In the Key of Disney

When talking about the history of popular music, it is safe to say that there are few individuals as important as Brian Wilson. A true genius who has influenced artists from The Beatles to Questlove of the Roots, he’s a master songwriter, performer, and producer. Beyond his lyrical brilliance, he is a  master of harmony and melody. He crafts beautiful, complex orchestrations that are endlessly fascinating. They’re the types of songs that seem to constantly surprise. Even more impressive? He manages to package those intricate arrangements in catchy melodies.

It makes sense that his path would eventually cross with that of Disney. Music has always played an integral part in the wonderful world of Disney, and the company has given the world some of its best-known and best-loved songs. 

In 2011, Wilson released the album ‘In the Key of Disney’, a collection of 11 Disney songs (13 if you count the two bonus tracks exclusive to Amazon) as interpreted by Wilson. It was the second album he released through Walt Disney Records, with the first being a 2010 tribute to George and Ira Gershwin called ‘Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin’. 

The finished product is a delightful and entertaining album, combining iconic Disney melodies with Wilson’s masterful arrangements. But to truly understand the record, it’s worth getting a look at how Disney has intersected with his career over the years

When a Star is Born

Born in 1942, Wilson grew up in California–the state he would go on to immortalize in countless songs. In an interview prior to the release of “In the Key of Disney”, Wilson discussed how Disney music shaped his musician sensibilities.

“I was driving in the car with my mother and my aunt and on the radio came ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,” Wilson said. “It taught me how to sing a little bit. By imitating Rosemary Clooney I was able to learn to sing.”

The recording in question was Clooney’s 1955 record ‘When You Wish Upon A Star/It Might As Well Be Spring’ with Harry James and his orchestra. 

Curiously, this would not be the only time the song would play a major role in Wilson’s life. 

Like Dreamers Do

In 1960, the Bronx’s Dion and the Belmonts released their second album. It was titled “Wish Upon a Star” and featured tracks like ‘In the Still of the Night’, and ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, the classic song from Disney’s 1940 film Pinnochio. 

Their interpretation of Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s Disney masterpiece is a dreamy bit of doo-wop that borders on pop perfection. The harmonies are gorgeous and the delicate instrumentation is reminiscent of Les Paul and Bing Crosby’s ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Time’. It sounds like a languid summer night. 

A young Brian Wilson was particularly taken with the number. Still new to songwriting, he was attempting to pen a piece for then-girlfriend Judy Bowles.

“Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life,” Wilson said.  “I was 19 years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”

The song’s melody and structure were both influenced by the Dion & the Belmonts cover, having the same AABA format (a 32 bar form where each section is divided into four sections of 8 bars each. The “A” sections all share the same melody, with “B” serving as the contrast). 

Celebrating the Great Outdoors

Twenty-five years after writing ‘Surfer Girl’ the worlds of Brian Wilson and Disney crossed again. This time it came in the form of a song in the Country Bear Vacation Hoedown. The show featured the characters of Gomer, Max, Buff, Melvin, and the Sun Bonnets performing ‘California Bears’, an adaptation of the massive 1965 hit by the Beach Boys.

As in the original Country Bears show, the ursine crooners sang their renditions of well-known songs, only this time they were singing about the joys of the great outdoors and summer. It makes sense that a Beach Boys tune was included, as that very description could be applied to the majority of their catalog. With songs like ‘Surfin’ USA’ to ‘Warmth of the Sun’, the Beach Boys wrote songs in praise of soaking up rays and living the good life. 

In the Key of Disney

Speaking to USA Today on the release of “In the Key of Disney”, Wilson said, “The Beach Boys sound and the Disney people make a fantastic collaboration. I tried to do justice to all their songs.” 

He accomplishes that and more with his light-hearted and sentimental interpretations of the Disney canon. The track list is a balance of old and new Disney tunes (at the time of the release).

  1. You’ve Got a Friend In Me – Toy Story
  2. The Bare Necessities – The Jungle Book
  3. Baby Mine – Dumbo 
  4. Kiss the Girl – The Little Mermaid
  5. Colors of the Wind – Pocahontas
  6. Can You Feel the Love Tonight – The Lion King
  7. We Belong Together – Toy Story 3
  8. I Just Can’t Wait to Be King – The Lion King
  9. Stay Awake – Mary Poppins
  10. Heigh-Ho/Whistle While You Work/Yo Ho (A Pirates Life for Me) – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs/Pirates of the Caribbean)
  11. When You Wish Upon a Star – Pinnochio
  12. A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes (an Amazon exclusive) – Cinderella
  13. Peace on Earth (an Amazon exclusive) – Lady and the Tramp

Speaking in a promo video from Disney, Wilson said of Disney songs, “They have a certain sweetness, you know, like ‘Stay Awake’. There’s just absolute beautiful melody. That’s my favorite song on the album. Stay awake, don’t rest your head. What a song! It’s the sweetest song I’ve ever heard. I like the harmonies, the vocal harmonies. I love the emotion in the singing. The emotion was one of estrangement and fascinating and beauty and love.”

His take on ‘Kiss the Girl’ is a highlight. The songs “sha-la-la’s” and tender musings on new love already sound like they were plucked from a Beach Boys song, making it a natural fit. ‘We Belong Together’ from Toy Story 3 is another shining moment. The surf rock style guitar line and piano take Randy Newman’s up-tempo and charming ode to friendship and transform it into a song that you could easily picture having been an early 60s radio hit. 

Wilson has also always been a master of gentle love songs, like ‘God Only Knows’ from the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece “Pet Sounds”. So, it should come as no surprise that the recordings of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, ‘Baby Mine’, and ‘Stay Awake’ are beautiful.

Altogether, the album is a joy for fans of Disney and music lovers alike, an offering to be savored and listened to over and over.  

Gonna Take You There: Zydeco on the Bayou

Princess and the Frog

New Orleans is like no other city on earth. It’s a gem settled at the base of the Missippi River, a city where the past and the present, the living and the dead, suffering and joy, all blend together. The city is an enigma, welcoming everyone who visits it but refusing to share all of her secrets. It’s a place where the living and dead seem to comingle like the best of friends.      

In 2009, Disney released “The Princess and the Frog” starring Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, and legendary voice actor Jim Cummings. The movie took the classic German fairy tale, The Frog Prince, and re-imagined it in the Big Easy. 

