Released digitally on December 31 2022
The songs on this album were all written in the 1950s and 1960s. They’re all very different, but recorded now, by an artist of a different generation, they all sound very contemporary, and therefore timeless.
No one now could really tell why and how medieval musicians and raconteurs known by the Old Celtic word “bards” became an inspiration for a new generation of Russian poets who, some time in the 1950s, instead of just reciting their poems started plucking Russian style seven-string guitars thus giving birth to a new genre.
Maybe because the word carried with it a feel of romantic idealism that permeated the time, the time of “the thaw”, when the horrors and fears of Stalinism, that had kept the country frozen and paralyzed for a few decades slowly started to melt away.
Bards and their songs did not come from nowhere. The roots of the movement go back to traditional Russian mostly folkish song-making, the two genres called gorodskoy romans (urban romance) and zhestoky romans (cruel romance), the closest English/American equivalent for which would be torch songs. In the Soviet era, the two genres, hugely popular in pre-revolutionary Russia, were forcibly squeezed out of the popular discourse and survived mostly in emigration (Alexander Vertinsky, Petr Leschenko) where along with Gypsy songs they embodied a sense of loss and nostalgia for the generations of outcasts, torn away from the home soil and Russian culture.
However, in the USSR, a vast country largely turned by Stalin into GULAG, where, as a popular saying goes, half of the nation were in prison camps and the other half were their wardens, these genres transformed into blatnaya pesnya, or blatnyak, songs of the criminal underworld with their poignant laments, uncensored streetwise slang, outright brutality and a sense of prohibited and therefore unrestrained freedom.
In 1943, the main protagonist of the emigree Russian popular song, singer/songwriter Alexander Vertinsky, who had fled Russia with the White Army in 1920 and therefore stigmatized as “an enemy of the people”, was allowed not only to return to the USSR but resume his concert activities. Even though these activities were strictly limited, his songs heavily censored, and he had no access to radio and burgeoning television his presence and his aura of lost grandeur and aristocratic graciousness were acutely felt and admired by the new generation of Soviet intelligentsia.
Poets, including those accepted and recognized by the Soviet regime (Pavel Kogan, Mikhail Ancharov) started putting their songs to the simple guitar accompaniment as early as in the 1930s. Many of them went to war, and their new songs, along with the horrors of war and a sense of loss, reflected romantic feelings of heroism, self-sacrifice and military brotherhood.
The new era, finally rid of Stalin’s rigid dogmatism, brought along new romanticism: exploration of new vistas of land in Siberia, mountain climbing, wilderness backpacking with nights in tents next to a bonfire with a ubiquitous guitar. New poetry (Yevgeny Evtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadullina) with its newly found themes of renouncing Stalinism, discovery of the West and reclaiming the past, both pre-revolutionary and the 1920s avantgarde, was hugely popular. As well as their counterparts in the West (Allen Ginsberg) these new idols of the youth recited their poems to huge enthusiastic crowds at stadiums.
Burgeoning American rock-n-roll of the late 1950s, although with great difficulties, managed to seep through the seemingly impenetrable iron curtain. Acoustic guitar plucking folk singers, many of whom (Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, early Bob Dylan) were pronouncedly left-orientated occasionally featured on Soviet radio and were favourably covered in the Soviet press. They inevitably instilled in many aspiring Soviet singers/songwriters a notion of “protest song” as a fully fledged genre of its own.
All these sources, diverse and often very distant from if not antagonistic to each other, suddenly coalesced in the new genre.
Emergence of bard movement luckily coincided with a technical innovation, wide spread of reel-to-reel tape recorders. Quiet songs performed at domestic, home concerts were multiplied in thousands and thousands copies and through the grassroots system of magnitizdat (an audio version of literary samizdat) became known and popular throughout the country.
The movement in spite of its widespread popularity always existed in the grey area between underground and officialdom. The authorities desperately tried to tame and control bards by setting up and encouraging so called Clubs of Amateur Songs, highlighting romanticism of the wartime heroism and exploration of new lands while suppressing not only any ironic and critical social content but even poignant lyricism, deemed as an expression of “bourgeois individualism” and decadence. On the one hand, several semi-official festivals of bard songs were held in different cities since the early1960s, on the other hand, bards, with very rare exception, were denied access to “official” concert halls, radio, television and the country’s only record label “Melodia”.
