My Grandmother and the “Bandit”: Two Songs About Marietta Marcolini
My grandmother, Marietta Marcolini, was born in rural northern Italy and came to New York as a very young, naïve woman. She came for an arranged marriage to a much older man, who soon died and left her a single mother. Thus began her descent into America—a place where she never felt welcome or at home. I think the greatest sadness of her life was that she was never financially able to return to Italy for a visit—as she said it—“To see my mama, again.” When I was a child, I sat at her feet holding skeins of yarn while she rolled it into balls. As she rolled yarn, she told me stories. One memorable story was about a bandit who had escaped from the prison near her hometown of Belluno. These stories and my childhood with her are the basis for these songs.
I find it surprising and also not so surprising that I would write two songs about my grandmother. The first of these songs was recorded by The One Drop and is included here. I wrote “Harbor” while walking around in the moonlit kitchen of our house in Rice playing my guitar. I played the Em-A progression over and over while thinking about young Marietta Marcolini. She had found herself alone in New York as a teenager. She had been sent there to meet and marry a man who was a stranger to her. When I was a child, she told me that before she came to America, she had only left her home in rural northern Italy once before for a trip to Venice. It is certain that she was victimized. A year later, she found herself a widow with a child. Since my grandmother lived with us when I was growing up, I heard her stories—spoken in broken English with great feeling and few words. The sorrow of her life was that she could never return to Italy. She had a lot of “nervous breakdowns.”
“Harbor,” The 1 Drop (Ubberaffe Records, 1998. Produced by Gary Neyers)
What if when you wake up
You don’t know where you are,
And when you wake up
You don’t know who you are.
And when you wake up
You don’t know what you are.
You find yourself alone in a multitude.
Your situation is rearranged.
Your context is abused.
You look around you.
They took away everything that you do
You find yourself adrift on a ship of fools
And your harbor is where
The sailors put you off.
Your harbor is in the sign of the cross.
Your harbor is where
The pirates put you off.
Your harbor is in the heart of Babylon.
One day I woke up
I did not know where I was.
One day I woke up
I did not know who I was.
One day I woke up
I did not know what I was.
I found myself alone in a multitude.
My situation was rearranged.
My context was abused.
I looked around me–
“Who are all these people?”
By: The One Drop is:
Mike Opitz songwriting and guitar
Kathleen (Regan) Downes vocals
Jeremy Corey guitar and vocal
Corey Rickheim keyboard
Jason Hastings bass
Gary Neyers drums and production of the track
While playing the chord progression and writing the words, I also thought of a dialog between my emerging song and one of my first favorite reggae songs,
“Rivers of Babylon,” by The Melodians. One of many biblical reggae songs.
I imagined waking up in a strange land where I did not know the language—as she and countless other displaced people have done. The meditative repetition of the chord progression carried my thoughts to other displacements—to slavery in Babylon—the great theme of reggae music. One of the greatest questions ever posed in a pop song—“How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?” Nevertheless, blues, jazz, rock, reggae, samba, salsa, soca and more are all exactly that. “Rivers of Babylon” explains the wealth of bold and vibrant music descended from African slaves. It sings of: “How the wicked carried us away into captivity/ Required of us a song.” .
The word “pirates” is a common reggae word for slave traders in the sense that Bob Marley uses it in “Redemption Song.” I thought of Marley’s use of the word and chose to echo his word—“old pirates.”
Bob Marley, “Redemption Song,” live in Dortmund.
In this clip, Marley introduces the song as “Old pirates, yes they rob I. / Sold I to the merchant ships.” Like so many Marley lines, this one resonates on multiple levels. It evokes the human horror of the African Diaspora (cf. Marcus Redikker, The Slave Ship), the robbery inherent in the origins of capitalism, and the rapid evolution of slavery into wage slavery. Through Marley’s Rasta “I,” (Eye) this all becomes personal and visionary. Now we all find ourselves on “the merchant ship.” The thought process of the song evokes a powerful constellation of ideas: ideology (Marx), hegemony (Gramsci), myth (Barthes) and ultimately all of Benjamin’s work on “the human sensorium” under the conditions of mass information culture. Marley says “Liberate yourself from mental slavery.” Once you start doing that—start peeling away the layers of ideology you have grown up with, you wake up—on “the merchant ship”—sailing in Babylon
“Babylon” is a common Rastafarian term for the culture of the enslavers. The version of “Harbor” included here was recorded by The 1 Drop and produced by Gary Neyers. We recorded the tracks in Gary’s basement laundry room in St. Louis Park. We lined the walls of a little broom closet with a mattress and created a somewhat sound-proof space for recording vocals. This was our “studio” for The 1 Drop album. Norb Jost added an array of saxophone tracks that Gary mixed and arranged. Kathee contributed creative and insightful singing. Again, Gary crafted all the tracks. This version of “Harbor” illustrates the collaborative nature of this genre as well as Gary’s brilliance as a producer—incorporating dub elements into the structure of the song. When I wrote a metaphoric meditation on my grandmother’s life, I could never have imagined THIS.
One night, The 1 Drop played at a small, college-town bar while a blizzard raged outside. Every time anyone opened the door, it blew open. Few opened the door that night. The manager was upset. He said, “I thought you had a following!”
At that moment, an unruly group who could well have been our “following” came rolling in—wearing costumes for some reason. They had been partying somewhere else, but now they were our “following.” We had been playing dubbed out version of “Harbor.” For some reason, in response to this motley group of people we knew, I yelled, “All Right! It’s story time!” while the band kept the groove. We had not done this before, and I did not know what I was going to say over this groove. I decided ( if this is a decision at all) to tell a story of one of our first gigs—on a night that also had a snowstorm—in a dingy basement in a small, college town.
