Paolo Pietroangeli has just died. He was singer songwriter who wrote the classic Italian revolutionary song Contessa (Countess) in May 1966 during the student occupation of Rome University. A student, Paolo Rossi, was killed by the fascists in that year. This movement was an early sign of the new radicalisation of students and workers that would electrify Italy in the Hot Autumn of 1969.
The inspiration for the lyrics was the overheard conversation of an old bourgeois lady in a Roman café in which she talked about the occupation of the university (and the presumed orgies that were going on there) and a strike by workers at a small factory in the city where the boss, one Aldo, had called the police on the striking workers who were picketing.
The song, particularly the chorus ‘Comrades from the fields and from the factories…’ became an anthem of the left in 68 and then on demonstrations ever since. Pietroangeli joined Rifondazione Communista (Communist Refoundation) and stood as a candidate when the Italian Communist party definitively broke with any notion of anti-capitalism or socialism. When a contemporary group wanted to use the song but tone down the class violence of the chorus, he let them do it since he did not want to ‘own’ the song but later criticised what they had done as patronising the audience.
Below is an English translation and some YouTube versions of him singing the song. The lyrics are as relevant today as back then even if the decades of defeats in Italy and elsewhere make the condition for rebellion more difficult today. Paolo may have passed, but his call to rebellion and resistance is still heard today.
What a thing, countess, at Aldo's factory those four ignorant people went on strike; They wanted their wages raised, They were shouting that they were being exploited. And when the police arrived those crazy beggars shouted louder, they covered the courtyard and the doors with blood, who knows how long it will take to clean up...". Comrades, from the fields and workshops take your scythe, bring your hammer, go down to the square, beat them with it, come down to the square, smash the system. What peace do you decent people seek, Peace to do what you want But if that's the price we want war We want to see you go under, But if this is the price we've paid, No one in the world should be exploited any more. "You should know, my dear, what a dear relative told me A dear relative told me about the occupation that the rabble locked up in there were indulgiing in free love... Besides, my dear, what are you surprised about? Even the worker wants his son to be a doctor Think of the world that can be created: there are no more morals, Countess..." If the wind was whistling now it's whistling louder The ideas of revolt have never died; If there are those who say so, don't listen, It is one who only wants to betray; If there are those who say so, spit on them, They have thrown the red flag into the ditch. What peace do you good people seek...?
YouTube videos of song with historic photos of struggles of the time: