Bella Ciao: the story of the song and the meaning of the lyrics

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In Italy, when people listen to Bella Ciao, they think about the Resistance, the struggle of the partisans or, more generally, the struggle against all forms of oppression. Over the decades this song has become a symbol of numerous forms of freedom struggle and has been translated and interpreted all over the world, still being extremely popular today.

The story of Bella Ciao obviously begins during the Italian Resistance. Contrary to what one might think, however, its popularity only exploded after the war. In fact, before the Liberation from Fascism and Nazism, it was much easier to hear a song like Fischia Il Vento among the partisans, while Bella Ciao was not extremely popular, except maybe among the combat units of Reggio Emilia and Modena, the “Brigata Maiella abruzzese” and some partisan groups in Piedmont.

It was only in 1947, on the occasion of the 1st World Festival of Youth and Students, held in Prague, that some partisans from Emilia Romagna joined the event with Bella Ciao, in the dedicated song festival, giving way to the unstoppable rise of the piece.

The Lyrics

Una mattina mi son svegliato
o bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao, ciao, ciao
una mattina mi son svegliato
e ho trovato l’invasor

O partigiano portami via
o bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao, ciao, ciao
o partigiano portami via
che mi sento di morir

E se io muoio da partigiano
o bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao, ciao, ciao
e se io muoio da partigiano
tu mi devi seppellir

E seppellire la su in montagna
o bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao, ciao, ciao
e seppellire la su in montagna
sotto l’ombra di un bel fior

Tutte le genti che passeranno
o bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao, ciao, ciao
e le genti che passeranno
mi diranno che bel fior

E questo è il fiore del partigiano
o bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao, ciao, ciao
e questo è il fiore del partigiano
morto per la Libertà

One morning I woke up
goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye
one morning I woke up
and I found the invader.
 
Oh partisan, take me away
goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye
oh partisan take me away
that I’m feeling like dying
 
And if I die as a partisan
goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye
and if I die as a partisan
you must bury me
 
You will bury me over there, on the mountain
goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye
you will bury me over there on the mountain
under the shadow of a wonderful flower
 
And all the people passing by
goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye
and all the people passing by
will say “what a wonderful flower!”
 
And this is the flower of the partisan
goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye my Beautiful, goodbye
dead for our freedom
and this is the flower of the partisan
dead for our freedom

The lyrics, by an unknown author, is striking for its immediacy. Perhaps it is precisely for this reason that Bella Ciao has become a symbol over the years, capable of bringing together and representing not only the various souls of the partisan struggle, but also of becoming an evergreen hymn, used in the most disparate ways and situations. From Occupy Wall Street to the anti-Erdogan demonstrations in Taksim Square in 2013; from Fridays for Future to the struggle of the Catalan separatists: everyone sings Bella Ciao today. It is wrong to label it as a left-wing song or a communist song: the lyrics of Bella Ciao are in fact the most striking example of how this song potentially addresses anyone.

Origins and evolution

Bella Ciao‘s lyrics have its origins in the folkloric tradition of Northern Italy, in particular in a song entitled Fior di Tomba, which in both the Piedmontese and the Emilian variants has numerous elements of the lyrics that will then be taken up again in the partisan song. As for the melody, it seems that its origin goes back in particular to a popular song called La me nòna l’è vecchiaerella (of which there are numerous variations), even if the Ukrainian accordionist Mishka Ziganoff recorded a melody in 1919 in New York titled Koilen which is very reminiscent of Bella Ciao.

If it is difficult to clearly trace the origins of the piece, it is much less so to follow its evolution up to the present day: interpreted by some of the greatest musicians of our times and deeply rooted in popular culture, Bella Ciao seems destined to have still a long life ahead of him.

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