The majority of the songs used in the film were written by Randy Newman, the man responsible for such classic Disney songs as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story, “Our Town” from Cars, and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. Though he was born in Los Angeles, Newman spent a portion of his childhood living in the Crescent City, before alternating between family members’ homes in Mobile, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans. The experience would shape much of his music, with references to Louisiana and the South showing up in albums like Sail Away (1972), Good Old Boys (1974), and the songs “Louisiana 1927”, “Every Man a King”, “Kingfish”, and “Naked Man”. 

Along with the voice cast, Louisiana musicians like Dr. John, Terrence Blanchard, and Terrance Simien helped bring Newman’s compositions for The Princess and the Frog to life, highlighting the diverse musical traditions of the Pelican state. It is, without doubt, one of Disney’s best soundtracks, moving effortlessly between jazz, blues, zydeco, gospel, and R&B.

The music is so rich and varied that each number deserves its own article, a deep dive into the composition and the history that fed its creation.  This week, we’ll be taking a look at “Gonna Take You There”, the rollicking tune performed by the character of Raymond, a lovesick firefly. 

Before digging into the song, let’s take a look at the history of dance floor delight known as zydeco music. 

A Musical Gumbo

In 1929, Creole accordion player Amédé Ardoin and Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee stepped into a recording booth and made the first recording of a style known as “la-la music”. 

Amede Ardoin

Born in Evangeline Parish around 1898, Ardoin grew up speaking Acadian French. Embracing music, he refused to engage in the manual farm labor of his family, instead setting out around Louisana with his accordion in tow. He is said to have toted the instrument in a burlap sack as he hitchhiked the unpaved backroads from parish to parish. Along the way, he met McGee and their musical partnership began.

Dennis McGee

Mcgee was born in 1893 and also hailed from Evangeline Parish. His father was Irish and his mother was a blend of Seminole and French. He learned to play the fiddle at the feet of his grandfather, and cut his musical teeth by performing popular French dance parlor songs.

The Ardoin/Mcgee recordings give us a glimpse of a sort of proto-zydeco. As noted on Music Rising, their pairing is noteworthy not just for the music they produced, but because the laws of the time would almost certainly have prohibited them from performing together. An article in the Acadiana Advocate wrote that the pair, “crossed racial barriers and defied Jim Crow-era customs to play and record music together.”

Of course, that blending of cultures is a defining characteristic of zydeco (and the la-la music that preceded it). The influence of juré (field hollers performed by enslaved people) can be heard in the music. Listening to recordings of Ardoin, you can also how a variety of styles were married together. He ranges from waltzes to the blues, all with a driving syncopation that made the songs perfect for the dance floor. His vocals are reminiscent of those heard in the recordings of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Even his use of the accordion is indicative of the gumbo of cultures that created zydeco, with the instrument making its way to Louisiana from Germany and Austria in the 19th century.

Writing of Ardoin, Ben Sandmel notes, “he specifically exerted a profound influence upon two important musicians of the following generation: the black Creole accordionist Clifton Chenier, a.k.a. the King of Zydeco, and the Cajun accordionist Iry LeJeune. Clifton Chenier forged the zydeco sound which still defines contemporary standards by performing mainstream African-American blues/R&B hits on the accordion while singing their lyrics in French. LeJeune’s high-pitched emotional vocals and rough-edged accordion work, derived in part from Ardoin, continue to resonate in contemporary Cajun music.”

Likewise, Mcgee’s influence continues to be felt. The webpage 64 Parishes states, “Modern Cajun music is largely defined by two song styles—waltzes in a 3/4 time signature and two-steps in 2/4 or 4/4 time—but McGee was a bridge to the broader range of rural Louisiana French music from the nineteenth century. His earliest recordings testify to his intense proficiency in reels, contredanses, mazurkas, and polkas…In his lifetime, he directly taught or indirectly influenced fully three generations of Cajun fiddlers in the complex and intense archaic style of playing that would come to be known, affectionately, as the “McGee style.”

In 1954, accordion player Boozoo Chavis recorded the song “Paper In My Shoe”, generally acknowledged as the first “official” zydeco song. However, it was Clifton Chenier who truly brought the music wide-reaching fame. He scored a hit with “Ay-Tete Fee” in 1955, and would later win a Grammy award. His music took zydeco and blended it with rock and roll, but he also played R&B numbers and referred to himself as a “bluesman”. He’s credited with being the first zydeco musician to amplify his band and introduced the rubboard as a rhythm instrument. 

Clifton Chenier

The genre has continued to grow and evolve, even incorporating aspects like reggae, hip-hop, and more. It’s a living, organic tradition, that seems content to keep the party going no matter what changes history brings. As Scott Billington writes on Zydeco Crossroads, “No one could have predicted that such an idiosyncratic and regional style would flourish into the twenty-first century, or that Louisiana’s Creoles would hold so tightly to their music, even as English became their dominant language and as their rural lifestyle slipped mostly into the past. Yet, at trail rides, rodeos, dance halls, church dances, and almost any celebration, zydeco is a rallying point of the culture, and if many zydeco musicians have enjoyed the opportunity to tour the world, the music is most vibrant at home.

Going Down the Bayou

Raymond Princess and the Frog

The zydeco song “Gonna Take You There” appears in the movie Princess and the Frog as Raymond the firefly is leading Tiana and Prince Naveen to see Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess that the pair hope can turn them human after both were transformed into frogs.

Ray calls out all of his “relationals” to help guide them, introducing his enormous extended family over the course of the song. The lyrics celebrate family and community, declaring: 

We all gon’ pool together, down here that’s how we do

Me for them, and them for me, we all be there for you

Ray, as everyone calls him, is Cajun. The term refers to the descendants of Acadians who moved from French Canada to Louisiana, settling along the bayous. An article about Cajun culture by the National Park Service states, “Many lived in the bayou country where they hunted, fished, trapped, and lived off the bounty of the Mississippi River delta. Some moved beyond the Atchafalaya Basin onto southwest Louisiana’s prairies to raise cattle and rice. The new arrivals learned new skills and shared what they brought with them with the many peoples already in the area: American Indians, free people of color, enslaved Africans and their descendants, and immigrants from Europe, Asia, and North and South America.”

Ray’s love interest in the movie, a distant star glimmering in the night sky, is named Evangeline, hinting at another key element of Cajun culture. In 1847, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie”. According to the Historic New Orleans Collection, “A tragic heroine, Evangeline proved to be the perfect symbol for the Acadians’ perseverance in the face of their history of misfortune and displacement.” 