There were and still are hundreds and thousands of bards. They come from different social strata, different milieus and different artistic inspirations.
Here’s a glimpse at the chosen few, the best, whose songs Boris Grebenschikov selected for his album.
Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997), whose father was shot during the Great Terror and whose mother was arrested and exiled, went through the war. It was in the war that he started writing his first songs. But even though war songs make a sizable part of Okudzhava’s oeuvre he is best known and most treasured for his subtle lyricism with new refreshingly daring attitudes he revealed in human relations. He hardly ever reverted to outright political criticism, although the spirit of truth as well as discontent with falseness and lies of Soviet reality permeates all of his songs. Nevertheless, he is probably the most established and officially recognized of all bards.
Alexander Galich (1918-1977) for half of his life was an established Soviet writer and dramatist. His plays were staged in Soviet theatres, his screenplays were turned into films. In the early 1960s he started writing and performing his songs which from the very outset were pronouncedly and harshly critical both of the crimes of Stalinism and the Soviet realities of the day. Hardly a musician, his guitar accompaniment was unashamedly primitive, his singing more of a recitation, but his poetry extraordinary powerful. In no time he turned into an outright and prominent political dissident, on par with Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and, consequently, in 1971 was expelled from the official Writers Union, with all his previously published works banned. In 1974 he was forced to emigrate and in 1977 killed in a strange accident, never proven but strongly suspected political assassination by the KGB.
Yuri Vizbor (1934-1984), as well as Bulat Okudzhava, had his father shot during Stalin’s terror. A professional journalist and playwright, he was probably the most romantic of all the prominent bards. Relatively distant from the outright political and social criticism, he had a successful “official” career as a journalist, playwright, documentary filmmaker and actor.
Yuri Kukin (1932-2011) was trained as PE teacher, and for many years shared his passion for songwriting with a day job of a figure skating coach. Friendly with many geologists, a hugely popular “romantic” occupation of the time, he joined them on numerous expeditions and in his songs celebrated distant travels and faraway lands, real and imaginable.
Alexander Gorodnitsky (b. 1933), approaching his 90th birthday in March 2023, is the only survivor of the “Magnificent Seven” on this record. A prominent geophysicist and oceanographer, he is an accomplished scientist as well as one of the founders and main exponents of the bard movement. Paradoxically, unlike most of his peers, he never mastered the skill of guitar playing, even at the minimal, primitive level required for the guitar poetry and usually performed accompanied by a professional guitarist. An ardent patriot of his native St. Petersburg, his song “The Atlants” became the city’s unofficial anthem. Now lives in emigration.
Evgeny Klyachkin (1934-1994) was trained and until the mid-1980s worked as a construction engineer. Most musically proficient among the bards he was endowed with a remarkable melodic gift and many of his songs, unusually for bards, were written on other people’s poetry, including his friend Joseph Brodsky. However, his own songs are full of witty social commentaries and heartfelt ironic descriptions of romantic endeavours. He died in emigration, in Israel.
And finally, the greatest of all, Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980). Trained as a professional actor he worked for most of his life in the famous Taganka Theatre and starred in many films. Even before any official exposure he achieved national popularity and universal love: in the 1960s his songs were heard in every courtyard, from every window. The scope of themes and subjects in his writing is truly astounding. His songs cover everything: wartime heroism and prison romanticism, social and political satire and striving for freedom and individuality, fairy tales and biting sarcasm. Like Pushkin a century and a half earlier, his songs were a real “encyclopaedia of Russian life”. He was loved and treasured by everyone: from peasants to urban intelligentsia, from the military to party bureaucrats, from prison and labour camp inmates to their wardens – a genuinely people’s poet. Like Johnny Cash with his “prison blues” he was taken as one of their own by the convicts and many refused to believe that he never served time. His mythology was enhanced by his marriage to the beautiful and mysterious French film star Marina Vlady. His sudden death at the age of 42 in July 1980, during the Moscow Olympics, turned into an unofficial day of national mourning.
