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The ballad of Johnny Goobello

I first heard of Johnny Goobello one evening many years ago, when I was around 17 years old – at a birthday celebration for my father.

Everyone was there that night – siblings, cousins, aunts, great aunts, great cousins, our family priest. Everybody. The cake came out and the room was buzzing, with everyone saying the kinds of things people always say when there’s birthday cake:  “what a beautiful cake” and  “Where did you find this?”, “Did you make it yourself?” and of course, “I don’t want such a big piece!” As the cake was being cut, someone began singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in honour of my father and the rest of the people in the room joined in.

For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow
For he’s a jolly good fellow …. which nobody can deny!

It’s the kind of tune that people know by heart and can sing along to without thinking – like the Happy Birthday song.  I later learned that the British version replaces “which nobody can deny” with the phrase: “and so say all of us,” but regardless of this difference, wherever the song is sung it is part of a collective unconscious – something everyone raised with it just knows.

Everyone except my mother.

At the end of the song, she turns to the person standing next to her, and in her thick Italian accent, she asks:

“I hear-a this song for so many years, but one thing I always want to know, who is-a this Johnny Goobello we always singing about?”

Several family members overheard this exchange and for a moment a quiet shock swept through the room. There was a pause. A piece of cake slid off someone’s plate and plopped softly onto the floor. Another person struggled to keep from gagging, as their drink went down the wrong pipe.

My mother had thought the song went like this:

For he’s a Johnny Goobello, for he’s a Johnny Goobello
For he’s a Johnny Goobello …. which nobody can deny!

As the realisation of her misunderstanding spread, the silence broke and the laughter began. It soon grew to be the kind of ostentatiously loud laughter that can only come from a room filled with 15 Italian-Americans hopped up on birthday cake.


“Wait – what’s going on – what did she say?”

“Who’s Johnny Goobello? What?!”


My mother really didn’t understand why we found the whole thing so funny.

“I thought the song was about someone named Johnny Goobello! How am I supposed to know? We don’t have-a this song in Italy!”

This was the moment Johnny Goobello first entered my consciousness. I didn’t know it at the time, but despite this inauspicious start, Johnny would eventually grow to become an important presence in my life.

But not then, not yet. At that moment, Johnny Goobello was just a joke. A mistake made by an Italian lady who didn’t understand English so good. A goofy misunderstanding and nothing more.

So I laughed along with everyone else. I laughed at my mom and I laughed at the idea of a “Johnny Goobello.” I laughed longer and louder and more cruelly than anyone, because this was just the latest chapter – I had been teasing my mom about her accent and mocking the way she spoke for my entire life.

“Why you make-a fun of me?”

English was always a bit of a struggle for my mom. She had never studied it in school or taken any classes as an adult – everything she knew, she had picked up on her own. She had built up a strong vocabulary over the years, but she never managed to soften her accent and she was prone to non-sequiturs and odd turns of phrases. Growing up in a small town in upstate New York, I didn’t know anyone else with an Italian accent and didn’t appreciate how hard it was to learn to speak another language, so I just thought the way she spoke was funny.

The things she said were strangely memorable. If you stood too close to my mom, especially while she was trying to cook, she would say to you “Why you stand-a so close? Go away. You make-a me nervous.” If she won a hand of cards, or did something unexpected or surprising, she’d often exclaim: “Hah! How you like-a me now?”

Once, when I was still learning to drive, she yelled at me: “Hey, slow down – you drive-a like a cowboy!” I protested that cowboys are generally known more for riding horses than driving cars, but she wasn’t having any of it. “You think-a you so funny. Just drive-a like a normal person, not a cowboy.”

Each time she said something slightly off-kilter like this, I laughed, but I also memorised what she had said – the exact wording, the accent, the intonation. Later, I would mimic it to the rest of my family and then to my friends.

