Song Of The Volga Boatmen

This is one of those songs that everyone knows when they hear it, but almost no one knows it’s title.  Or that it’s a sea chantey.  Or the story behind it.  In fact, the song is so popular that it has popped up in cartoons such as Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny, movies such as Shrek, TV shows such as the Three Stooges and The Simpsons and in video games such as Mike Tyson’s Punch Out and Team Fortress 2.

In case you still can’t place the song, take a second and check out this rendition that appears on my world music for kids videosite, complete with a mammoth balalaika:

THE VOLGA BOATMEN
http://multikidsmusicvids.com/?p=165

So what is the song of the Volga Boatmen?  Let’s start with the basics.  The Volga River is the longest river in Europe and is located in northwestern Russia where it is navigated by workers on barges called burlaks. As you can imagine, the work is difficult and dangerous and the barge haulers often sing to pass the time and make the work seem lighter.  Most folks categorize this song as a sea chantey and a work song similar to songs like “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?”.   One verse of this song was collected in a compilation of folksongs in Russia in the 1860’s.  Later, two more verses were composed to create the version that is heard now and the music is often used by bass singers as a way to showcase their beautiful deep, rich voices.

What does this song say?  Wikipedia offers this translation of the Russian into English:

Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!

Once more, once again, still once more

Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!

Once more, once again, still once more

Now we fell the stout birch tree,
Now we pull hard: one, two, three.

Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!

Now we pull hard: one, two, three.

As the barges float along,
To the sun we sing our song.

Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!

To the sun we sing our song.

Hey, hey, let’s heave a-long the way
to the sun we sing our song

Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!

Once more, once again, still once more

Volga, Volga our pride,
Mighty stream so deep and wide.

Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!

Volga, Volga you’re our pride.

Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!

Once more, once again, still once more

Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!

With the recent tragedy of the sinking of a ferry boat on the Volga river in July 2011, it’s easy to see how life in this area can be a combination of hard work, joy, pride and genuine tragedy.  All these emotions are heard in this iconic song which has traveled from the mighty Volga river to all parts of the world, offering a glimpse into the hard-working and resilient Russian soul.

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