George De Stefano

My Works

Book Reviews
"The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville" debunks popular notions about the origins of the blues.
What was unique and liberating about the gay influence on Western culture? Gregory Woods tells only part of the story.
Review essay of historian Enzo Traverso's "Fire and Blood"
Review essay about The WikiLeaks Files (PopMatters)
Journalism
Interview with filmmaker Antonino D'Ambrosio about his 2017 documentary, "Frank Serpico"
Rabih Alameddine ("An Unnecessary Woman," "The Hakawati") talks about his sixth novel, "The Angel of History," and about the German-Jewish Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin, the “othering” of Arabs in Western societies, and contemporary gay life, among other matters.
Commentary on the life and political career of Frank Barbaro, the former Brooklyn dockworker and labor organizer who became a New York State representative and Supreme Court justice.
Interview with Booker Prize winner Marlon James, author of "A Brief History of 7 Killings"
In this interview before he announced his run against New York mayor Bill de Blasio, veteran advocate Robert Gangi says that policing in New York City is "institutional bullying."
Op-ed from I-Italy: Real estate values over human values, as an Italian American museum evicts an elderly Italian woman
Remembrance of the late Cosimo Matassa, who recorded many of the great R&B and rock 'n roll hits that defined the New Orleans Sound.
Noted author Richard Campanella recounts the turbulent and colorful history of New Orleans' most famous entertainment and tourism district
Veteran New York left-wing politico Frank Barbaro recalls his radical life, from the Brooklyn waterfront to the New York State Supreme Court
Music Reviews
Review of "Blue and Lonesome" by the Rolling Stones
The older she gets, the better she gets. Review of Lucinda Williams' 2016 double album, "The Ghosts of Highway 20"
A Carolina Chocolate Drop takes center stage
Review essay from Rootsworld (the magazine of the music of the world) about two African music compilations from the Hugh Tracey archives and Tracey's ethnomusicology
Cultural Criticism and Reporting
Italy's biggest folk/world music festival changes direction by returning to its roots for its 19th edition.
"A Finook in the Crew: Vito Spatafore, The Sopranos, and the Queering of the Mafia Genre" (from The Essential Sopranos Reader
Music Features
Sicilian jazz saxophonist Francesco Cafiso thrills the audience-- and this critiic -- in a 2016 concert at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York
Profile of New Orleans producer, songwriter and performer Carlo Ditta (PopMatters)
A roundup of great New Orleans pianists, from Jelly Roll Morton to Davell Crawford
Howlin' Wolf's "Rocking Chair" album -- a track-by-track appraisal of a blues classic (PopMatters)
An Interview with jazz master Joe Lovano
Film Criticism
Essay from "Mafia Movies" (University of Toronto)
Essay
A personal essay about my first trip to Sicily (from VIA, Voices in Italian Americana)
Nonfiction
"Finally, a book that helps to explain America’s enduring fascination with the mythology of the Mafia."
--JOHN TURTURRO

Works

The Original Blues
Contrary to popular belief, the blues were not born on the Mississippi Delta. Historians Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff debunk myths about the origins of blues music, locating them not in the Delta but in southern black vaudeville.

Serpico, Part II
Antonino D'Ambrosio's documentary "Frank Serpico" reveals the man behind the myth more than 40 years after the maverick cop exposed massive corruption in the NYPD -- and was immortalized in Sidney Lumet's 1973 biopic.

Face Forward and Forgetting
Rabih Alameddine's novels are richly imagined works that through the enchantment of storytelling, give form and meaning to lives fragmented by violence, displacement, and disease. "The Angel of History," the sixth novel by the Lebanese-American author, explores modern culture’s refusal to remember the catastrophes of history.

From the Brooklyn Docks to the State Supreme Court: Recalling Frank Barbaro's Radical Life
Frank Barbaro, a working-class champion whose long life spanned the Brooklyn docks, the New York State Assembly, and the State Supreme Court, died September 2016. Barbaro was the last link to the tradition of working-class radicalism exemplified by his hero, Vito Marcantonio, the US Congressman from East Harlem. Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents from Sicily and Calabria, he maintained a lifelong commitment to fighting on behalf of working people, tenants, and the poor, as well as for women’s and gay rights.