I want to tell you a story happened many years ago
When the 1 Drop band played reggae
Down in Old St. Joe.
Down in a basement party– playing our songs
Songs like “Downpresser Man,”– but nobody was listening
Everyone was playing that Downpresser game
Nobody was listening they were living
That Downpressor Fan Ta See.
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye
What did I see?– a beautiful woman in red leather pants
Looking right at me. Well I was looking at her
Looking at me, looking at her, looking at me
Said, “Whose fantasy is this? Whose Fan Ta See?”
Said, “Babylon child, drove me wild. Babylon child.”
See I’m a Babylon man in a Babylon band
Playing Babylon songs in Babylon land!
Whose fantasy is this?
Our harbor is where
The sailors put us off.
Our harbor is in the sign of the cross.
Our harbor is where
The sailors put us off
Our harbor is in the heart of Babylon.
Song writing, vocals, production Mike
I had no conscious idea of saying those words when I started the “story time” bit. I don’t know why I remembered a particular desultory basement party “Down in old St. Joe” from our earliest and roughest gigs. I think I just wanted the people dancing in costumes to stay.
The track posted here is another form of a guide track. Caitlin, Tom and I recorded these parts so we could remember what to play when we make a better recording of this song. This is how the draft sounds now. Also, this is the first time I have written out these words that have curiously become a part of “Harbor.” They emerge from the oral tradition of Saturday night band improvisations into the world of digitally (in Benjamin’s terms, “technologically”) reproduced information. For years, these words were told by me as a way of telling a story of The 1 Drop band. As such, the images and metaphors provided information about “the storyteller.” In Benjamin’s terms, this information provides context for the story and valuable links to whatever “wisdom” a story may provide. These revised lyrics have remained only in the “oral tradition” for many years—repeated in coffee shops and jam sessions with friends.
But now, as digitally recorded and mixed bits of information that we hear as “sound,”—and with very little conscious purpose on the part of the author (improviser) (me)—these words become part of the dialog between “Redemption Song” and “Harbor” that formed the basis of this montage. Somehow, surprisingly, my thoughts about the life of my grandmother became a meditation on the many and various forms of “mental slavery.” “What if when you wake up,” when “You don’t know who you are” becomes the time you grow to understand that “none but ourselves can free our mind.”
The song “Bandit” is the second song I wrote about my grandmother. I am still surprised that out of a lifetime filled with commodities called “memories,” that I should pick this one and make it into a song.
One of my grandmother’s stories was about a bandit who escaped from the prison in the town of Belluno. She and her best friend had to work at night, and they were scared of him. But he was said to be handsome. I invented games with blocks and marbles in which the bandit escaped, rolled across the living room floor and got away. “The Bandit” was my best marble; I always wanted him to get away.
This thought led me to songs about outlaws—a rich theme in blues and rock—as well as reggae music. Here are a couple versions of the bandit theme that I thought about in writing this song.
The Clash, “Bankrobber”
The Clash, “I Fought the Law.”
Bob Marley, “I Shot the Sheriff.” One of my all-time favorite performances.
And, my favorite of them all; Jimmy Cliff, “The Harder They Come” both film and song.
There are a million more—but I consciously consulted these songs by playing and singing them. The I Drop had played all of these songs in previous years so they were familiar to me.
I have a very vivid memory and after reading Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” I wonder what that means. My memory is primarily a memory of a sound. As a little kid coming home from school, I heard it at least a block away from my house, and as I got closer, I understood that it was coming from my house. It sounded like wailing and screaming combined. I found it scary. My grandmother and her Italian friends were sitting on the bed, hugging and wailing. I learned later that they were keening over the death of my grandmother’s childhood friend. I knew of Zia Severina because she sent us packages of Swiss chocolate. Later when I grew old enough to hold skeins of yarn for my grandmother, she told me the stories that provide the background for the song, “Bandit.” How she was scared of the bandit—how all kids should be scared that something might “get them.”
My fantasy of what my grandmother’s life might have been like also provides a background for the song. Some years ago, I visited the “green and grassy” fields around Belluno and Feltre, and I also thought of that place when I wrote the song.
They say the bandit was a handsome man
A devil may care, bank robbing man
And one dark and stormy evening
He bid his jailers goodbye.
He made his escape through the underbrush
His path was narrow and wide
He cast a thousand stories
Into the wind that night.
(play through chorus without singing it)
Marietta and Severina—a country road
Miles from where the bandit fled
They called each other sister
As they walked to work at the mill.
Two peasant girls, barely 15 years old
They’d lived together all their lives.
They worked the night shift
All their teenage years.
I wouldn’t say if I knew (2X)
If fantasies come true (2X)
That night, every sound in the howling wind
And the rain beating on the window sill
Conjured visions of the bandit
Who could have been prowling round the mill.
A branch would crack, the girls would scream
Then laugh and hug each other tight
Fantasy visions danced
In the dark and stormy night.
The nightshift passed
The work was done.
The bandit was captured and later hung
And the girls said goodbye not knowing that their new lives had begun.
Severina was married and sent to Switzerland
To live a life of service and of pain,
Mairetta was shipped to America
Land of the greedy and the vain.
A young boy walked home from the second grade
Found his grandmother weeping on the bed
A letter from Italy had told her
That her best friend was dead.
Now I can imagine two peasant girls
Walking through a green and grassy land
Their girlish dreams and visions
Never really had a chance.
Song writing, guitars, vocals Mike Opitz
Bass, production of track Tom Daddesio
Vocals, Kathleen (Regan) Downes
Violin Stephanie Franzen