Multilingual Music: A First Look

When I think of multilingual music in the US, my mind goes straight to songs like “Que Sera Sera,” “Danke Schoen,” and other hits of the 1950s and 1960s that were mostly in English but included phrases from other languages and became universal favorites. Or even further back, there’s “Besame Mucho”; I love the 1943 Jimmy Dorsey swing version, sung mostly in English by Kitty Kallen and Bob Eberly (which I discovered on an old 78 in the attic when I was 13), but the original was written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, in Spanish, and it became a global hit in many languages.

A song or text that includes two or more languages was historically called macaronic, and this practice started way back in the Middle Ages with texts that included words from both Latin and another language. A lot of macaronic songs became top-sellers in the US in the 1950s and ’60s. And, surprisingly, a number of songs that weren’t in English at all did too. In 1958, Domenico Modugno’s “Nel blu dipinto di blu,” informally known by its refrain, “volare,” reached the top of the US charts, despite being in Italian, and stayed there for five weeks. Dean Martin released a multilingual version in English and Italian, titled “Volare,” which hit #15 that same year.

In 1963, “Dominique,” a French song by The Singing Nun, was a top US hit, as was a song in Japanese! In 1964, the Beatles had a US chart-topper with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but they were told that if they wanted to break into Germany, they’d need songs in German. That seems laughable now, since Beatlemania turned out to have no language barriers, but conventional wisdom of the time prevailed, and they released “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” and “Sie Liebt Dich” (aka “She Loves You”). They also recorded a cover of “Besame Mucho” in English at a live concert in Germany.

Also in 1964, the song “It’s a Small World (After All),” written by the Sherman Brothers, debuted at the NY World’s Fair, eventually finding a permanent home at Disneyland. As a child, I listened to a multilingual version of the song. You can read about how wildly popular it’s become in an article by Richard Corliss for Time magazine (which also links to a 50th anniversary video sung in many languages). Even if you might be cynical about the commercialism now attached to it, consider that it was written in a sincere attempt to promote world peace.

The singer Connie Francis was a bestselling rock-n-roll and pop singer in the 1950s with hits like “Stupid Cupid” and “Who’s Sorry Now,” and in 1958 she was voted the #1 Female Vocalist of the year in the US. Born Concetta Franconero to first-generation Italian-American parents, Connie had heard several languages from an early age. At her father’s suggestion, she began releasing albums with popular songs from other countries and cultural traditions—on each record some songs were in the original language and others were translated into English. She sang in Italian, German, Yiddish, Spanish, and more (with some help from a diction coach). In 1959, the album Connie Francis Sings Italian Favorites peaked at #4 on the US pop charts, and she made a highly successful career transitioning out of the “teen queen” world to perform in a variety of genres.

How did so many songs that weren’t in English wind up at the top of the US pop charts in the mid-twentieth century? Looking at the lyrics for “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” for the first time now, I’m laughing as I remember that one of my best friends and I (both of us singers into oldies) thought the lyrics went “Oh, Komm, Gob, Komm to Mir”—we thought “gob” was the German word for “girlfriend”! (It’s actually “Komm doch.” See this post explaining doch.) It didn’t matter that we got one word wrong, we knew what it meant—it’s so close to the original in English and there are similar words in each language: Komm/come, Gib/give, and “hand.” In these blogs I’ll be looking at words, music, meaning, and context to try to find answers to some of my questions, and hopefully some of yours.