We’ll dig more into the Evangeline story in a future post about the song “Ma Belle Evangeline”, but for the time being it’s enough to know that basic connection and symbolism. Ray (and his longing for Evangeline) functions almost as the soul of the movie, continually encouraging Tiana to persevere and trust her heart, and nudging Naveen toward the growth he needs to experience.

That said, the character was not without its critics. Prior to the movie’s release, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), voiced objections to what they viewed as its stereotypical depiction of Cajun people. In their eyes, Ray, with his missing teeth and questionable intelligence, played on a common trope. Warren Perrin, President of CODOFIL, stated, “It’s a continuation of the stereotyping of Cajun people, which is inaccurate… It has been done in so many movies over so much time, people think that’s the way we are — and it’s just wrong. I can list several other movies where they have portrayed us as backward, toothless, illiterate people…”

Ray’s was provided by Jim Cummings, one of the great voice actors in animation history. Along with Ray, Cummings has performed as a plethora of beloved Disney characters, such as Winnie-The-Pooh, Darkwing Duck, Tigger, Bonkers D. Bobcat, the Cheshire Cat, Ed the Hyena, and Humphrey the Bear to name just a few. 

Prior to the movie’s release, Cummings raved that Ray was a new favorite and one whom he felt immediately comfortable voicing, given his time living in New Orleans, a city he thinks of as his second hometown. 

Speaking to Toon Zone in 2009, Cummings said, “I was born in Ohio, but I moved to New Orleans when I was about 18, in 1972. I got a job on a riverboat… many of them, for that matter, and on any number of these boats I was the only one for whom English was their first language, but yet they were all born in Louisiana. So I was really immersed in the Cajun culture.” 

Cummings performs the song with the help of zydeco musician and educator Terrance Simien. In addition to recording several albums–such as Zydeco on the Bayou, There’s Room for Us All, and Across the Parish Line–Simien is responsible for a live show called “Creole for Kidz & The History of Zydeco”, which lead to his association with Disney. 

On Simien’s webpage, Simien released a statement in honor of the film’s 5-year anniversary, reflecting on how the movie was a “game-changer” for zydeco music, crediting with “kind of Stealing the show.” 

In addition to the joy of bringing the genre to a blockbuster film, Simien viewed it as a great educational experience, later stating, “…it helped further our own mission to teach our student audiences about black roots music in ways we can never really measure – it’s been massive and opened doors to schools who would never have known what zydeco was, let alone hear the word or see an image of an accordion and a bug playing its rigged underbelly like a rubboard!”

Recommended Listening

Song: Les Blues de Voyage

Artist: Amédé Ardoin & Dennis McGee

Released: 1934

The Ardoin and McGee recordings are vital to understanding the roots of zydeco, bringing together Creole and Cajun musical styles. While McGee would live to be 96 years old, continuing to perform until shortly before his death, Ardoin would die at the age of 44 after sustaining massive injuries in a racially motivated assault. McGee would affectionately refer to Ardoin as, “une chanson vivant,” a living song.

Song: Paper In My Shoe

Artist: Boozoo Chavis

Released: 1954

Credited as the first true zydeco recording, Paper in My Shoe was Boozoo Chavis backed by Classie Ballou’s band, which did not know how to play the style. Listening to the track, this becomes obvious when you notice that Chavis and the band are not performing in the same key. As the recording session floundered, someone decided to give Chavis some booze, which helped loosen things up. According to record producer Eddie Schuler, “Suddenly there was a colossal crash in the studio, but as the take was the best so far I didn’t check what had happened until the number was finished.  When I opened the door there, before me, lay Boozoo.  He had fallen off his stool but managed to keep his accordion in the air and play on without missing a note…Afterwards I played the tapes back to see if there was anything there worth all the trouble and expense.  The number where Boozoo fell on the floor was still the best, so I thought I would edit it and then release it as a feeler to test public reaction.  The song was “Paper In My Shoe” and it was just one of those natural hits that seldom come along.”

Song: Ay-Tete Fi (Hey, Little Girl)

Artist: Clifton Chenier

Released: 1955

The first major hit for the man who would bring zydeco to prominence, Ay-Tete Fi was originally a composition by Henry Roland Byrd, better known by his performing name Professor Longhair. Chenier was also the first Creole to receive a Grammy award, and his playing style has influenced musicians such as Stanley Dural, Jr., better known as accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco. Chenier’s album Bogalusa Boogie became the first zydeco record to receive a 5-star review in Rolling Stone, and in 2016 it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.” 

Song: Walking to New Orleans

Artist: Buckwheat Zydeco 

Released: 1985

Though he was not originally a fan of traditional zydeco, he joined Clifton Chenier’s band as an organist in 1976 and quickly fell in love with the music. Speaking of the experience he said, “Everywhere, people young and old just loved zydeco music. I had so much fun playing that first night with Clifton. We played for four hours and I wasn’t ready to quit.” Two years later, he began playing the accordion and then formed his own band, releasing their debut album in 1979. Over the course of his career, he earned five Grammy nominations and one win (for his 2009 album Lay Your Burden Down). “Walking to New Orleans” is his take on the classic Fats Domino song written by Bobby Charles. While the original has a slightly melancholy feel to it, in Buckwheat Zydeco’s performance it becomes a laid back, joyous love letter to the city. 

Mickey Mouse Disco

Mickey Mouse Disco

In 2019, D23–the official Disney fan club–hosted Mickey Mouse’s Roller Disco Party at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale, California.  Guests were invited to put on their boogie shoes (or roller skates in this case) and celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the album Mickey Mouse Disco.

Mickey and Minnie were there wearing their grooviest threads, posing for photographs, and showing off their best moves alongside the “Outta Sight Skaters”. 

Mickey Mouse Disco

A similar event, called Mickey’s Disco Night, was held a month later at San Diego Comic-Con. The party took place at the House of Blues and lasted from 8 p.m. to Midnight. The official description proclaimed, “No platform shoes are too high and no jumpsuit is too sparkly for this night of funky fun!”

It was a brilliant night, and one that I’ll forever be disappointed to have missed, but Disney and Disco fans alike might be wondering: How exactly did we get here?  

You Should Be Dancing

Studio 54

Pinning down the exact origins of disco is a tricky endeavor. The genre, popularly associated with the 1970s, traces back to the 60s. In “Boogie Nights: An Oral History of Disco”, Lisa Robinson writes, “Some say the dance-club scene started in the 1960s in New York City, with discotheques…Some say the 1960s Parisian club scene…But most agree that none of this really mattered until the early 1970s, when gay underground dance clubs in New York…spawned a disco culture…”

Philly Soul, born of Philadelphia International Records, is often referred to as a sort of bridge between the world of Motown and disco, highlighting the genre’s strong ties to Black music and history. The Latin musicians of New York City also played a role in its development. A 1979 article in the New York Times noted, “During the late 1960s and early 70s, numbers of young Latinos in New York began doing Latin‐style ballroom dance steps to black soul music. During the next few years, they transformed what had been the cha‐cha into the Latin hustle, and as they mixed more freely with young blacks on dance floors, Latin and black dance music began borrowing more intensively from each other.”

David Mancuso played a huge role in the growing disco culture with his “by invitation only parties” which he held at The Loft (quite literally his loft in Manhattan). The evenings started as a simple means to make ends meet. As noted in an NPR article, Mancuso needed money to pay the rent and so he hosted, “A rent party, in the tradition of Great Migration-era Harlem sessions that involved music, dancing, and a donation to help the host make that month’s ends meet…”

David Mancuso

Subsequent parties followed with Manusco serving as the “musical host” (apparently he was not fond of the term DJ). Other clubs, like 10th Floor, opened as the disco craze grew. Eventually, such legendary venues as Studio 54 and Paradise Garage were established.

Tom Moulton was another key figure in the development of disco, a record producer who introduced the 12” inch single (a happy accident when his pressing plant ran out of smaller acetates). Because there was only one track per side, the 12” allowed the grooves on the record to be larger. Add that to the fact that they were spun at the same speed as 45s, and you had a recipe for louder records, ideal for a club environment. They also facilitated the low end (bass, kick drum, etc.) to be more prominent, making them perfect for dancing. 

The 12” single was not the only major contribution he made to the disco scene. A former model, he discovered Fire Island in New York (known for its all-night dance parties) in 1971. According to an article in The Guardian he, “hatched a plan to eliminate the awkward gap (and dancefloor exodus) between songs. Using a tape machine, he spent two weeks threading up-tempo soul and R&B into the first continuous mix.” 

He gave the world the disco break, a technique where portions of a song would drop out completely for a time. According to Moulton, these segments, “hang you off a cliff with a bungee cable. You almost hit the bottom and then you bounce back up.”

Artists like Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Chic, KC and the Sunshine Band, Earth, Wind, and Fire, the Village People, Kool and the Gang, Candi Staton, and Grace Jones were a just few of the shining stars of the scene, alongside people like composer and producer Giorgio Moroder. The genre also elevated the DJ to the role of superstar.

Earth Wind and Fire

By 1976, there were reportedly 10,000 discos in the United States alone. That number would double by 1979. In 1977, the movie Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta, brought the movement to the silver screen. Its soundtrack, primarily featuring music by the Bee Gees (with songs like “You Should Be Dancing”, “Stayin’ Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “More Than a Woman”, and others) would sell over 40,000,000 copies. 

In 1978, a disco song occupied the number one spot in America for 37 weeks. The music dominated the charts through the beginning of the following year as well. The wave of disco popularity was at its peak. Unfortunately, it was about to come crashing back to earth.  

Disco Demolition

Disco Demolition Night

In many ways, Disney’s decision to cash in on the disco movement came too late. The year 1979 saw the birth of the “Disco Sucks” movement, spearheaded by DJ Steve Dahl. He printed out “Kill Disco” membership cards, and held “anti-disco” rallies. On the radio, he would drag the needle over disco records and then play sound bytes of explosions. 

Anti-disco sentiment was spreading across the country. Small-scale events took place in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, with one featuring a DJ destroying a stack of disco records with a chain saw. 

Steve Dahl

The climax of the movement took place July 12, when Dahl hosted a “Disco Demolition” night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Fans who brought a disco album were admitted to a doubleheader for a mere $.98. Some 50,000 people attended (30,000more than anticipated). Between games, Dahl went on the field, where records were piled up, and declared, “This is now officially the world’s largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeeeal goooood.” He then proceeded to destroy them by detonating dynamite, which also blew a hole in the outfield. 

Far from being the climax, the explosion precipitated a full-on riot, with fans storming the field. They climbed foul poles, set fires, and ripped up the turf. Batting cages were destroyed and people danced around the burning records. Riot police eventually arrived, bringing an end to the chaos. 

Disco Demolition Night

The field was so damaged that the second game was initially postponed, and later forfeited by the White Sox. 

Both historians and musicians have attempted to analyze the impetus behind the movement, with many concluding that it was a backlash fueled by racism and homophobia. 

Discussing it in a 2010 Vanity Fair article, Fran Lebowitz stated, “ ‘Disco Sucks’ was a kind of panic on the part of straight white guys. Disco was basically black music, rock ‘n’ roll was basically white: those guys felt displaced.”

Discussing the rise of the 12” single and its impact on hip-hop and disco, legendary musician and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne noted that, while some of the anger may have stemmed from traditional musicians being supplanted in the new genre, there was also an undercurrent of culture war involved, writing, “The reasons largely have to do with race and homophobia–many of the most popular dance clubs were black, gay, or both.”

For his part, Dahl denied any kind of bigotry was involved in the protest, stating, “The worst thing is people calling Disco Demolition homophobic or racist. It just wasn’t … We weren’t thinking like that…We were just disenfranchised, 24-year-old males.” In another instance, he said, “I’m worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe. The event was not anti-racist, not anti-gay … we were just kids pissing on a musical genre.”

Mark W. Anderson, a political journalist who attended the Disco Demolition at age 15, disagreed. He wrote, “Rock music, and the lifestyle and values that went with it, was under attack from an alien music and culture popular with black folks and, occasionally, gays…The chance to yell “disco sucks” meant more than simply a musical style choice…it was a chance for a whole lot of people to say they didn’t like the way the world was changing around them, or who they saw as the potential victors in a cultural and demographic war.”

Gloria Gaynor, whose “I Will Survive” was one of disco’s biggest hits, suggested that economics factored into the hysteria when she said, “This had to be a movement started by somebody who got a mob mentality going and whose livelihood was being affected by the popularity of disco music.”

For his part, Harry Wayne Casey (frontman of KC and the Sunshine Band) has a much simpler explanation for Dahl’s behavior, stating, “I just figured the guy was an idiot.”

Whatever the underlying cause, many see it as the end of the disco era. Curiously, the very same month that the Disco Demolition took place, Disney released Mickey Mouse Disco.

