Category Archives: Literature, Lyrics & Poetry

Nisa: 12 Points!

Taratapunt-ti-e - NISA
Taratapunt-ti-e, Storia d’un valzer’ (illustrated by Nisa). An Italian version of the ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay‘ world hit (Edizione Curci, 1933).

Nisa was a talented illustrator of children’s books and designer of sheet music covers (a.o. for the publishers Edizioni Curci and Bixio). Our collection holds a dozen or so Nisa covers, mostly in the typical Italian art-deco style of the Thirties.

'Maria la O'
‘Maria la O’ and ‘Primo Amore’, two songs illustrated by Nisa (s.d.)
'Yava Nera'
‘Yava Nera’ and ‘Canta Bandoneon’, illustrated by Nisa (1932 and 1931)
Photo arrangements by Nisa for the film music
Photo arrangements by Nisa for the film music songs ‘Torna, Piccina!‘ (from the 1936 film ‘Vivere’) and ‘Son Come Tu mi Vuoi‘ (from the 1934 film ‘Il Caso Haller’).

It took us some time to discover that Nisa was a nom de plume for Nicola Salerno (1910-1969), a lyricist born in Naples. During four decades, from the Thirties until the Sixties, Nisa put his mark on Neapolitan music.

NISA - Nicola Salerno portrait
Nicola Salerno (Nisa) in 1938.

He was the writer of many songs, some of them became big hits even out of Italy. One of these songs (Tu vuò fa’ l’americano) was resampled in an Australian version and became a world-wide success in 2010. To experience once again the nervous electronic beats of ‘We No Speak Americano’, have a peek here. Or, you can enjoy the original boogie-woogie version by the cheery Renato Carosone.  (Earworm alert!)


The aficionados of the Eurovision song festival will remember the 1964 winning song ‘Non ho l’età’ (previously also the winner of the Festival di Sanremo). The song is about a girl not being old enough to go out with someone for love and romance. Nisa gave words to this eternal tristesse and longing of the youth:

          Non ho l’età,
          [I’m not old enough]
          Non ho l’età per amarti
          [I’m not old enough to love you]
          Non ho l’età per uscire sola con te
          [I’m not old enough to go out alone with you]

          E non avrei, non avrei nulla da dirti
          [And I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t have anything to say]
          Perchè tu sai molte più cose di me
          [Because you know many more things than me]

          Lascia ch’io viva un amore romantico
          [Let me live a romantic love]
          Nell’attesa che venga quel giorno
          [While I’m waiting for that day to come]
          Ma ora no
[But not now]

The then 16-year-old Gigliola Cinquetti won with historic high scores. The original footage of her performance in Copenhagen was lost, but we have to thank a certain Dave (‘1947dave’s channel’ on YouTube) for editing original stills and video from her 1 minute reprise on top of the original radio broadcast. It gives a pretty good idea of the girl’s triumph in far-away Denmark…

Nisa’s oeuvre of songs spans from 1937 to 1967, so tells us the Italian Wikipedia. Strangely the fascist marching song L’Italia ha vinto (to celebrate the victory over Ethiopia in 1936) is omitted in his authorship list on l’Encyclopedia Libera.

Nisa as a soldier
Nicola Salerno in uniform (possibly during his military service in Africa?)

A stain on our song writer’s reputation? Or a one-time faute de parcours? It makes us wonder how much sympathy the then 26-year old Nisa had for the fascist regime. Mussolini was then already an outspoken supporter of Franco and Hitler, and would two year later enact racist and anti-Semitic laws.

'O Sarracino', (music: Carosone - Lyrics: Nisa), illustrator unknown. Edizioni EDIR, Milano, 1958.
‘O Sarracino’, illustrator unknown. Edizioni EDIR, Milano, 1958.

In 1958 Nisa and his composer companion Renato Carosone again scored a major hit with a song about a cool Casanova. We pluck the following lyric translation from the net:


You can find many versions of the song, but we have a soft spot for the fast pace of Rocco Granata (yes, Marina…) and Buscemi.

