WLD 2/27: Swedes and Funiculars

As promised, a fresh daily weekly link dump — they're not really daily any more, are they? — in the standard Iglevian style: a long and wordy, self-indulgent narrative with lots of oddball trivia, etymology, and veiled references along the way. This one is loosely framed by the history of a certain song that DMOAS and Leopold Bloom are fond of, but with much more digressions than main storyline. There's more music than in the last dump (including some opera, even), more YouTubery than you'd expect, little or no baseball, but lots of shout-outs to various denizens of AN.

It begins after the jump.

In the early 1960s there developed in Italian filmmaking a genre known as the "mondo film". A mondo film was a documentary that purported to scientifically explore some primitive culture or seamy subculture but with the real purpose of titillating or shocking the audience with gruesome scenes of horrific violence or destitution and/or freaky cultural habits that seem gross to us. All of this was represented as genuine actual footage, and some of it really was.

In 1968, director Luigi Scattini turned his mondo attention to the mysterious primitive nation of ... Sweden! which he explored in his film Svezia: inferno e paradiso ("Sweden: hell and heaven"). Here the shocking content was nothing so icky as cannibalism or eating bugs, but rather the horrifying consequences of a generation of young Swedes growing up in a decadent culture of liberal 1960s attitudes toward sex and drugs. Tsk tsk! the narrators says. See what awful things happen when you hand out birth control and say free love is OK? Corrupt teenage girls end up frolicking naked in the snow! It's just awful! Awful, I say!

I have not had the pleasure of watching this terrible film (terrible, I say!), but based on the clips I've seen on YouTube — mostly PG, alas, but an occasional glimpse sneaks by — stylistically it is only one step removed from the cheerful European sex romps of the early 1970s, which in turn are only one step removed from soft-core Euro-porn of the "Emmanuelle" variety. Readers of my generation may remember seeing one or both genres on late night cable TV in the early 1980s, those ancient days when cable was new and the Spice Channel hadn't been invented yet, to say nothing of the deluge of insta-porn that the Internet gods have bestowed upon us since 1995.

By all accounts, Svezia was not a particularly good film, and it would be buried even deeper in obscurity than it already is were it not for a certain song on its sound track. This song accompanies a scene in which a gaggle of Swedish lovelies are seen promenading along a snowy path, gaily laughing in their casually stylish coats and tights, on their way to the sauna. And then later we see them all inside sauna, now draped in towels — suggestively, to be sure, but still probably safe enough for work.

A link to the YouTube, in case the embed doesn't work for you.

In Italian, the title of the song is spelled "Mah nà mah nà", and while that may look like a caricatured alphabetic and diacritical affectation à la "Häagen Dazs" or "Mötley Crüe", it really is a normal and natural spelling for Italian. The title means nothing at all. It's just nonsense syllables. The movie went nowhere, but the song — with its catchy tune and vaguely hippie-ish style — went on to become an international hit, an anti-anthem for the cheerful hedonism that was the sunny side of the 1960s.

The song was written by Piero Umiliani, a moderately successful Italian film composer. Providing the lead vocals was another Italian composer, Alessandro Alessandroni. Alessandroni was something of a musical jack-of-all-trades. He too wrote some film scores; he also sang, played several instruments, directed a chorus, and was an accomplished whistler. Alessandroni was a good friend of yet another Italian composer, more famous than either of them, one of the greatest film composers of our time, Ennio Morricone. Morricone wrote the soundtracks for several "spaghetti Westerns," and some of these featured the whistling of his friend Alessandroni. On Morricone's most celebrated soundtrack, from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the featured whistler is John O'Neill, but the chorus is Alessandroni's.

Singing the original version of "Mah nà mah nà", Alessandroni four times runs off from the main tune, each time interpolating a melody from another source. The first of these, just after the narration ends, is Hugo Alfvén's "Swedish Rhapsody", a standard light-classical tune of the sort one hears at pops concerts. Alfvén actually wrote three Swedish rhapsodies, and each is a lengthy orchestral work, but this one tune is the one people have in mind when they say "Swedish Rhapsody". Alfvén is arguably Sweden's most famous classical composer — not so much because he's actually famous but only because Sweden, unlike Norway (Grieg), Finland (Sibelius) or Denmark (Nielsen) doesn't have anyone else.

I seem to see Venice, we're on a lagoon.
The gondolier's crooning a gondola tune.
The air makes your hair billow blue in the moon.
I could swoon!