And it wasn’t just me, others came to imitate my mom as well. Her phrases used to spread like a virus among family, friends – and even friends of friends – in the small community where I grew up. My buddies and I would quote her, shouting “Hey! Don’t drive-a like a cowboy” at each other as we cruised around our small town. We’d even quote her own words back to her. Usually, she would laugh. Sometimes she would threaten to hit you with one of the many wooden spoons she always seemed to have right at hand, vowing: “You make-a fun of me? Go ahead and laugh. I get-a you back. You’ll see!”

One time my incessant teasing made her so angry that she lost her cool. She said: “you know what, you’re a fucking head!”

I had never heard her curse before – not once – so I figured that she was a bit confused. “Mom! What are you talking about? Did you just call me a fucking head? Do you even know what you’re saying? What’s a fucking head?”

Her reply showed her mind was perfectly clear: “I tell you what it is – it’s-a you! You are the fucking head!”

Soon after that, calling someone a “fucking head” became the big catchphrase in my town.

All this was a mere preface to the Johnny Goobello incident.

So while there was a long history of me teasing my mother about her accent and the way she spoke- the misunderstanding around “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” clearly was the big one – the funniest, oddest, most quotable thing she had ever said.  I was already busy practising how I would pronounce “Who is-a this Johnny Goobello,” when I noticed that something was different this time. She looked embarrassed and hurt.

I didn’t understand – my mom didn’t take herself too seriously and she was tough. She didn’t get embarrassed or hurt. She got-a you back with a whack of her wooden spoon. But not this time. Something about this Johnny Goobello business had cut a little too deeply.

The birthday celebration eventually moved along, but the incident lingered in the air, and not just for that evening. For the rest of her life, she would immediately get upset if you made any mention of Johnny Goobello. And people would try – it was too good of an anecdote to resist. But any time you started to tell the story of Johnny Goobello, my mom would leave the room. It was meant to be a funny story – hilarious even – but you’d feel bad rather than good by the time you got done telling it. It was the one thing that you just couldn’t tease her about.

I used to think that the reason it bothered her so much was pretty straightforward – that she didn’t like being reminded of a time when everyone was laughing at her. Of course, that was part of it, but something about it also affected her in a less obvious, but more profound way. It was something I didn’t understand until much later in my life.

It hurt because, for her, on some level, Johnny Goobello had been real and he mattered to her in ways she probably couldn’t even express.

He wasn’t just some mistake, Johnny had lived unnoticed somewhere deep in her consciousness for her entire life. And on the same evening that he emerged from her subconscious – at that exact moment – we, her own family had mocked him, laughed at him and denied he even existed. We tried to turn him into a joke. But Johnny was no laughing matter. For my mother, he had been an unnamed, but very real symbol of hope through an extremely difficult childhood.

From L to R, my grandmother, aunt and mother circa 1961

The lady from Bologna with the wooden spoon in her hand and Hollywood dreams in her eyes

She was born in Sicily at the outbreak of World War II and spent much of her early years in poverty- raised in a convent by nuns as she recovered from malnutrition and a series of illnesses that her parents weren’t equipped to handle. At 10 years old, she was finally deemed well enough by the nuns to rejoin her family, who were virtual strangers to her.

They lived in an overcrowded cold-water flat in the middle of Bologna, where the entire family moved after the war to escape the crushing poverty of the south. Her father sold black-market cigarettes to make ends meet. Everyone knew him, as he plied his wares in the middle of Piazza Maggiore – the huge square right in the centre of town. He had a reputation. My mother didn’t come from a “good” family. They were southerners and slightly unsavoury ones at that.

She even looked different. She had a prominent scar on her face, just above her lip – from a childhood accident where she had tipped a small pan of boiling water over herself while reaching up to the stove. Some of the more well-off kids used to make fun of her and throw rocks at her. She picked them up and threw them right back. “I get-a you back!” She didn’t have it easy, but she never backed down and she never spent time feeling sorry for herself.