Blue and Lonesome
The Rolling Stones in 2016 returned to their roots -- the blues

La Notte della Taranta: Reviving the Tradition
La Notte della Taranta, founded in 1998 to celebrate the musical culture of Salento, the southern tip of the Puglia region, not only is Italy’s biggest festival of traditional music; it’s also one of Europe’s major music events. Over three weeks in August, thousands of local residents, as well as visitors from other parts of Italy, Europe, and beyond, take part in the festival’s concerts and other cultural activities

Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World
In Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World, the British poet Gregory Woods sets out to explain how networks of gay men and lesbians exerted enormous influence on Western culture during the 20th century

Jazz with a Sicilian Accent
At 27, Sicilian saxophonist Francesco Cafiso has more than fulfilled the promise he demonstrated as a child prodigy who, at 14, was hired by Wynton Marsalis to tour with him. With his recent work, he has infused his jazz with sicilianità. In a 2016 New York concert, Cafiso and his trio played a joyous performance that earned a rapturous ovation.

The Ghosts of Highway 20
“I know this road like the back of my hand,” Lucinda Williams assures us on the title track of her superb album, Ghosts of Highway 20. On her 12th studio recording since her 1979 debut, Ramblin’, the singer-songwriter takes the wheel of memory for a trip down the eponymous highway, a real, nearly 200-mile interstate that cuts through the northern part of Louisiana.

Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945
An Epoch of Annihilation Whose Consequences Still Reverberate

Marco Tullio Giordana's The Hundred Steps: The Biopic as Political Cinema
During the 1980s, the political engagement that fuelled much of Italy's postwar realist cinema nearly vanished, a casualty of both the domin ance of television and the decline of the political Left. But as the twentieth century drew to a close, the director Marco Tullio Giordana made "I Cento Passi" (The 100 Steps), a biopic about Giuseppe 'Peppino' Impastato, a leftist murdered in Sicily in 1978 by the Mafia.

Gay Jamaican’s Epic Tale of Violence & Sex in His Homeland
When Marlon James won Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction in October, it came as a surprise to many — including the 44-year-old, out gay Jamaican author. James won for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” a long, violent, sexually explicit, and altogether brilliant novel that takes off from the 1976 attempted assassination of reggae icon Bob Marley to encompass the CIA-backed destabilization of Jamaica during the latter years of the Cold War; political warfare in the ghettos of Kingston, the island’s capital; the crack cocaine scourge of the ‘80s and early ‘90s; and sexuality — and particularly homosexuality.

Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow is My Turn
Everything works on "Tomorrow Is My Turn", an album that heralds the arrival of a major American artist.

What is Carlo Ditta Talkin' About?
When it comes to New Orleans music, Carlo Ditta might not be a household name. But the 59-year-old producer, songwriter, and guitarist has been a vital figure on the Crescent City scene for decades.

The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire
Based on millions of top-secret State Department diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks released in November 2010 – the largest release of government documents in history – the book examines how the US Empire actually operates, the military and economic interventions, the covert actions, the violations of national sovereignty and human rights.

Broken Windows, Broken Lives
In 2017, police reform advocate Robert Gangi announced he would challenge NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is up for reelection. In this 2015 interview, Gangi criticized de Blasio's policing and other policies.

Littler Italy
When the Italian American Museum tried to evict an 85-year-old woman who is one of Little Italy's remaining residents of Italian descent, the reaction was swift and angry.

Addio, Cosimo
Cosimo Matassa, who died September 11, 2014 at 88, was a son of Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans who settled in a working-class, multiethnic French Quarter neighborhood. Matassa became a pivotal figure in American vernacular music through his role in creating “the New Orleans sound” in his recording studios. According to music historian Jeff Hannusch, “Virtually every rhythm and blues record made in New Orleans between the late 1940s and early 1970s was engineered by Cosimo Matassa, and recorded in one of his four studios.”

