[Francesco Daddi, full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly right]. Copyright by Matzene, Chicago, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-103861. Prints and Photographs Collection.
The Italian American population numbers more than fourteen million through the fourth generation. The largest wave of immigrants (around four million) arrived in the United States at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century. The majority hailed from the largely overpopulated and poor central and southern parts of Italy, where the populace had been impoverished by centuries of foreign misrule, natural disasters and political unrest. They settled in major urban centers like New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco. After Italian unification in 1861, the Italian government initially encouraged emigration to relieve economic pressures in the south.
The rich musical heritage that the Italian immigrants brought with them  has had a major impact on shaping United States culture as a whole; Italian Americans and Italian nationals who have spent significant amounts of time in the United States have played an important role in both classical and popular music in the United States.
Visiting Italian opera singers like Enrico Caruso were main attractions at American opera houses in the early twentieth century, paving the way for singers who immigrated and those of Italian heritage born in the United States. Pop stars such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Vic Damone have garnered millions of American fans for their easy-going vocal style and charisma. 
Far from being regarded as an elitist art form, opera has been an integral part of Italian American culture across all social classes. Many working class people regarded Caruso as a hero. The Library of Congress' collection not only includes digitized recordings of songs performed by the great Neapolitan tenor (including the artist's first aria for the Victor Talking Machine Company, "Vesti La Giubba" from I pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, recorded in 1904) but also sheet music written by composers in his honor. 
Starting in the early 1900s, there was a thriving commercial market in the United States for Italian American vocal music. According to Mark Caruso, the author of Amore: The Story of Italian American Song, Enrico Caruso's recording of "Vesti La Giubba," "would determine the course of how music was recorded, and, through the purchasing power of its millions of listeners, how records were bought."  Popular American stars of opera also recorded duets with Caruso, making the most of the audiences for both singers. For example, Romanian American opera star Alma Gluck recorded "Brinidisi," from La Traviata with the famous Italian tenor.
In the 1907 Francesco Daddi, a tenor who had already become famous on the stages of Europe, immigrated to the United States from his native Naples and became popular both on the stages of New York and Chicago, but also through many recordings, some of which are available in this presentation. An example is "A serenata de' rose," recorded in 1908.
By 1940, more music and language recordings had been made by Italian Americans than by any other non-English-speaking group. In the 1940s and 1950s, Italian American vocal music entered the mainstream culture of the United States.
Frank Sinatra, arguably the United States' first bona fide pop idol, helped to bridge the gap between the old and new worlds. The New Jersey-born singer grew up listening to Italian opera arias by the likes of Caruso as well as old Italian folk songs. His voice, effortlessly lyrical yet edgy, fused the bel canto stylings of Italian grand opera with the romanticism of Neapolitan folk music.
The recordings of songs by Italian Americans in the Library of Congress' collection include popular songs, regional folk songs and hybrid Italian American fare.
Italian folk songs include many that are humorous, such as "La Tabacchera Mia" ("My snuffbox"), sung by Giuseppe Russo, which makes fun of the habit of taking snuff. Humorous songs about Italians by other ethnic groups reinforce negative stereotypes about Italian culture. Chico Marx was famous for his comic depiction of an Italian character, including songs in fake dialect, but, in spite of the accent, his character always was capable of outsmarting everyone. An example from the Library's folklife collections is "Bury me in the fruit-a-stand," a song sung by Leon Ponce in mock Italian dialect, using a stereotype of Italians as fruit stand vendors.
Italians who came to the United States during or shortly after the first World War, brought with them songs related to that conflict, such as "Addio, Mama," sung by Louis Brangone, which is the song of a soldier saying farewell to his family as he departs for the front in 1914 and "La Piave," a song performed by Mario Olmeda about the Battle of the Piave River that took place June 15—23, 1918, a turning point in the war.
Italian Americans also enjoyed singing socially, during festivals, in cafes and restaurants and in their homes. The Library of Congress possesses field recordings captured by the folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell in Concord, Martinez, Pittsburg, and Woodside, CA in the 1930s of emigrants singing unaccompanied songs in Italian and Sicilian dialects as well as photographs and commentaries.
These recordings are part of a multi-format online collection entitled California Gold: Northern California Music from the Thirties, the songs are culled from The WPA California Folk Music Project, a joint effort of the Work Projects Administration, the Library of Congress, and the Music Division of the University of California, Berkeley, to document folk music being actively performed in Northern California. The project, which ran from 1938-40, was one of the earliest attempts to document the performance of English-language and non-Black, non-American Indian, ethnic folk music in the United States.
In addition, the Library of Congress Folklife Center collection features a recording made in 1939 as part of a similar WPA ethnography project in Florida, headed by Stetson Kennedy, of an "Italian rhymed prayer" performed by Augustine Vicari, an Italian American born in Ybor City (now a neighborhood within Tampa, Florida).
In the later twentieth century Italian American vocal artists continued to exert a major influence on popular culture in the United States. While famous Italian Ameircan singers such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin were influenced by their Italian heritage in their English-Language recordings, recordings of Italian-language songs sometimes became hits for various American popular singers, such as the traditional song, "Santa Lucia," "O Sole Mio," by Giovanni Capurro and Eduardo di Capua, and "Volare," by Franco Migliacci and Domenico Modugno.
- For more information on Italian American collections in the archive of the American Folklife Center, see the finding aid: Italy Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture. [back to article]
- "Italian Music" by Mark Levy in Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) [back to article]
- Caruso's recording of "Vesti La Giubba" from I pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. Sheet music for "Goodbye Mr. Caruso," a song by Albert Piantadosi and Billy Dunham is available here. The score is held in the Music Division collection. [back to article]
- Rotella, Mark Amore: The Story of Italian American Song (New York: Farrar, Straus &Giroux, 2010)[back to article]
- Italian American section of "California Gold: Northern California Music from the Thirties."
- Italian American section of "Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942."
- Italy Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture (finding aid, includes Italian American).
- Rotella, Mark, 2010. Amore: The Story of Italian American Song.
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.