BACK TO THE ROOTS
Bards with their newly found freedom and truth were in the 1960s a source of inspiration for the burgeoning Russian rock not any less significant than American and British rock’n’roll. Russian rock has always been deemed logocentric, and this emphasis on the lyrical content is largely rooted in the Bard tradition.
Like his distant American mentor Bob Dylan, with his exploration of The Great American Songbook in several recent albums, Boris Grebenschikov has long embarked on the search for and paying tribute to the great heritage of Russian song. In 1996 and 2020 he released two albums of traditional Russian and Soviet songs; in 1994 a tribute to Alexander Vertinsky; in 1999 to Bulat Okudzhava and now this, the “Bardic Songs” album.
BG is not alone among his peers in the rock generation to celebrate the Bards’s heritage. Sasha Bashlachev was directly influenced by Vysotsky and Galich; Andrei Makarevich of The Time Machine by Okudzhava and Galich. He also recorded a Galich tribute album.
BG was exposed to the bards’ music even before his oft-cited initiation to rock’n’roll through the Voice of America broadcasts. He was blessed, as he recalls, by the close acquaintance of his parents with Evgeny Klyachkin who was a frequent guest at the family’s soirees and young Boris was sitting at the feet of the great bard, mesmerized by the magic confluence of poetry and music.
He also remembers that the first song he ever performed in public, the audience must have been a close circle of friends, was that of Vysotsky.
Bardic Songs, as a complete album, had been brewing for a long time. More than once over the last few years I heard Boris at intimate friends’ parties giving full-fledged home recitals of these songs.
As a rock musician, a seasoned composer and producer of his own albums, rich in instrumental palette and unorthodox, often striking arranging solutions, he was initially tempted to employ his production skills to this new work. However, looking back at the history of the bards’ recording output, it became obvious that any attempts to enhance their simple melodic structures with lush orchestral arrangements, as it happened in several Vysotsky and Okudzhava albums, ended in utter artistic failure: sincerity and unsophisticated elegance of original versions was lost in pompous artificial sound. Hence an inevitable solution: following the bards’ timeless formula, these songs have to be recorded with simple unadorned acoustic guitar.
This album is very important as a sign and symbol of Russian culture’s continuum through the decades. Important not only for the individual artist Boris Grebenschikov but for the entire rock generation, the heirs and descendants of the Bards’ legacy.
The new reality, which descended upon us in all its tragic palpability in February 2022, a sudden shock of the war and desolation along with Boris’s self-imposed but unvoluntary exile from the homeland suddenly imbued the nascent project with a new poignant meaning.
Old songs sound painfully topically: Gorodnitsky’s “Elegy” which opens the album with its longing for truth and freedom; Okudzhava’s “Primeta” (Token) and “Sapogi” (Jackboots) with their premonition of war; Klyachkin’s “Farewell” with its final sad plea to the abandoned Motherland, full of reproach, sorrow and yet love; or Galich’s bitter sarcastic satire in “The Marshall and His Horse”.
BG, however, would betray his true human and artistic self if in the choice of songs for the album he would succumb to anger, anguish and despair.
Kukin’s “Gorod” (The City) is an idealistic and yet poignantly realistic portrayal of a community of friends, a city where “there’s sky instead of houses, and arms of beloved instead of apartments”. Klyachkin’s “Fishka No 2” and “Fishka No 5” are jokey, facetious snapshots of chance romantic encounters. Okudzhava “Farewell to the Christmas Tree” is an elegiac goodbye to a Christmas tree, goodbye to the festive spirit and the love that dissipated along with festivities. That love is gone, gone as the tree that “like Christ has been taken of the cross, but there won’t be a Resurrection”.
Bards’ songs with all their denial and mockery of restrictive and repressive Soviet reality were always full of warmth, light and hope.
And there probably could be no better ending for this very timely collection of old songs than the final verse of the final song, Evgeny Klyachkin’s “Mokry Vals” (Wet Waltz)
While there’s a blue flame above us
The light of a star, our unknown guardian,
There will be hope in our hearts
That will take us far away from distress.
December 2022, London