Piano Professors of New Orleans: 12 Essential Performances
From PopMatters, my roundup of classic jams by great New Orleans pianists, the innovators and those keeping the tradition alive

Bourbon Street, the Street that New Orleanians Love to Hate
Noted author Richard Campanella recounts the turbulent and colorful history of New Orleans' most famous entertainment and tourism district

Pane, Vino, e Finocchio: In (Gay) Sicilia
Personal essay from VIA (Voices in Italian Americana), Purdue University about my first trip to Sicily

“A Burning Hatred for the Ruling Class”: Frank Barbaro’s Radical Life, from the (Brooklyn) Docks to the (New York) Supreme Court
Frank Barbaro, born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York to Italian immigrants, is one of the last living links to a milieu that has been called “the lost world of Italian American radicalism.” An organizer on the mob-infested Brooklyn docks, Barbaro became an attorney and then ran for political office. He represented his Brooklyn district in the New York State Assembly for 26 years, where he chaired the Committee on Labor. After leaving the legislature, he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, serving until he reached the age of seventy-five. Barbaro, though largely retired, occasionally practices law, taking cases that have political import.

See my presentations at SlideShare
View giorgionyc's profile on slideshare

An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America
(Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus, Giroux)

"For years, Italian antidefamation groups have denounced "The Sopranos," as well as such films as "The Godfather" and "GoodFellas," for reinforcing stereotypes ... De Stefano elevates this argument beyond a routine diatribe into a thoughtful, thorough analysis tracing the evolution of these vexing pop-culture icons, why their "dangerous allure" remains an enduring attraction, and how they impact perceptions about Italian-Americans."
--Boston Globe

A whip-smart meditation on the power of ethnic myth, in this instance the one that supposes that to be an Italian American is by definition to walk among the dons and the goombahs. The Mafia, some say, is fading away. But "if the mob indeed is dying, American popular culture tells a different story," writes cultural critic De Stefano. Thanks to The Sopranos, organized crime has been restored in the popular imagination to its proper role as heart and heart" of italianità. So culturally accurate is the show, De Stefano allows, that it may not be possible to correct that perception; even as the mobsters surrounding Tony Soprano take their cultural cues from earlier Mob classics—particularly The Godfather, the touchstone of it all--there are few pop-culture pieces that do not echo The Sopranos, few that depict Italian Americans as being, well, just plain folks without conniving, murderous streaks to wrestle with. De Stefano writes elegantly of self discoveries: As a bearded radical (à la Al Pacino's Serpico, one imagines) just beginning to be aware of being gay, he was still thrilled by Don Corleone, only to wonder later whether there weren't more to the story. He examines the rise of the mobster in popular culture, tracing its origin to the 1930 film The Doorway to Hell (and not, as many histories do, to the following year's Little Caesar), and follows its course through the thick stereotypes of the Untouchables era, to the pensive doings of Martin Scorsese's rebel gangsters and, finally, to David Chase's current depictions, which have anti-defamation groups at a constant boil. Should they be so bothered? De Stefano is sympathetic, but he wonders whether an unlinking from the mob and all its symbolism might not mean "the end of the Italian American as a protagonist in American popular culture." What's worse, to be seen in a negative light--or to not be seen at all? A good question, and a very good source for those who like to scratch below the surface. Kirkus Reviews

“De Stefano knows the gangster genre inside out, making it a pleasure to follow his thoughts on favorites like ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Donnie Brasco,’ ‘Goodfellas’ and the ‘Godfather’ trilogy, as well as lesser-known films like ‘A Bronx Tale.’"
Marilyn Stasio -- New York Times Book Review

“…De Stefano takes a careful look at the appeal of the Mafia in popular culture: how the image of the Italian gangster developed and how it affects Italian-Americans. He traces the evolution of the gangster in film, from the "roguishly charming" Irish gangster (James Cagney in Public Enemy) to the sinister Italian who replaced him (Paul Muni in Scarface). Southern Italian immigrants, who came to the U.S. in unprecedented waves, were seen as "unassimilable... irreducibly foreign" (according to an 1883 New York Times editorial), and De Stefano presents their history and the history of the Mafia, debunking some commonly held ideas, especially the myth that the Mafia is rooted in a centuries-old Sicilian tradition. De Stefano meticulously documents books, TV and films, especially the Godfather series, the work of Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos. He cites Italian-American writers and academics on how the perception of Italians as mobsters affects the community and contributes his own responses. And despite his conclusion that the Mafia "is now the paradigmatic pop culture expression of Italian-American ethnicity," De Stefano allows that Italians have succeeded in mainstream America. The book lacks a narrative arc, but the author has done a fine job with a complex and provocative subject. -- Publishers Weekly