She had two older sisters and they were the ones who got all the attention. She was 19 years old and working in a shoe factory when she had her first real date. He was a strapping, blonde-haired Italian-American student who had come to Italy all the way from Brooklyn to study medicine at the University of Bologna. It was a blind date, but they had instant chemistry. She was happy, funny and constantly smiling. Her enthusiasm and optimism – that’s what really impressed my dad. On their second date, they got engaged. Just like that.

For my mom, the sickly girl with the scar on her face from the poor Sicilian family, it must have seemed like a hard-to-believe fairy tale come true – her whole life had changed in an instant, and now she was going to go to America to become a Doctor’s wife.

As unlikely as this real-life story may have been, I don’t think she was surprised by how things turned out for her. Like everyone else in cinema-mad Italy, my mother had grown up on a steady diet of imported American movies, but for her, they were more than just entertainment. They had embedded in her a vision of a great big world filled with handsome leading men, sweep-you-off-your-feet romances, and happy Hollywood endings. Now she was getting to live out one of those stories. I’m sure that despite any and all challenges she faced, she had never expected anything less. “How you like-a me now?”

A movie venue in Bologna, Italy

Cinema Paradiso

That is where I think Johnny Goobello was born – in the darkened cinema houses of Italy, where you could find a sanitised, idealised and dubbed-into-Italian version of the USA for just a handful of lira coins.

There were home-grown films as well, but those weren’t the same. Much of Italy’s post-war cinema was focussed on neo-realism – real people facing real-life situations. Many of these movies, such as The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette) have since become classics, but this wasn’t the kind of thing that interested my mom – at any point in her life. Show her a serious, worthy film and she would say “Ay – who wants to watch-a this depressing thing?”

No, for her, the cinema was for escapism, not social realism. A place inhabited by reckless but brave cowboys like Gary Cooper in High Noon – he was a Johnny Goobello. Or charming and cheeky characters like Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday – another Johnny Goobello.

Whatever film you found him in, Johnny was handsome and he was successful. You wouldn’t find him working at the shoe factory. He’s a big shot. He’s strong – the kind of man who never seeks out violence, but doesn’t back down from a fight when it’s necessary. He can be rakish, but underneath his wry smile, he has a strict moral code, especially when it comes to ladies, who he treats with respect. He’s old-fashioned in that regard – the kind who holds a door open for a woman. Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster – all of them were Johnny Goobellos. She just hadn’t given them that name yet – that would come later – but the concept was there. Johnny was there. He was an avatar of the American dream. The leading man. The hero.

Meeting my father proved that this cinema dream could be made real. He was no Cary Grant, who was? But he was definitely a Johnny Goobello. He fit the bill: American, tall, handsome, confident, unfailingly polite and on the verge of starting a successful career as a doctor. What more could you ask for?

My mother and father in Italy, circa 1961

Benvenuto in America: “Why do you talk so funny?”

After my father graduated, they got married and moved to America. My mother left behind her family, her culture – everything she had ever known. She didn’t speak even a single word of English. Not even hello.

It didn’t take her long to discover that America wasn’t exactly like it was in the movies. First off, nothing was dubbed into Italian. You had to struggle to understand everything – learning the language slowly, word by word.

Even when you made some progress, it never seemed to be enough. It was especially tough for her when my father was drafted into the military and wound up being stationed on an Air Force base in Laredo Texas. There she encountered a group of people who would be the bane of her life: rednecks.  Cafoni, she would call them, using the closest Italian word.

These cafoni thought her lack of English was some kind of character defect that they couldn’t understand or relate to. They didn’t know what it was like to try to learn a new language. For some of them, it seemed as if they had never even heard of Italy.

“Why do you talk so funny? Where you from?”

“What’d you say you were? EYE-talian?” 

“Hey Doc, why don’t you teach that Mexican wife of yours to speak English properly?”

But don’t get the wrong impression. She was no pushover and she definitely wasn’t a victim. You make-a fun of her, she make-a fun of you. Call-a her Mexican, she call-a you a stupid cafone right to your face, for not knowing the difference between Mexico and Italy. She never went looking for a fight, but she never backed down from one either.