“A Macho Guy with Clark Gable Ears” 

Mickey Mouse Disco

That’s how Mickey Mouse is described in the album’s opening song and its title track. The lyrics go on to proclaim:

When his body’s set in motion

The ladies cry a thousand tears.

Let the dancin’ fever move him

And he’ll always bring down the house–

Disco Mickey Mouse. 

There were nine tracks total on the album: 

  1. Mickey Mouse Disco
  2.  Welcome to Rio 
  3. The Greatest Band 
  4. Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah
  5.  Macho Duck
  6.  Mousetrap
  7.  Watch Out for Goofy!
  8.  It’s a Small World
  9.  Chim Chim Cher-Ee

The album was produced by Jymn Magon and recorded at Audio Media Recording Studios in Nashville. Arrangements on the album were, with the exception of “It’s a Small World”, made by Dennis Burnside, a musician and composer who had worked with the U.S. Army Band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Levon Helm, and Garth Brooks, among others. 

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the music on the album, but it’s consistently fun from beginning to end. Tracks like “Mickey Mouse Disco” and “Macho Duck” (a clever parody of the Village People’s Macho Man) are the standouts, but every track is danceable. Beyond the mere novelty of the concept, the music is solid. It’s silly, but that’s part of what makes it work. Camp has always been part of disco. After all, it’s the genre that gave us the Village People. 

Given the timing of the release, the album seems as though it should have been destined for failure. The disco craze was over. Even Studio 54 closed, with owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, heading to prison for tax evasion. Satin shirts, polyester, and platform shoes would soon be replaced by shoulder pads, spandex, and ripped jeans.    

Despite this fact, Mickey Mouse Disco went on to become a smashing success. Just how popular did it become? The album reached #35 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart and was certified double platinum, meaning it sold over 2,000,000 copies, the first children’s album to ever reach such lofty sales. 

On its initial release, sales were modest. That’s when Disney executives had an idea: take the music to television. An ad was created for the record. In it, classic Mickey Mouse shorts were “remixed” with the music from the album. A toll-free number appeared on screen, so viewers could call and order a copy. It ran over and over, and the money started flowing in.

 By 1980, Mickey Mouse Disco was certified gold (selling 500,000 copies). Within four years, it had sold four times that number. The record was so popular that tie-in merchandise, such as lunchboxes and posters, was created. The book “Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records” notes that enormous billboards were made to continue promoting Mickey Mouse Disco, and placed in locations like Sunset Boulevard. The album became so popular that Disney, “no longer had to depend solely on Disney films for their material, and the money generated…gave them the clout to pursue further original album concepts.”

While this brilliant marketing is clearly responsible for much of the album’s success, I suspect that the fun inherent in disco music played a role as well. As Gloria Gaynor says, “Disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of music-lovers around the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent: Dance music. There’s no better music for a party—it helps you get rid of the stresses of the day.”

Recommended Listening:

Album: Saturday Night Fever

Release Date: 1977

Notes: A relative latecomer to the scene, the album still remains one of the definitive symbols of the movement. Along with a whole host of classics by the Bee Gees, it featured songs like “Open Sesame” by Kool & the Gang, “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band, and “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps.

Album: Soul Makossa (12” single)

Artist: Manu Dibango

Release Date: 1972

Notes: Originally released as the B-side to Cameroon saxophonist Manu Dibango’s “Hymne de la 8e Coupe d’Afrique des Nations”, the song was discovered by David Mancuso, who began playing it at The Loft. Its popularity quickly spread, eventually leading it to reach #35 on the US Billboard Hot 100. 

Album: Bad Girls

Artist: Donna Summer

Release Date: 1979

Notes: While the album came near the end of the era, Summer had already firmly established herself as the “Queen of Disco” with albums like “Love to Love You Baby”. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, “Bad Girls” was a massive success, and is responsible for mega-hits “Bad Girls”, “Dim All the Lights”, and “Hot Stuff”. Other singles from the album were “Sunset People”, “Our Love”, and “Walk Away”. 

Album: From Here To Eternity

Artist: Giorgio Moroder

Release Date: 1977

Notes: Moroder is often referred to as “The Father of Disco”. He won Academy Awards for Best Original Score for the movie Midnight Express, “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, and “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara. He has worked with artists like Blondie, David Bowie, Janet Jackson, and Kylie Minogue. His album “From Here To Eternity” is a dance and electronic music classic, which Pitchfork magazine listed as one of the 100 Best Albums of the 1970s.

Hawaiian War Chant

Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room

As I sit to write this, I am listening to vibraphone and marimba player extraordinaire, Arthur Lyman. Born on the island of Oahu, he began his life in music at an early age by using a toy marimba to play along with records. 

In the early 1950s, he met Martin Denny, a man now known as the “father of exotica”, a musical genre that flourished during the decade and into the next. The two worked together for a time before Lyman formed his own group and established himself as the “King of Lounge Music”. He even performed at the famed club of Don The Beachcomber–the adventurer and businessman who is credited for popularizing tiki culture.  

The islands of the Pacific have captivated Americans since the 19th century. Books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville captivated the imaginations of readers and the obsession began to grow. Music of the South Pacific began to take hold of the popular imagination in the early part of the 20th century in the form of Hapa-haole, a type of music that blended English and Hawaiian. The 1912 Broadway play Birds of Paradise would expose broader audiences, but the passion wouldn’t become a full-blown phenomenon until the end of prohibition and the birth of tiki bars.

Where All the Birds Sing Words and the Flowers Croon

Disney was not immune to the allure of the cult of the Pacific Islands. It can be seen in things like Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Resort, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar in Disneyland, and of course, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room

The popular attraction opened in 1963 at Disneyland, when the craze for all things tiki was still strong (Martin Denny’s Exotica was released in 1957, Arthur Lyman’s Hawaiian Sunset was released in 1959, and Elvis Presley’s movie Blue Hawaii debuted in 1961, just to name a few examples). 

Originally conceived as a restaurant, initial concepts called for it to include real birds, an idea which Walt Disney quickly squashed. According to Imagineer Rolly Crump, Walt said, “We can’t have birds in there…they will poop on the food.”

Audio-Animatronics were used instead, and the restaurant idea was transformed into the attraction known and loved by Guests today. The voices of the four “host” birds were provided by Wally Boag, Thurl Ravenscroft, Fulton Burley, and Ernie Newton. They sang, bantered, cracked jokes, and introduced the various acts in the show. 

The song most associated with the attraction, “The Tiki, Tiki Tiki Room”, was composed by the legendary Sherman Brothers–who also wrote the songs for Mary Poppins, Journey Into Imagination, the Carousel of Progress, The Many Adventures of Winnie-The-Pooh, and a whole host of others.