The second "Mah nà mah nà" interpolation (as the girls are going through the door) is from the Italian song "Santa Lucìa". This is one of those in-between songs which is too schlocky and popular to be called classical but too traditional and full-throated to be called pop. In my ignorant youth I used to call these "gondola songs" because I imagined they were the sort of song a gondolier would sing. In fact they have nothing to do with gondolas, and if any real gondolier deigned to sing such a song it would only be for the sake of the ignorant tourist.

Gondolas come from Venice, a city off the northeast coast of Italy. The city of Venice developed when refugees from the declining Roman Empire fled to nearby offshore islands where the land-based invading armies couldn't easily get at them. Since the city was built on little islands on a swamp, the main thoroughfares were canals that wound through the islands. The gondoliers were, and are, the Venetian equivalent of cabdrivers, but instead of driving cars, they push their gondolas around with poles, and they entertain us by wearing dashing striped shirts over their muscular chests while singing romantic Italian gondola songs.

As an A's fan, you should know that one of the few places in the Western Hemisphere where one can enjoy a gondola ride on a genuine Venetian gondola is on Lake Merritt right here in Oakland. If you're a local and you haven't tried this yet, you really need to consider it for your next romantic date. And if you have guests from out of town who think Oakland is boring and want to go to Golden Gate Park, you need to take them on a gondola ride instead. No, they don't pay me to say this, but I love Gondola Servizio and will plug them at any opportunity. The owner, notwithstanding his adopted Italian name, is originally an American, but he really did go to Venice and work as a gondolier there, and he really did meet his wife when she rode on his gondola (heh), and the gondolas they ply on Lake Merritt really are genuine Venetian ones transported here at great expense.

Gondolas are Venetian but nearly all of my "gondola songs" are Neapolitan. "Neapolitan", besides being a kind of ice cream (Hi, Ice Cream!) means from Naples, and Naples is way at the other end of Italy on the southwest coast. Naples has a beautiful bay and lots of sunshine, but no lagoons and no gondolas. The city was founded by Greeks, who called it "Neapolis", meaning "new city". The name evolved to "Napoli" in Italian and "Naples" in English, but the adjective maintains some of the original form.

Like so many foods we know as Italian, Neapolitan ice cream really does have an Italian origin, but it has long been thoroughly Americanized and would barely be recognized by native Italians. It is closely related to spumoni (from spuma = foam), an Italian ice cream which typically has three flavors. When it first came to America in the 1890s Americans just called it ice cream, but since the Italians who introduced it were from Naples, they called it Neapolitan. Traditionally the three flavors were chocolate, cherry and pistachio (see what I did there, Yon?), but the latter two were quickly replaced by more popular strawberry and vanilla. The two discarded flavors happen to be red and green, which not coincidentally are two colors on the Italian flag. They are also the colors of Christmas, leading some vendors today to treat spumoni as a Christmas treat, which traditionally it is not.


Four of the best-known "(not) gondola songs" are 'O sole mio (Mario Lanza!), Torna a Sorrento (Beniamino Gigli!), Funiculì, Funiculà (Giuseppe di Stefano), and Santa Lucìa (Elvis Presley??). All four are Neapolitan, and each celebrates the beauty of Naples in its own way. None of the songs is particularly old. The oldest is "Santa Lucìa", first published in 1849. If you heard one of these songs on the street and thought it a traditional folk song, you'd make the same mistake German composer Richard Strauss did when he incorporated the "Funiculì, Funiculà" tune into an orchestral work, not realizing the song was only six years old at the time. The original composer sued him for royalties and won.

As fans of funicular railways surely know, "Funiculì, Funiculà" was written in 1880 to celebrate the opening of a funicular that took passengers up nearby Mount Vesuvius. A funicular is a special sort of railway-like tram specifically designed to go up steep inclines. The basic concept is that there are two cars attached by a cable that goes around the top, so that when one car goes up the other one goes down. The two are nicely balanced so that the work needed to defy gravity is minimized. Funiculars go back to the early 16th century. The word comes from Latin funis, meaning rope, which was used for cables back then, and the suffix -cular, familiar from such common adjectives as muscular, spectacular and nuclear.