Sometime during those early years in America, she must have heard the song, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for the first time. Her English may not have been strong, but she clearly understood the song’s intent and meaning, if not its actual wording. It was a song of popular acclaim, where everyone joined along in the celebration, so when she imagined she heard a name, an Italian-American name, as the object of praise it made perfect sense to her. “For He’s a Johnny Goobello” – whoever this Johnny Goobello is or was, he was the ideal that we try to live up to. Even to be compared to him was great praise, so he must be someone really special – this Johnny Goobello.

It’s not hard to imagine the image he must have conjured up in the back of my mother’s mind – forged in her early experiences of America – someone great and admirable –  a Gary Cooper, a John F Kennedy, a Marlborough Man, a Neil Armstrong. A real American hero, an idol and an icon. It all fit with the way her life had played out for her.

Sure, life wasn’t always easy, and there were some stupid people in the USA who would make fun of you for being foreign or different, but you could never describe her as disappointed in her adopted country. How could she be? America may have been imperfect, but it was incomparably more comfortable than Italy – there was more than enough space for everyone; the streets were filled with big cars, the supermarkets were brimming with food and nobody had to do without hot water. People had microwave ovens, swimming pools and fancy clothes that you could just throw away when you got sick of them. Most importantly, she had a handsome, successful husband, a big house and children of her own. Johnny Goobello had kept up his end of the bargain. No wonder they made a song about him.

Billy the kid meets Johnny Goobello

This is around the time that I come into the picture. I was born on that Air Force base in Texas, right smack in the middle of the land of the cafoni. She had given my older brother and sister proper Italian first names. But for me, her third child, she came up with the most American name she could think of: Billy, named after Billy the Kid, the western outlaw she had seen in American movies back home in Italy. It was a kind of grudging tribute to Texas.

My mom was trying her hardest to assimilate. By this point, she only  spoke English around the house, which means I grew up not being able to speak even a single word of Italian. Not even buongiorno.

She wasn’t ashamed of her heritage or her language – far from it – she saw herself as being in a sink or swim situation and she did what she had to in order to cope. Plus, she loved America and was embracing it as best as she could. I also suspect a big part of her wanted to improve her English just so she could better respond to the rednecks: “I show you, I speak-a better English than you!”

It was also around this time that she took the biggest step of all away from the country of her birth and towards the USA, when she renounced her Italian citizenship and became a naturalised American citizen. On a day to day basis, all that really remained to remind you that she had ever been Italian, was her accent.

The same accent I would wind up making fun of on a nearly daily basis.

My mom had been right. I was a fucking head.

I wasn’t consciously trying to be a jerk, but when I was a kid – much like my fellow rednecks from Texas – I just didn’t really know any better. My mom had tried to tell me stories about the old country but I had never shown any real interest. It seemed so foreign and so far outside of my experience, that it was only good for a joke.

But little by little, I grew up and I became less of a fucking head.

I think my transformation started the night of the Johnny Goobello incident. After that, I started to think a little bit more about the way I teased my mother and maybe I started to realise that there was more to being Italian than just having a “funny” accent. And as I got older, I got the opportunity to leave home and travel. When I was 19, I went to Italy the first time. I would go back over and over again in the years to come. I got to know my mom’s Italian family – my aunts, my uncle, my cousins. They’re lovely people who I care for very much. These experiences made all those old stories that I hadn’t paid attention suddenly feel important and real.

Eventually, instead of rolling my eyes when my mom would talk about Italy, I would actually come to ask her about her experiences. Once I really started listening, I learned so much – about the nuns who raised her when she was very young. How they made her feel special and loved, and how, with infinite patience, they taught her to read and write.  I learned about how she cried when she was re-introduced to her family. She was afraid because she didn’t know them and she wanted to stay with the nuns. How she learned to love her family, even though she feuded constantly with her older sisters. How her younger brother would follow her everywhere around Bologna, even sneaking along as an unwanted witness on that fateful date where my mother first met my father. And I learned all about the movies she loved – especially the cowboy movies. She would watch with them with her little brother by her side, with money she had earned herself, working at the factory.