“Not a history of organized crime but a study of how we think about organized crime, more precisely about Italians and crime. . . Valuable and interesting.”
Elliott J. Gorn -- Chicago Tribune

"Finally, a book that helps to explain America’s enduring fascination with the mythology of the Mafia." -- John Turturro

Rocking Chair Blues
For 12 consecutive weeks PopMatters ran my track-by-track analysis of Howlin' Wolf's "Rocking Chair" album, one of the most influential recordings in the history of the blues and an ur-text for many rock artists -- The Rolling Stones, The Doors,Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes, Lucinda Williams, and many more.

The Hugh Tracey Recordings:Colonial Dance Bands and Bulawayo Jazz
Bulawayo Jazz and Colonial Dance Bands comprise some 50 tracks that Hugh Tracey, the noted English collector of African music, recorded between 1950 and 1952, before liberation movements transfered power from Europeans to Africans.

Bread, Wine, and Soul
In 1995,I interviewed the great saxophonist Joe Lovano for the journal Voices in Italian Americana (VIA)about his career in jazz, and how his Sicilian background has influenced his music.


Mediated Ethnicity, a new collection of critical essays, includes my "Identity Crises: Race, Sex, and Ethnicity in Italian American Cinema"
"This collection offers a fresh re-reading and re-imagining of Italian Americans in film, from actors to directors, from subject to agency. The trans-Atlantic discourse that emerges from these keenly insightful essays offers a guidepost for future analyses. As we come to understand the evolving paradigm of Italian Americans, whose cinematic representation has long been object of discussion and debate, Mediated Ethnicity constitutes a prismatic lens through which the contemporary viewer/reader may re-discover the cultural positioning of Italians in America." - John Tintori Associate Arts Professor and Chair, Graduate Film Program New York University Tisch School of the Arts

"A Finook in the Crew"
"A Finook in the Crew: Vito Spatafore, The Sopranos, and the Queering of the Mafia Genre" looks at one of the most controversial and compelling Sopranos narratives -- that of the gay gangster Vito Spatafore. From The Essential Sopranos Reader" (University of Kentucky Presses)


My book "An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America," published by Faber & Faber/​Farrar, Straus, Giroux

"Finally, a book that helps to explain America’s enduring fascination with the mythology of the Mafia."
-- John Turturro

“De Stefano knows the gangster genre inside out, making it a pleasure to follow his thoughts on favorites like ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Donnie Brasco,’ ‘Goodfellas’ and the ‘Godfather’ trilogy, as well as lesser-known films like ‘A Bronx Tale.’"
-- Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review

“De Stefano broadens his study in fascinating, unexpected ways. In the book's most provocative chapter, he tackles the prickly topics of race and racism as a ''recurring motif" in organized crime narratives… his discussion is…lively and compelling.”
-- Renée Graham, The Boston Globe

“A whip-smart meditation on the power of ethnic myth, in this instance the one that supposes that to be an Italian American is by definition to walk among the dons and the goombahs.”
-- Kirkus Reviews

“…De Stefano takes a careful look at the appeal of the Mafia in popular culture: how the image of the Italian gangster developed and how it affects Italian-Americans . . . De Stefano meticulously documents books, TV and films, especially the Godfather series, the work of Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos.
-- Publishers Weekly

“An Offer We Can't Refuse invites Italian-Americans of all backgrounds to the family table to discuss the issues of how mob-related movies and television shows have affected the notion of what their heritage still means in the 21st century… provocative and lively.”
-- Allen Barra, The Baltimore Sun

“Not a history of organized crime but a study of how we think about organized crime, more precisely about Italians and crime. . . Valuable and interesting.”
-- Elliott J. Gorn, Chicago Tribune

Quick Links

Find Authors