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26 December 2016


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Tidewater to All,

The Cossack will not speak on this matter. Perhaps we will never talk about it. What I remember about the The Red Army Choir back in the late fifties was that from the moment I first heard them I began to think more critically and respectfully about Russia. They were true ambassadors! I remember that years later, after we were out in the world, my late brother, who was in real estate, on a couple of occasions was involved in what I would consider big, scary deals (with partners), and when caught up in difficulties with the project, would put on the Red Army choir and sit drinking whisky through an evening listening to the record (come to think of it he had a little collection of different albums!) over and over again, for a very long time. Lost in solemn concentration. Then he would put on a different group, say the band of the Preobrazensky guards regiment (whose anthem Mountbatten ripped off for the Household Division to walk off to after the Trooping of the Color) and fix another drink. Was it Rebel Yell? (I had changed over to Scotch by then for health reasons after I learned that Lyndon Johnson recommended it.)

I once inquired of the Cossack what she thought about the music of Eric Satie, was it not charming and playful? She blew up, as she sometimes tends to, though there is no bite in her bark. She rapidly listed a number of classic composers that I believe she learned to play, to the point of routine daily exhaustion, at the Kiev Conservatory as a young girl, most of them German, incidentally. She makes me understand the word "Diva." Satie was complete frivolity, and was dismissed with contempt. She was a serious person, and I should remember that! (This doesn't mean that she doesn't like France, or that, by the way, that there are not a remarkable amount of French words absorbed into the Russian language. She doesn't like Matisse either.) I think that there was a rigor to her Russian education that to an American is beyond belief. (A Teutonic rigor? Or must piano study always be Teutonic rigor?) She has also tutored at UVA in Russian and once told me with some satisfaction that after he used some extremely awkward grammatical constructions, her rebuke of an old American UVA professor made the man cry.

This does not mean that she doesn't understand playfulness in music. This brings me to the Russian "Happy Birthday" song. Russians do indeed have a "Happy Birthday" song that seems to me to be almost exactly like the American. However, it seems to me that that one (the plodding, embarrassing one) is not the birthday song that Russians love, nor is it an ancient one. The old birthday song that was sung to the Tsar is one that is not much known anymore but which she has sung for me. There is a growing hilarity contained within this song. I see it sung in a great St. Basil Cathedral, or such, with massed choirs of all ages. I have the words beside me, but my cats are sitting on top of them and I don't want to bother them. There are only two words. They are wishing the Tsar a long life. The words are "Long Time." I see the older, male choir singing this greeting ,at the end of a birthday celebration, with deep solemnity. Then the younger choirs, surely with many children, also give the greeting "Long Time" more shrilly, but equally formal. Then after a tiny little pause, I assume, they start in, now repeating themselves, but dragging out the words. "Lonng timme" and then, again repeating, they drag them out even more; "Lonnng timmme" --and because, after all, what they are singing is supposed to be about a long time, so why not carry on a bit? So they do carry on, taking it a few more times right over the top. By the end, people, including the Tzar and his family, must all have been giggling or even laughing out loud as the massed choirs finally bring it thunderously, to its crazy, hilarious, joyously giddy conclusion: "LONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNG TIMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMME!" It is very touching and very funny.

But the current most-loved Russian happy birthday song came from a television cartoon of the 1960's. I once looked it up on Youtube and did not understand it at all, though the song itself was remarkable. The song is called "The Cheburashka Song" and is played by a television cartoon character of the 1960's, Gena the Crocadile. The cartoon, which seems dated in its style of drawing back to the thirties, shows the little milk truck arriving in an appropriately dreary winter Russian town square toy setting. (Though Cherkassy has a climate not unlike Charlottesville.) The milkman, who is in a heavy looking gray uniform, finds Gena the Crocadile standing there alone out on the street, at dawn in this cold, wet weather, playing his song on an accordion. As the King of Siam said, "Is a puzzlement." Though, of course, crocadiles do seem to be inscrutable. The song seems to me to to have all kinds of little hints of complicated emotional things. Do I hear, again, a little teasing, a little irony; do I hear something...Russian?