Excelsior by Longfellow, a Tale of Hubris

Excelsior‘, a poem by Longfellow set to music by John Blockley, published by Cramer, Beale & C° (London, s.d.). Illustrated by Alexander Laby.

Excelsior (1841), a classical poem, by the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was set to music dozens of times. The cover above illustrates the music for the poem composed by John Blockley.  Excelsior is the most parodied of all Longfellows poems, being almost a parody of itself. The theme of the poem is punishment for human hubris or excessive pride. A boy, bearing a banner ‘Excelsior’, wants to climb higher and higher in the Alps. He ignores all warnings from the local villagers and ends up dead. Half-buried in the snow he is found by a St. Bernard and some monks.

Excelsior was also illustrated for the magic lantern. We found the images of the slides hereunder on Laterna magica’s website. The projection of slides during a singing performance led to a new, often lucrative business of producing these illustrated songs (1). These slides were remarkable because they were handcoloured photographs made of real life models and decors constructed in a studio. These slides immediately preceded cinema.

excelsior3 excelsior5 excelsior6


(1) The Magic Lantern Slide Set to Music: The Illustrated Song Slide, by Nancy A. Bergh, in: ML Bulletin, vol. I, no. 4, January 1980 

William Makepeace Thackeray and the Polka

sheet music illustrated by Thackeray
The Ballymulligan Polka‘ composed by Herr Kleinknochen. Sheet music published by H. Tolkien (London, s.d.). Cover illustrated by William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), famous for his novel Vanity Fair, wrote a number of Christmas books under the pseudonym Michael Angelo Titmarsh. The first one to be published was Mrs Perkins’s Ball in 1847 and it achieved a great success. Thackeray himself drew the colorful illustrations for the short stories and one of these was used for the cover of this piece of contemporary sheet music, The Ballymulligan Polka. As Thackeray was fond of inventing new funny names, the name of the composer Herr Kleinknochen could well be a pseudonym invented by the author.

For the lovers of Thackeray’s prose, we have included  Thackeray’s short story:

Grand Polka

Though a quadrille seems to me as dreary as a funeral, yet to look at a polka, I own, is pleasant. See! Brown and Emily Bustleton are whirling round as light as two pigeons over a dovecot; Tozer, with that wicked whisking little Jones, spins along as merrily as a May-day sweep; Miss Joy is the partner of the happy Fred Sparks; and even Miss Ranville is pleased, for the faultless Captain Grig is toe and heel with her. Beaumoris, with rather a nonchalant air, takes a turn with Miss Trotter, at which Lord Methuseleh’s wrinkled chops quiver uneasily. See! how the big Baron de Bobwitz spins lightly, and gravely, and gracefully round; and lo! the Frenchman staggering under the weight of Miss Bunion, who tramps and kicks like a young cart-horse.

But the most awful sight which met my view in this dance was the unfortunate Miss Little, to whom fate had assigned the Mulligan as a partner. Like a pavid kid in the talons of an eagle, that young creature trembled in his huge Milesian grasp. Disdaining the recognized form of the dance, the Irish chieftain accommodated the music to the dance of his own green land, and performed a double shuffle jig, carrying Miss Little along with him. Miss Ranville and her Captain shrank back amazed; Miss Trotter skirried out of his way into the protection of the astonished Lord Methuselah; Fred Sparks could hardly move for laughing; while, on the contrary, Miss Joy was quite in pain for poor Sophy Little. As Canaillard and the Poetess came up, The Mulligan, in the height of his enthusiasm, lunged out a kick which sent Miss Bunion howling; and concluded with a tremendous Hurroo! — a war-cry which caused every Saxon heart to shudder and quail.

“Oh that the earth would open and kindly take me in!” I exclaimed mentally; and slunk off into the lower regions, where by this time half the company were at supper.