Funicular railways are common in Europe, especially in the alpine regions of Austria and southern Germany. As a sightseer, you might ride one on your way to a famous castle. Many of the greatest castles were built high in the mountains, where they were easier to defend. The traditional approach to the castle was up the Schlossweg, a long, winding path up the mountain with lots of stairs. (Weg = way, and Schloss = castle. The latter is etymologically connected to Schleuse = lock, emphasizing the protective nature of a castle. Susan Slusser's last name is most likely a variation of Schlosser = locksmith.)

Later, when castles became tourist attractions to be opened up, rather than strongholds to be protected, funiculars were built to bring in tourists lacking the stamina to climb the Schlossweg. The views are lovely, as in this short ride up to Hohensalzburg castle, though probably not as lovely as the views along the Schlossweg. For a happy compromise, ride the funicular up and take the stairs on the way down. Don't forget to bring your Brezeln and Weissbier!


The musically celebrated Vesuvius funicular was destroyed when the volcano blew its top in 1944, but the song lives on. The lyrics in the rousing chorus — "Jamme, jamme 'ncoppa, jamme jà!" — have the deep and poetic meaning of "Let's go! Let's go up to the top!"

Casual listeners frequently mistake songs like these for "opera". (Some casual listeners, alas, will assume anything at all in Italian is "opera", even the lamest contemporary pop drivel.) True opera fans and opera singers universally look on these Italian "schlock songs" (as I've heard them called) with scorn. They survive nonetheless, for the same reason that any boring and artless but effective strategy survives, simply because they work. Nothing will get you more bang for your vocalist buck than a Neapolitan song.

Singing real opera, I can assure you from personal experience, is really hard work and not particularly rewarding. You will study for years, practice daily, and compromise your social life by refusing to cheer at sporting events, drink anything with ice in it, or come within five feet of anyone wearing clothing that has been in a room that allows smoking. For your trouble, you will gain the ability to sing an aria like Dalla sua pace without embarrassing yourself, whereupon the cognoscenti will say "Hmm, that wasn't so bad" and everyone else will say, "Zzzz, huh? Uh, that was really boring." Instead, if you're even halfway in shape, you can bust out "Torna a Surriento" at a moment's notice, garnish it liberally with large dollops of singhiozzo, and the audience will say, "ZOMG, you're like Il Divo! I love opera!"

And that's why lazy singers ranging in talent from Luciano Pavarotti to Mario Lanza to Elvis Presley to me keep this junk alive.

I have a vivid but ambivalent memory of an opera fund-raiser concert from late in my "career". It was in 2001, in Oakland. (I think it was at the First Congregational Church at 27th and Harrison, but I wouldn't swear to that.) Typically with a fund-raiser concert of this type, ambitious young opera singers will take the opportunity to try out new material they're working on before a relatively low-stress audience. I, however, was an unambitious old poseur who wasn't working on anything at all, and I really didn't have any aria that could be presentable on short notice without doing a lot more work than I cared to, so I didn't want to participate at all. But the director/producer was a friend and colleague and he had too many women and not enough men (a common plight in the opera world...), so he was twisting my arm. As a compromise, I agreed to sing "'O sole mio". Now, he and I and all the other singers were well aware of what a cheap cop-out this was, but it was that or nothing, so on we went. At the schmoozy reception after the concert, the small but enthusiastic audience cooed over all of us, but I got way more than my fair share of coos. People were asking me "Oh wow, that was so gorgeous, where did you learn to sing like that?" while some poor soprano who sang ... I don't remember what, but it was something monstrously difficult like Martern aller Arten (lovingly known in the biz as "Martern fall-Aparten") ... got "Oh yeah, you were good, too." Life is not fair.

(Sweden produced two renowned operatic tenors. The second most famous of these, the one who was not a regular principal at the Met, the one who is not loud and artless, the one in the Mozart clip a few paragraphs back, is in my opinion the greatest French tenor of all time, paradoxical as that may seem.)

But I digress. As I was saying, the "Mah nà mah nà" guy first interpolates a bit of Swedish Rhapsody and then a bit of Santa Lucìa. Now you're thinking, "OK, I get the Swedish reference, but why the Italian song?" I'm glad you asked, because Santa Lucìa is a Swedish song, too.

In the course of the Protestant Reformation, the Church of Sweden broke from the Catholic Church and adopted the Lutheran faith. Among the many reforms was that Lutherans stopped celebrating all the Christian saints. Well, almost all. A few saints remained in favor, for various reasons. One of these few is St Lucy, a (possibly fictitious) early Christian martyr who in the course of her martyrdom had her eyes gouged out and thus is sometimes portrayed carrying them on a plate.