When I finally visited Bologna for the first time in my twenties, it was like being transported back in time. The city hasn’t changed and it doesn’t change – even today, it still feels like the same university town it was in the 1960s. I ate at some of the same restaurants my parents used to frequent when they were young. Enjoying hand-made tortellini or Bollito Misto underneath the portici. Drinking espressi macchiati in centuries-old bars. Strolling along Via Della Independenza into Piazza Maggiore, past the Bologna’s old towers, just as my mom would have done many years before. I even got to see the exact spot that my grandfather used to sell his cigarettes from. My mom showed it to me – on the one trip to Bologna that we made together, just a few years ago. I have a photo of my daughter and my mother standing in that infamous corner, the two of them engaged in a conspiratorial conversation. Bologna has become one of my favourite places on the planet – a magical place filled with amazing food, culture and family history.

About twenty years ago, I even took the plunge myself and became an Italian citizen. It took years of work gathering the necessary documents and negotiating through Italy’s opaque bureaucratic requirements. People would ask me why I went to the trouble. “You’re not going to move to Italy, are you? So why do all that work?”

I became an Italian citizen because it was my heritage and I had learned to become proud of it. I went from dismissing and mocking my mother’s foreign-ness to admiring it and embracing it. I would even attempt to speak to my mother and father in Italian, as I tried to learn the language. It wasn’t easy and I made many mistakes, but my mom never made fun of me – or my Italian accent. Not once.

How you like-a me now? 

Despite all this apparent personal growth, it might surprise you to hear that I have never stopped imitating my mom’s accent. In fact, I still quote her nearly every day. “You make-a me nervous.” “Why you make-a fun of me?” “Don’t drive-a like a cowboy!” These kinds of sayings have  become too much a part of the way I communicate for me to ever stop. And I don’t want to stop. It’s different now. It’s tribute, not teasing and it comes from affection and not ignorance. It comes from a place of respect for my mom and what she went through to live her life the way she did – with optimism, pride in her home country, belief in herself and belief in America as a place where dreams could come true.

Mock that idealism if you will, but here’s what I came to learn about my mother, that should have been obvious to me, but wasn’t: you could call my mom names, you could tease her, make fun of the way she spoke, even throw rocks at her, but the one thing she couldn’t bear was anyone mocking her dreams. Johnny Goobello was off-limits.

That’s why today, I still think about Johnny Goobello from time to time and about how wrong I was to laugh at him all those years ago. Every time I hear that Jolly Good Fellow song now, I think to myself – they’ve got the lyrics wrong. My mom ‘s version is better. “They ought-a fix-a that thing.” That’s what I think.

My mother passed away last year after a long illness. But let’s not dwell on that. She wouldn’t like it. “Who wants to read-a this depressing thing?” No, my memories of my mother are happy ones – about her near-infinite patience with all the nonsense I inflicted on her. About all the funny things she said, and how she was willing to laugh at herself. How she never picked a fight, but never backed down from one either. About all the hardships she went through to live out her dreams and become successful on her own terms.

The image that sticks most in my head, is that of my mother and my daughter sitting on the couch, watching TV, which they did frequently after my mom had become too unwell to go out much.  Together, they would watch hours and hours of the same old black and white westerns that my mom had loved as a child – the two of them wearing matching cowboy hats. My daughter would shout at the TV in imitation of her grandmother: “Why he shoot-a him? He’s-a killing everybody!” My mom would laugh, like she always did. She was a good sport.

She was a Johnny Goobello.



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3 thoughts on “The ballad of Johnny Goobello

  1. Without knowing the real story of your mother, I knew there was something special about her. To me she was confident and competent. She was happy being around her children. I can see why you’d be embarrassed by her accent. To me, who grew up in Italian rich Brooklyn, her accent was comforting, reassuring. Those Italian moms, devoted to their families and their kitchens! Thank you for sharing Johnny Goobello. I like him too.

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