Finally, I looked up the translation. When I asked the Cossack about the words, she very sharply stated that there is nothing "sad" about the song. An American translation used the word "sad." No, no, no.

My very rough translation is (from the English):

"Just because the people walking down the street
Are hopping over mud puddles,
Well Never Mind.

And if they can't understand why I'm such a happy guy (girl),
Standing out here on such a lousy day,
Well Never Mind.

Just a'playing my accordion
In front of everybody walking down the street,
And the only thing that really does kinda make me wonder --
Why is it you only get a birthday
Just one time a year?"

After that the wonderful things that are soon to happen are sung. There are many versions. A wizard will suddenly appear in a blue whirly-bird...Bringing five hundred ice cream cones...

And it ends, repeating: "Yes, I'm playing my accordion, standing out here on the street, and why, why is it, that birthdays are just one time a year?"

Youtube has a number of somewhat drab colored versions of this original and famous cartoon birthday song, "Cheburashka." And there are more recent versions of this song in black and white done by the highly professional children choirs of the old Soviet Union. (Again, on Youtube.) But nice to have had it sung to me in Russian over the telephone once again last night even if wasn't my birthday.


Tidewater to Tidewater,

In the interest of accuracy, then. I double-checked for an English translation after posting the above. To my surprise I found "Cheburashka's Birthday Song ^_^ (English/Yakut)" on YouTube. This by a young woman identified as Umira2. Is she the ethnic equivalent of the Swedish and Norwegian Sami? She has translated "Cheburashka" first into English and then she follows that rendition with her translation into Yakut.

Yakut? And that is...Siberia?

Interesting how she deals with the difficulties of translation and the lack of the Russian rhyme in the English. There are also other songs sung by her, Yakut songs. I happen to like blue-stockings. She must have gone to St. Margaret's College, Oxford, speaks a very clear, very precise English, and has a beautiful light voice. So is this -- Siberian woman? Is this what the survivors will find when they reach the north? Well, then, Northward ho!

Another thing. The man in the truck in the cartoon is in a brown uniform with trim; he is not a milk-man, but some sort of general deliveryman, even a postman? What is written on the side of the truck is some sort of joke, probably. The Cossack said that adult humor is built into Russian children's cartoons. And the crocadile Gena is easily perceived to be in a gentle and happy mood.

Why did I jump so quickly to milkman? I have been back deep again into "Classic Crimes" by William Roughead. This is primal Scottish ur-stuff. Roughead comments in THE SANDYFORD MYSTERY about Glasgow: "The Second City, in mid-Victorian times, was singularly rich in wrongdoers of the most attractive type..." Who provided, as in this instance, "a first-class case, bristling with sensation and strange surprises, possessing everything requisite to a great criminal drama and constituting in my submission, an ideal murder."

You see, the important thing is that the authorities did not at first learn what the milkman knew, and he gave a very precise time. He said that the door was opened only a crack, and he could not see inside. But he was told by a woman's voice in what was, I assume, broad Scots dialect (hmmmm), that no milk was needed that morning. And that was not only unusual, it had never happened before! The case reminds me a little of Eisenhower's remark, that if you have a problem and you cannot seem to solve it, then expand the problem. (Now, Tidewater, admit, that was a bit cold.) But while we're at it, one last thing about this fucking birthday song, and then I'm done with it, that Russian deliveryman takes something in his arms and delivers it to the first dwelling he comes to. Odd. What was it? Was that little Cheburashka? I think I'll never know. Time to open the Whole Foods Christmas Malbec and look deep into the Siberian soul.

Have I lived? Truly lived. Have I? Isn't it time to just let it all hang out?


Thank you for posting this beautiful concert. What a terrible loss. I first bought their albums in the 1960s have enjoyed their music ever since. They have a unique vocal quality that conveys both the majesty and mystery of Russian culture.

For a glimpse of the bizarre, here they are performing "Delilah" with the Leningrad Cowboys.



Tidewater to Tidewater,

FWIW it is LMH, Lady Margaret Hall. And in the cold light of day...conclusions sound, credit where credit is due.

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