St Lucy's feast day falls on December 13, which in the pre-reform calendar was the shortest day of the year. In Scandinavia, and especially in Sweden, St Lucy's Day is associated with a traditional solstice celebration. Like so many Christian holidays, it undoubtedly has pre-Christian origins, which the Swedes ecumenically merged with the Christian story, along the way taking advantage of the Latin meaning of the name Lucy ("light") to make it a festival of lights.

The Neapolitan song has little to do with the saint, celebrating instead the picturesque waterfront district of Naples which happens to be named for her. The Swedes nevertheless have hijacked the song and given it Swedish lyrics appropriate to their festival, and it is the theme song of St Lucy's day celebrations in Sweden today. One traditional feature of the celebration is a procession of girls carrying candles through the snow, and it is perhaps no coincidence that this bears a vague resemblance to the procession to the sauna in Scattini's movie.

The third interpolation in the "Mah nà mah nà" song (as the camera begins to survey the girls in the sauna) I am told is the jazz standard "Lullaby of Birdland". Here I must confess my deficiency. Although I am somewhat familiar with this song, my ear is not sufficiently attuned to jazz nuance that I can recognize Alessandroni's odd vocal riffs as resembling anything in the song I've heard Ella Fitzgerald sing.

The fourth interpolation, at the end of the clip, imitates the coda from Irving Berlin's Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (Andrews Sisters!), albeit inexactly.

What Lullaby of Birdland or Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy have to do with sex and drugs in Sweden, I don't know. But hey, I gave you two out of four, which is two more than most of you would have known otherwise.

Don't worry if it's not good enough
for anyone else to hear.
Just sing.
Sing a song.

Anyone who has watched Sesame Street in any era knows that the show is not shy about stealing presenting the popular music of the day, no matter what the genre. Depending on your age, you may remember the Beetles singing Letter B or Bruce Stringbean singing Born to Add.

(This really isn't an example, but just because I love it so much, have a look at Grover in what is possibly the finest performance of his long career. This is from 1977, before later collaborators Zoe and Elmo were even born. Grover's partner is the lovely and talented Madeline Kahn, at the height of her lusciousness in her mid 30s. Our fuzzy blue friend can't disguise how much he is enjoying sitting in her lap, dirty little monster.)

In 1969, the year Sesame Street debuted, the hit song of the day was "Mah nà mah nà", and the show's 14th episode included a sketch in which the song was sung by two muppet girls and a scruffy looking beatnik dude, wearing a striped shirt like a gondolier.

(Here's a link, in case the embed doesn't work for you.)

The Sesame Street version of the song follows the original pretty closely. The first three scat interpolations are the same, but then there are repeats of the Santa Lucìa theme and that other "mana'-ma' mana'-maaah" one with its distinctive rhythm that still doesn't sound like Lullaby of Birdland to me, and no Irving Berlin at the end.

The lyrics of the refrain have changed a bit. In the original Italian/Swedish song, the syllables sung by the chorus sound something like "deet-dee be-dee-bee", but the muppet girls sing "pa-tee pa-tee-pee". My sister and I, when we were kids, always sang it as "peep-pee pa-pee-pee". Whether that's because we saw a different version or because we just got it wrong, I don't know. The above clip of the Sesame Street original doesn't really look very familiar (and I surely never saw the Svezia version!) but I would have been watching some time around 1972, so I'm not sure I'd remember it well in any case.

More versions were produced, as the song was performed by muppets as guests on the Ed Sullivan show and the Dick Cavett show. The look of the lead singer evolved. Though he's still recognizable as the same guy, his hair grew shaggier and more orange, he covered up his gondolier shirt with something green and fuzzy, and he donned a pair of sunglasses to hide his angry-looking monobrow.

His backup singers changed as well. The frumpy muppet girls were ditched in favor of two glamorous looking pink creatures known as "the Snowths". Seeing the name spelled, I'd have guessed it was pronounced with an "oh" vowel, as in "snow" or "growth". However, an exploration of the name's etymology reveals that "snowth" is a portmanteau word, combining "snout" and "mouth", and was originally spelled "snouth", suggesting a prounciation with the "ow" sound in the middle.

This also accounts for another change in lyrics. The most prominent feature of these Snowths, with their characteristic snout-mouth, is their thick and voluptuous yellow lips forming a perfect "O" shape, as if the Snowth is in perpetual readiness to ... um ... uh, to blow smoke rings. Given their round embouchure, one could hardly expect them to sing "deet-dee be-dee-bee" and so they instead sing "do-do do-do-do".

