Thursday, 30 July 2009

Song of the Volga Burlaks

Even before you were liquidated by Stalin, it probably wasn't a lot of fun being a kulak. Even less, I would guess, being a burlak; they were mostly landless or poor Russian peasants who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. Those on the Volga had a good song, of course, though it was sung about them rather than by them.

A couple of years before Glenn Miller took an instrumental version of it to #1 in the US charts I was taught to sing it at my primary school, which was a happy place with an enthusiastic music teacher, though next door to the gasworks. We didn't sing the original Ey ukhnyem! Ey ukhnyem! Yeshtsho razik, yeshtsho da ras! and so on, but an English version, the words of which have stayed with me ever since. It included the lines:
Yo heave ho! Yo heave ho!
Toiling, moiling, Yo heave ho!

Moiling? It was only the other day that it occurred to me to wonder whether this was a real word or had just been put it to make a rhyme. Actually when I looked it up I found that it's rather a good word : (1350–1400) ME moillen to make or get wet and muddy. It also means drudgery; I haven't had much occasion to use it recently, in either sense.

I don't know what started me thinking about this song but having got so far I had to find the best recorded version. I thought this might be by the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff but although he sings it magnificently it is better just to listen and not watch the video; he has rather a shifty demeanour, starting dead-pan and then over-acting in a musical comedy manner. I prefer the recording of the Red Army Choir who have the great bass Leonid Kharitonov doing it perfectly straight.

[But I am told that the song is much older than the burlaks. It was sung by Russian farm workers when they were tugging out tree roots to clear the land for planting.]]


Elizabeth said...

Compelling tune, resonant deep voices. Thank you.

Tony said...

Yes, but I bet it was Kharitonov's looks that really turned you on.