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Greek-American Stories: An Eagle has Soared

As a Greek singer, song writer, musician, Grigoris Bithikotsis gave Hellenic folk music a long-lasting, stunning moment. Born in Peristeri, Athens, in 1922 to a poor family of eight children, he became interested in music at a very early age. With strict economy prevailing at home, he bought a bouzouki but had to hide it at his friend’s house because his father didn’t approve of the new rembetico style of music that had just begun becoming popular and had captured his avid interest as it slowly did the country.

He became a plumber and worked at it during the day, but having a rich singing voice and a driving ambition, he began singing at night with his bouzouki at a tavern in his neighborhood where he introduced and sang the songs he had written. In a short time, the tavern gained a growing popularity, pleasing and giving Bithikotsis more incentive.

He composed almost 200 songs in five decades, among them, ‘Stu Belami to Ouzeri’ and ‘Tou Votanikou o mangas’.

His thoughts about humanity and history were passionate and had  influenced the lyrics of many of his compositions like ‘To Tragoudi Tou Nekrou Aderfou’, (1962) and ‘Na ‘tane To ‘21’(1969). There can be no doubt that Bithikotsis was a true patriot and loved his country. During WWII, his brother was inducted in the army and fought in Albania. But, during the reign of King Paul and Frederika being a leftist wasn’t tolerated, and so in 1947, on that very prejudiced basis for a decision, he was exiled to the infamous island of Makronisos where political prisoners were sent. There he met fellow inmate, Mikis Theodorakis, who appreciated the fine voice of the fellow inmate who refused to let the melancholic situation subdue him, and together they formed a friendship that lasted well after their release.

After his release, Mikis had written a song, ‘Epitafios’ and he wanted only Grigoris to sing and record it. It proved a most excellent arrangement and it became an instant, lasting masterpiece.

Most of Grigoris’s songs had a philanthropic note of peace and friendship, of love unrequited, and, in another composition, a dedication to other artists like the inimitable Stratos Dionysiou.

Throughout his life he performed many concerts, made numerous recordings, and never relinquished what he believed in. One concert, performed on his 80th birthday in Athens, was most memorable. The great writer and scriptwriter, Dimitris Psathas gave Bithikotsis the title, ‘Sir’ in honor of the musician’s greatness and royal-like performances. My favorite composition is, ‘Eime Aetos Horis Ftera’, a very moving, sensitive, imaginative piece of music. He sang it, and in his voice I can sense his emotional sincerity and artistry. Among his many fans were Aristotle Onassis and Alain Delon.

He died in Athens in 2005 after three months in the hospital. It marked the end of an age of great urban music. His was the voice of Greece, and his funeral procession was memorable having the carriage  that carried his body pulled by two horses, one white and one black, symbolic of the song he had written describing such a scene. The funeral was attended by thousands, crowding the main street that included representatives from all Greek political parties. I wonder if his arrogant accusers had attended – I also wonder what had they achieved in their lives besides hatred and biased actions.

He married twice, had three children; one son was named Grigoris, after himself, something not traditional in Greek families. When asked why he chose to have that done, he said, true to his poetic nature, “when I die, I’d like that after the funeral a Grigoris Bithikotsis returns home.”

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