of Italian heritage? 
    • Why do you think some of these artists Americanized their names when they entered show business? Can you surmise why Caruso didn't? Compare Tony Bennett's experience, the son of a grocer, to Caruso's, an Opera star. One changed his name, one didn't. (It should be noted that Opera is an art associated with Italy, and that in Opera, unlike Pop, an Italian name might register as a mark of authenticity.) Do you think artists today would be more or less likely to change their names in this way?
    • How did being the children and grandchildren of immigrants affect these artists’ lives?
    • Based on where these singers were born and raised, what can you surmise about Italian-American life in the United States in the first half of the 20th century? Was it centered on one particular city or region?
    • How did television help some of these artists succeed?
    • Overall, does the success of these artists suggest that popular attitudes toward Italian Americans might have changed? By the early 1950s, were attitudes the same as they had been in the late 1800s? What specific evidence can you find to support your answer?
    • Why might it be easier for members of immigrant or minority groups to succeed in entertainment (or sports) before breaking into other areas? Why, for example, might it have been easier for American society to accept Italian Americans as singers than as political leaders? (The instructor may wish to point out that there are currently two Italian-American Supreme Court justices, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, noting that their appointments would have been highly unlikely in the 1940s and 1950s.) Can you identify other groups for which this has been true? Why is entertainment a vehicle through which immigrant and minority groups can gain acceptance in the larger culture?

Summary Activity

  1. Distribute Handout 2: Excerpt from Mark Rotella, Amore: The Story of Italian American Song (2010), or display the excerpt on the board. Ask for volunteers to read the quote aloud, alternating by paragraph.
  2. Discuss:
    • According to Rotella, how was Italian-American life in the United States changing in the 1940s and 50s?
    • Rotella states, “In Frank Sinatra’s voice you can almost hear the suppression of decades of immigrant frustration and anger?” What do you think he means by this? See Frank Sinatra handout for more information on the artist.
    • What is la sprezzatura? How did the Italian-American singers of the period embody this kind of charisma and coolness, according to Rotella? Do you agree with his analysis? Can you find specific evidence in any of the performances or biographies to support this idea?
    • Why might the success of Italian-American singers in this period have been largely limited to male vocalists of a certain style? For example, why do you think no female Italian-American singers achieved the level of success attained by artists such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como?
    • What does Rotella argue the success of these singers represented to the Italian-American community?

Writing Prompt:

How did the success of Italian-American vocalists in the first half of the 20th century reflect the changing experiences of Italian-American immigrants, and changing attitudes toward them in the larger American culture?

Extensions:

  1. Have students further research the life and career of any of the artists discussed in this lesson.
  2. Have students research and compile a list of other successful Italian-American vocalists from this period, e.g., Vic Damone, Al Martino, Jerry Vale.
  3. Several of the artists in this lesson were often rumored to have had connections to organized crime, particularly the Italian Mafia. Have students research these rumors and analyze to what extent they reflected factual evidence and to what extent might have reflected stereotypes about Italian Americans.  

STANDARDS

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.

  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.

  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.