It’s a remarkably catchy little tune, and it has become one of the most beloved melodies in the Disney canon, but it isn’t what we’re concerning ourselves with today.  Instead, we’ll be looking at a piece that borrows a little more directly from Polynesian culture. A song typically known as “Hawaiian War Chant”. 

A Musical Luau

In 1946, Lindley Armstrong Jones (known more commonly as Spike Jones) released a recording of the song “Hawaiian War Chant (Tu-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai)”. The recording begins with the sound of a steel guitar, followed by voices singing the song “Aloha’Oe” as birds chirp. A voice then introduces Spike Jones and his “Wacky Waikikians”. What follows is a parody of the song “Hawaiian War Chant”.

Being a musical comedian, Jones is clearly satirizing the era’s growing craze for all things South Pacific, but in a manner that also uncomfortably feels as though the performance is mocking Polynesian culture as well. Similar to many of his other pieces, it uses a variety of comical sound effects. The lyrics are sung in a guttural manner, rendering them closer to gibberish than actual language.  

It wasn’t the first popular recording of the tune. Seven years prior, Tommy Dorsey released a Big Band version of it. While his take on the song does contain the melody associated with “War Chant”, it also features several extended soloes typical of jazz numbers, some of which sound more like New Orleans than Hawaii. Like the Jones version, the song is played uptempo with the driving beat one would expect in a so-called “war chant”. 

Unlike these two versions, the melody used in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room begins with a much more languid pace, before gradually picking up steam as it progresses. The audience is informed that they will be treated to a “musical luau”. Orchids then descend from the ceiling, and begin to sing the “Hawaiian War Chant”. In true Exotica fashion, the ambient background noise includes the chirping of birds (this tendency to use environmental sounds like animal calls in their music was something both Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny utilized. According to Lyman, this began during a somewhat tipsy performance of the theme from Vera Cruz, when he spontaneously began making bird cries during the song. As he recalled, “The next thing you know, the audience started to answer me back with all kinds of weird cries. It was great.”).  

Partway through the number, the melody ceases and the tiki carvings around the room begin playing drums and chanting.  The melody eventually returns, but it is sung almost frantically as the performance grows increasingly wild. This continues until a crack of thunder sounds, the lights go out, and the audience hears the sound of rain. 

The man frequently credited for the song is Johnny Noble, a composer born in Honolulu. He was a key figure in the development of Hapa Haole. A brief bio on the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s library webpage states, “Always an entrepreneur, Johnny would think of different ways to make money even as a young boy, from shining shoes to selling newspapers while whistling tunes for customers on Honolulu’s street corners. Johnny soon became known as the “whistling newsboy” and his reputation led him to tour with Hawaii’s well-known ukulele player, Ernest Kaai. Johnny would give whistling solo performances in the shows.”

He lead the house band at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and published hundreds of Hawaiian songs, many of which he adapted for Western audiences.  Among those numbers was the so-called “Hawaiian War Chant”, published in the late 1920s.

The origins of the song, however, are much older, dating back to 1860.

We Two In the Spray

Kalahoʻolewa, or Prince William Pitt Leleiohoku II, was born in January of 1854. According to, a page devoted to Hawaiian music and hula, “His name, “flight on the day of the full moon”, commemorates the funeral of Kamehameha III” (the third king of the Kingdom of Hawai’i). A member of the House of Kalākaua, Leleiohoku was hānai by Ruth Keʻelikōlani (a member of the House of Kamehameha and Governor of the Island of Hawai’i from 1855 to 1874). 

Educated at St. Alban’s college, he served in a number of official offices, working in the Governmental Foreign Office and as an officer in King Lunalilo’s personal military staff.  He also served as Privy Councilor and a member of the House of Nobles in the Legislature.  In 1874, his brother was elected king, but because he had no children, Leleiohoku was named the next heir to the throne. From late 1874 until February of 1875, he acted as regent while his brother negotiated a treaty in the United States.

A talented musician, he and several friends formed a group he called the Kawaihau Glee Club. The Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame notes that after founding the group, “soon he and his colleagues were winning most of the royal song club competitions. Even outside the family, many claimed that he had one of the purest and sweetest male voices among native Hawaiians. Leleiohoku was considered the most talented of the royal composers.” 

He wrote a number of songs over his lifetime, such as “Adios Ke Aloha”, and “Moani Ke Ala”, with many pieces adapted from the folk tunes of visiting merchants, sailors, and settlers.

One of his compositions was titled, “Kāua I Ka Huahuaʻi” or “We Two In the Spray”. A love song, it tells the story of a romantic rendezvous between lovers:

Kāua i ka huahuaʻi

E ʻuhene lā i pili koʻolua

Pukukuʻi lua i ke koʻekoʻe

Hanu lipo o ka palai


Auwē ka huaʻi lā

ʻAuhea wale ana ʻoe

E kaʻu mea e liʻa nei

Mai hōʻapaʻapa maiʻ`oe

O loaʻa pono kāua

I aloha wau iā ʻoe

I kāu hanahana pono

Laʻi aʻe ke kaunu me ia la

Hōʻapaʻapai ka manaʻo

In English, the lyrics translate to:

You and I in the spray

Such joy, the two of us together

Embracing tightly in the coolness

Breathing deep of the palai fern


Oh, such spray


My desire

Don’t linger

Lest we be found

I loved you

Your warmth

Calmed passion

Preventing thought

It was this tender melody that was later transformed into the “Hawaiian War Chant”. The tempo was increased until it reached the style that most audiences likely associate with it today. 

While we can only speculate as to why the title and mood of the piece were altered, it is safe to assume it had much to do with the exotic fantasies that mainland audiences associated with the island. We see this tendency in later decades with albums such as Les Baxter’s “Ritual of the Savage”. As Martin Denny himself noted of Exotica music, it depicts “a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient…what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like…it’s pure fantasy though.”

Though “Hawaiian War Chant” was popularized before the Exotica movement began, it seems a similar principle was at play. Returning to the rise of Hapa Haole music, Maui Nō Ka ʻOi Magazine notes that after the release of the musical Bird of Paradise, “ the whole country was swaying to hapa-haole tunes, some with made-up “Hawaiian” words by Tin Pan Alley songwriters.”