The 1970s in television was the age of the comedy-variety show. Carol Burnett! Sonny and Cher! Laugh-In! Hee Haw! A main host with a mix of regular guests and featured guests, jumbled together in a hodgepodge of comedy skits, musical numbers, and interaction with the live audience. The only thing like it still around today is Saturday Night Live, but in the 1970s the format was all the rage. Everyone who was anyone had to try it. Donny and Marie Osmond! Tony Orlando and Dawn!

And so, in 1976, the Muppets tried it, too, as The Muppet Show. Kermit the Frog crossed over from Sesame Street, but all the other regulars were new folks for the evening show with a more adult audience. The first episode of the Muppet Show featured a remake of the "Mah nà mah nà" song, sung by Mahna Mahna and the Snowths, which is now the most familiar and most popular version.

There are several versions on YouTube, but most of them have the sound blocked out for authorization reasons. The one embedded above and linked here is a foreign broadcast, as evidenced by the subtitles at the end.

By happy coincidence, those subtitles are in Swedish. When Kermit says, "OK, just a second" the words on the screen are "Ett ögonblick", which translates to "one moment". (Ögonblick, like its German cognate Augenblick, is literally an "eye-blink".) "Ett Ögonblick" is also the title of a song by Swedish pop singer Linda Bengtzing.

According to the muppet wiki (they have wikis for everything these days), the muppet who sings "Mah nà mah nà" on the Muppet Show is not the same character who sings it on Sesame Street. The Sesame Street guy used to be named Mahna Mahna, but when the Muppet Show guy came on the scene, he was given the name Mahna Mahna, and the Sesame Street guy was renamed Bip Bippadotta. "Bip bippadotta", besides sounding very matronymic to me, is a good rendering of the rhythm of the first few notes of the Swedish Rhapsody tune, which is still the first interpolation in the Sesame Street version (except that he sings it as "mop mamma-namma") but is abandoned entirely in the Muppet Show version.

A patronymic is a surname which names a person's father (pater = father; nym = name), such as (Dan) Johnson or (Reggie) Jackson. They do the same thing in Swedish, where they even still spell it "son" — unlike in Danish or Norwegian, where it is spelled "sen". (This, incidentally, is how you know that Brett Anderson's family is Swedish while Clay Mortensen's is Danish.). Thus, Jenson is son of Jens, Olson is son of Ole, and Swenson is son of Swen, all of which are normal first names in Swedish, though not in English. By the same logic Bip Bipson might be Bip, son of Bip. Or if Bip is a girl's name, then she could be Bip Bippadotta.

If you are one to question patriarchy rather than just rail against it, you may wonder: Why are so many of us named sons but never daughters? Scarlett Johansson may or may not be Johans' daughter, but she is surely not his son. So why don't we call her Scarlett Johansdotter?

In fact, once upon a time in Scandinavia they did use matronymic names. But Sweden, Norway and Denmark conformed to the patriarchal European standard and gave it up for patronymy. Only Iceland remained sufficiently isolated from Europe to preserve the tradition. To this day, in Iceland most women have a surname ending in -dottir. The current president of Iceland, whose position is mostly ceremonial, is Ólafur Grímsson. The current prime minister, who holds the most political power, is Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir: daughter of Sigurð. Icelandic matronymy isn't restricted to the second part of the name, either. A few Icelanders are named for their mothers. Footballer Heiðar Helguson, for example, is son of Helga, his mother.

That funny-looking letter — ð — is pronounced like the "th" in "other". Old English and old Scandinavian had the same letter, but some time around the Middle Ages they abandoned it for other spellings. Like matronymic names, it persists only in isolated Iceland (and the Faroe Islands).

The word isolated comes to English from isole, an old form of the French word meaning island, which was later shortened first to isle and then île. Isole comes from Latin insula, also meaning island, and thus isolate and insulate have a similar origin but their meanings have evolved down different paths.

Isolated Iceland is a large island, but it's a tiny country in terms of population. The center of the island is a vast wilderness of rock and tundra not suited for human habitation. The settled areas are in little pockets around the coast. The entire country has a population of about 320,000. That's fewer people than in Malta or Luxembourg. Or, for that matter, in the city of Oakland.

I'm so glad we had this time together
Just to have a laugh or sing a song.
Seems we just got started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, "So long."
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