In 1936, Ralph Freed wrote his own take on the lyrics, which say in part, “There’s a sunny little, funny little melody, that was started by a native down in Waikiki. He would gather a crowd down beside the sea and together they’d play his gay Hawaiian Chant. Soon the other little natives started singin’ it and the hula hula maidens started swingin’ it. Like a tropical storm that’s the way it hit, funny little gay Hawaiian chant. Ow way tah tualan, me big bad fightin’ man…”

Over the years, artists like Santo & Johnny, the Ames Brothers, Billy Vaughn, and Henry Mancini have performed “Hawaiian War Chant”. A parody version even appears in Disney’s The Lion King, performed by the characters of Timon and Pumba. 

Sadly, Prince William Pitt Leleiohoku II would never have an inkling of the fame achieved by his quiet love song. He died of rheumatic fever in April of 1877 at the age of 23. 

His sister, Queen Liliʻuokalani wrote of him, “He had the same love of music, the like passion for poetry and song, which have been so great a pleasure to me in my own life, as well as to our brother, King Kalakaua…Our poems and musical compositions were repeated from one to another, were sung by our friends in the sweetest rivalry, and their respective merits extolled: but candor compels me to acknowledge that those of Prince Leleiohoku were really in advance of those of his two sisters, although perhaps this was due to the fact that the singing-club of the regent was far superior…”

Recommended Listening:

Song: Kāua I Ka Huahuaʻi

Album: Hawaiian Love Songs

Artist: Palani Vaughan

Released: 1970

A member of the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, Vaughan was also a historian and authority on King Kalākaua. This recording presents the song as the tender love ballad of Prince Leleiohoku’s original composition, with a brief uptempo portion in the middle more reminiscent of the style most often associated with the song. 

Song: Aloha ʻOe

Album: Nostalgia

Artist: Amy Hānaialiʻi Gilliom

Released: 1999

Inarguably, the most famous Hawaiian song of all time. Written by  Queen Liliʻuokalani,  it has been covered by artists like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Bing Crosby. It also features in the Disney movie “Lilo & Stitch. Hānaiali’i, a six-time Grammy nominee and Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award winner known for embracing leo ki’eki’e  (a traditional Hawaiian style of singing in falsetto)  performs the song with aching beauty. 

Song: Nu`a O Ka Palai

Artists: Atta Isaacs, Gabby Pahinui, Barney Isaacs

Album: The Legendary Atta Isaacs – Innovative Slack Key Master

Released 2010

This song is another of Prince William Pitt Leleiohoku II’s compositions, but this version is purely instrumental. Both Atta and Gabby play slack guitar, a Hawaiian form of fingerpicking introduced to the islands after Portuguese cowboys brought Spanish guitars to the islands in the late 19th century. Barney, Atta’s brother, plays the steel guitar. All three performers are members of the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.

Song: Quiet Village

Artist: Martin Denny

Album: Exotica

Released: 1958

A classic of Exotica, Quiet Village was written by Les Baxter and included in his album “Ritual of the Savage”. Martin Denny covered it as part of his classic Exotica record. Either could have been included, but I’ve opted for Denny’s due to the inclusion of the ambient jungle sounds added to the track which gives it that Exotica feel.  

A Kiss At Midnight

Pixar's Luca

Released in the summer of 2021, Pixar’s Luca is a love letter to childhood, friendship, and coastal Italy. It’s a beautiful, tender, and funny film that pulls extensively from director Enrico Casarosa’s childhood. 

Cinque Terre

Visiting the Italian Riviera 

In an interview prior to its debut, Casarosa explained, “I was born in Genoa, and my summers were spent on beaches. I met my best friend when I was 11. I was really shy and I found this troublemaker of a kid who had a completely different life. I wanted to make a movie about those kinds of friendships that help you grow up.”

Set in the fictional town of Porto Rosso, which was patterned after the villages of the Cinque Terre, the movie tells the story of Luca and Alberto. The boys are sea monsters (inspired by the folklore of the Liguria region), who are able to pass as humans when they are out of the water. With the help of their human friend Giulia, they enter a competition called the Portorosso Cup in the hopes of winning enough money to purchase a Vespa.

Animators and writers traveled to Cinque Terre to analyze the area. They studied the hills, the way the light filtered through the water, the shadows along the streets. According to Casarosa, they needed the trip in order, “to feel that sun on their skin to then try to convey it.”

Luca and Alberto

The Sound of Summer 

Just as importantly, Casarosa carefully picked a variety of Italian pop songs to help establish the film’s mood. In an interview with Slate, he stated, “when I imagined the movie early on, I felt like with the genre of movies like Stand by Me or Breaking Away, there’s something about summer where you do need that radio on and that these songs become part of the background. One of the reasons that I loved to put it in that time period was because I love the music that we have there in Italy.”

To that end, he included songs like “Il gatto e la volpe” by Edoardo Bennato, “Viva la pappa col pomodoro” by Rita Pavone, and “Città vuota” by Mina. The majority of songs were pulled from the mid-60s. While it is never expressly stated, this is the likely time period for the film as well. Casarosa chose this era of music because he was “trying to really convey this small-town life, which is a little more valid in that time—especially in that area where there was so much tourism later on.”

Quartetto Cetra

Setting the Tone

Melody sets the movie’s mood from the earliest scenes. In fact, we hear the music before we actually see anything on the screen. As the film opens, we hear the charming sounds of Quartetto Cetra’s “Un Bacio a Mezzanotte” (or “A Kiss At Midnight” in English). It’s a bit of an anomaly on the soundtrack, as it dates back to the 1940s. 

Casarosa explained, “I thought that the charm was felt pretty quickly. In one of the screenings, the first time we tried the first song you hear over the credits, I remember someone saying, “Oh my god, that is doing so much. I’m just kind of ready. You’re already in this mood and this place.” We were so happy that we found that. The idea here is that it would be a little more old-fashioned, like the fishermen.”

Quartetto Cetra is generally regarded as one of the seminal groups in 20th-century Italian song. One writer noted of their influence, “If you had grown up in Italy in the Sixties and Seventies you would almost consider the four members of Il Quartetto Cetra as part of your family: they were on every TV show both for adults and for children.”

Though the lineup changed several times, the group’s definitive incarnation consisted of Felice Chiusano, Tata Giacobetti, Lucia Mannucci, and Virgilio Savona. Over the course of their career, they invented a style known as canzone sceneggiata (dramatized song) and a form of literary parody featured in the television series Biblioteca di Studio Uno. The group also dubbed the choruses for the Italian release of Disney’s Dumbo, as well as those for the Disney movies Make Mine Music and Melody Time. 

The song “Un Bacio a Mezzanotte” is a jazzy number with a happy swing that conjures up images of dapper couples taking to the dance floor on a humid Friday night. To an American listener, it is reminiscent of vocal groups such as The Ink Spots or the Andrews Sisters. It’s no coincidence. The group, which formed in 1940, was hugely influenced by The Mills Brothers–an American group who began their career as a barbershop quartet–who was notable for being the first African American singers to have their own national radio show. 

It’s here that we reach an interesting question: why was this group of Italian vocalists so influenced by American jazz? A quick look at the history of music in Italy reveals that they were hardly alone. There are a host of brilliant jazz artists who emerged in the country around the time of World War II such as Renato Carasone, Natalino Otto, Franco Cerri, and others. One of the most notable was Gorni Kramer, the man who composed “Un Bacio a Mezzanotte”.

Gorni Kramer

Bread and Ellington

Beginning in the late 19th century, Italians began flocking to the United States, and by 1910 they constituted one-fifth of all immigrants, making them one of the country’s largest ethnic populations. New Orleans was among the many cities where they set up new lives. While living in the Big Easy, many took to jazz. They were so involved that in 1919, the Italian Consul General in New Orleans noted that there were two primary types of jazz groups operating in the city: performers from the black populace, and Italians.

The music made its way across the Atlantic because of a notable fact about Italian immigrants: they frequently went back to their home country. In fact, between 1899 and 1924, almost half of the Italian immigrants returned either temporarily or permanently.

In the book “Jazz Italiano: A History of Italian Syncopated Music 1906-1941” by David Chapman, Gorni Kramer is quoted as saying, “In the 1920s several people arrived in Rivarolo Mantovano who returned from America where they had emigrated fifteen or twenty years earlier, and they brought with them several records of American dance music by Paul Whiteman and other orchestras. I was thunderstruck. Later when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, around 1929 or 30, I began to recognize people like Ellington and Armstrong. In the end, I lived on bread and Ellington.”

Gorni Kramer and Duke Ellington

Born in 1913 in the village of Rivarolo Mantovano, Francesco Kramer Gorni was named after American cycling champion Frank Kramer. He began his musical career playing accordion in his father’s band, before studying at the Conservatory in Parma. After graduating, he performed in several orchestras before beginning his own group. 

During this period, Italy was witnessing the rise of fascism. Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister in 1922. The dictator’s relationship with the American art form was complicated. In her book Jazz Italian Style, professor Anna Celenza notes that he was fascinated by jazz, played trombone for a time, and even dabbled in writing lyrics. One of his children, Romano Mussolini, was a jazz pianist who performed with musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker.

When Romano died, his association with jazz was a bit of an oddity, given that jazz was eventually censored under his father’s rule. In his obituary, the Associated Press noted, “Jazz music was censored in Italy during the fascist regime, but the ban didn’t reach the sheltered lives of Benito Mussolini’s family members.” The webpage World of Jazz notes this peculiar tension, writing, “the relationship between the state and jazz would be somewhat confused. Initial indifference to the spread of jazz became enthusiastic endorsement through daily primetime jazz programmes on state radio from 1926, and then increasing hostility and haphazard prohibition from the late 1930s, as the Italian government sought to promote a new Italian culture, sidelining foreign, and especially American culture.”

According to Celenza, Mussolini viewed jazz as a potential tool for helping re-establish a new nationalist identity. This despite the fact that the Fascist Party referred to it as “barbaric…anti-music.” In an article published by Georgetown University about her book, it was noted that the dictator, “realized the lure of jazz among Italian youth” and even “promoted the art form as the soundtrack of Italian youth.” This tortured sort of relationship with the music is perhaps demonstrated nowhere so clearly as when his appreciation of the art form came into conflict with his fierce anti-semitism.

A diary by his longtime mistress revealed, that he “proudly said that his hatred for Jews preceded Adolf Hitler’s and vowed to “destroy them all.” Despite this, he made some exceptions for an Italian group known as Trio Lescano, who happened to be Jewish. Celenza states, “When the race laws went into effect in Italy in 1938, most Jewish musicians were banned from Italian radio and eventually sent to concentration camps, but Mussolini made sure that the sisters were protected.” 

It was against this complicated backdrop that Korni began his musical career. In 1936, he released the song “Crapa Pelada”. In his book, Chapman refers to it as making modern history, referring to it as the first distinctly Italian jazz song. Not simply an imitation of the music found in America. 

The title of the song translates to ‘bald head’ and tells the story of a selfish bully. Because of this, it is also considered by some to have been a thinly veiled attack on Mussolini, whose head was famously unadorned by hair. 

The song would later be performed by Quartetto Cetra. The group would go on to perform a number of Korni songs, including “Nella Vecchia Fattoria” and “In un Palco Della Scala”. 


Jazz è Libertà

In Pixar’s Luca, the characters of Alberto and Luca both dream of owning a Vespa. It becomes a symbol of freedom. It is the magic that will give them wings to travel anywhere they want in the world. For Luca, it will free him from the confines of his home beneath the water, and for Alberto, it will help him shed his memories of abandonment. For both, it represents freedom to move throughout the human world, unhampered by their identity as “sea monsters” which might cause humans to shun them.

Speaking about it, director Enrico Casarosa stated, “There was something that felt kid-like that I liked and a sense of freedom that felt right. It’s perfectly made for two people, so it represented their friendship as well.”

It seems fitting then, that jazz should be what opens the movie. In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Jazz speaks for life…Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music.” 

And what were those roots? An article by the National Parks Service notes, “A well-known example of early ethnic influences significant to the origins of jazz is the African dance and drumming tradition, which was documented in New Orleans. By the mid-18th century, slaves gathered socially on Sundays at a special market outside the city’s rampart. Later, the area became known as Congo Square, famous for its African dances and the preservation of African musical and cultural elements.”

It seems fitting then that jazz should make its way to Italy when the country and much of Europe were being crushed under the thumb of men like Mussolini and Hitler. In his book, Chapman writes, “The repressive political regimes of Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union were extremely uncomfortable with the new musical form, but not just because of its origins. The encouragement of free thought, novelty, and improvisation made many Fascists, Nazis, and Communists profoundly nervous, and they often tried to stamp out this insidious music form before it had a chance to infect their peculiar visions of utopia.”

Jazz has, and always will, taken both the struggle and joy of life and transformed them into something greater, like a form of sonic alchemy. Its playfulness and improvisational nature are anathemas to rigid control. It is freedom, in the form of music.