Bard (Soviet Union)
The term bard (бард) refers to popular poets who put their verses to song. It came to be used in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s (and continues to be used in Russia today) for singers-songwriters who wrote songs outside the Soviet political and musical establishment. Bard poetry differs from other poetry mainly in the fact that it is sung along with a simple guitar melody as opposed to being spoken. Another difference is that this form of poetry focuses less on style and more on meaning. Fewer stylistic devices are used, and the poetry often takes the form of narrative. What separates bard poetry from other songs is the fact that the music is far less important than the lyrics; chord progressions are often very simple and tend to repeat from one bard song to another. A far more obvious difference was the commercial-free nature of the genre: songs were written to be sung and not to be sold.
Stylistically, the precursor to bard songs were Russian "city romances" which touched upon common life and were popular throughout all layers of Russian society in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. These romances were traditionally written in a minor key and performed with a guitar accompaniment. Their popularity was based both on the obvious talents of the bards, but also the themes and attitudes expressed in their songs. Their general tone was wryly satirical of the official version of Soviet life. They rejected the doctrine of socialist realism and socialist ideology, expressing a self-conscious individualism. The bards often performed before huge audiences, because poetry was the one form of expression that most successfully escaped censorship.
Bard poetry may be roughly classified into two main streams: tourist song and political song, although some other subgenres may be recognized, such as outlaw song (blatnaya pesnya) and pirate song.
Initially the term "bard" was in use among the fans of the tourist song, and outside the circle was often perceived in an ironic sense. However there was a need for a term to distinguish this style of song from the traditional kind of concert song, and the term eventually stuck.
Many bards performed their songs in small groups of people using a Russian (seven string) guitar; rarely if ever would they be accompanied by other musicians or singers. Those who would become popular would be able to hold modest concerts. Bards were rarely permitted to record their music, given the political nature of many songs. As a result, bard tunes usually made their way around via the copying of amateur recordings (known as magnitizdat) made at concerts, particularly those songs that were of political nature.
Types of songs
During the Brezhnev era of stagnation in the history of the Soviet Union, camping, especially its extreme forms such as alpinism, kayaking/canoeing, and canyoning, became a form of escapism for young people, who felt that these occupations were the only ways of life in which such values as courage, friendship, risk, trust, cooperation and mutual support still mattered.
A notable subgenre of the Tourist song was the Sea song. As with other tourist songs, the goal was to sing about people in hard conditions where true physical and emotional conflicts appear. Vladimir Vysotsky had several songs of this sort since his style suited them perfectly. Many of Alexander Gorodnitsky's songs are about the sea since he actually had the opportunity to experience life at sea. While some songs were simply about sailors, others were about pirates. With the romantics of Brigantine by Pavel Kogan, the pirate songs are still popular at concerts of the "author song." Almost every bard has at least one song with this motif in it.
This type of bard poetry was tolerated by the powers, and it lived under the definition of author song (avtorskaya pesnya), i.e., songs sung primarily by the authors themselves, as opposed to those sung by professional singers (although professionals often "borrowed" successful author songs for their repertoire). Another name of this genre was "amateur song" (samodeyatelnaya pesnya, literally translated as "do-it-yourself song" or "self-made song"). This term reflects the cultural phenomenon of the Soviet Union called "amateur performing arts," or khudozhestvennaya samodeyatelnost. It was a widespread, often heavily subsidized occupation of Soviet people in their spare time. Every major industrial enterprise and every kolkhoz (collective farm) had a Palace of Culture or at least a House of Culture for amateur performers to practice and perform.
Many of them, as well as many universities had Clubs of Amateur Song ("Klub samodeyatelnoy pesni," or KSP), which in fact were clubs of bard song and which stood quite apart of the mainstream Soviet "samodeyatelnost'". Many of the best tourist songs were composed by Yuri Vizbor who participated and sang about all the sports described above, and Alexander Gorodnitsky who spent much time sailing around the Earth on a ship and in scientific expeditions to the far North.
Songs of this kind expressed protest against the Soviet way of life. Their genres varied from acutely political, "anti-Soviet" ones, perfectly fitting under the infamous Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code (or other way around), to witty satire in the best traditions of Aesop. Some of Bulat Okudzhava's songs touch on these themes.
Vladimir Vysotsky was perceived as a political song writer, but later he gradually made his way into a more mainstream mass culture. It was not so with Alexander Galich, who was forced to emigrate—owning a tape with his songs could mean a prison term during the Soviet period. Before emigration he suffered from KGB persecution, as well as another bard, Yuliy Kim. Others, like Evgeny Kliachkin and Aleksander Dolsky, balanced between being outright anti-Soviet and plain romantic. Since most of the bards' songs were never permitted by Soviet censorship, most of them, however innocent, were considered anti-Soviet.
Paradoxically, "songs" from the pro-Communist plays of Bertolt Brecht, supposedly criticizing fascism and capitalist society and thus cheered by the Soviets, could be read as also perfectly fitting Article 58 as well, and hence were popular among bards under the name of zongs (German pronunciation of the word 'Song'). Below is a quotation from a 'zong', translated from a Russian version:
- Rams are marching in rows.
- Drums are rattling.
- The skin for these drums
- Is the rams' own.
The most obvious allusion is to Soviet "peaceful demonstrations," which were held several times a year all over the Soviet Union, but that is just the most immediate reference. It is a damning indictment of a system that turns its citizens against one another.
These songs originated far before the bards appeared in the Soviet Union. Their origin can be traced as far back as the first decade of the twentieth century. While not differing much in style from other bard songs, these outlaw songs can be compared in their content to modern rap: glorification of crime and city romance. These songs reflected the breakup of the structure and rules of the old Russian society. At that time, even such Anti-Soviet songs were legal.
After the 1930s, new outlaw songs emerged from the Gulags. Many of these songs were concerned with innocent people who were sent to the labor camps, rather than with real criminals. Some songs were actually composed in the camps while others were inspired by them, but the result was the same—honest songs about victims under harsh conditions.
During the Khrushchev Thaw years, many were released from the camps and with them came their songs. Bards such as Alexander Gorodnitsky learned of these anonymous songs and started singing them. At that point, the songs gained a more symbolic meaning of struggle against the oppression. Bards such as Alexander Rosenbaum also wrote many humorous outlaw songs about the Jewish mafia in Odessa. Many of these songs were inspired by authors such as Isaac Babel.
Even more common than the Tourist songs were songs about life (usually life in the Soviet Union). Nearly every bard wrote a significant amount of songs on these themes. The setting very frequently is urban, often in major cities such as Moscow (particularly the Arbat, a commercial and tourist section of town). Some songs of this type, such as the ones by Yuri Vizbor and Vladimir Vysotsky used simple and honest language to illustrate life. Other bards, such as Bulat Okudzhava, took a more symbolic approach and expressed their views on life through extended metaphors and symbolism.
Another type of songs that appeared in Russia long before the bards was the War Song. Many of the most famous bards had numerous songs about war, particularly The Great Patriotic War. The reasons to sing songs about war differed from one bard to another. Okudzhava, who actually fought in the war, used his sad and emotional style to illustrate the futility of war in songs such as "The Paper Soldier" ("Бумажный Солдат"). Vladimir Vysotsky wrote songs about war simply because they provided that extreme setting in which honor and emotional strength are needed and a man's true character comes out. Vysotsky's war songs were praised by veterans for their success in portraying war, despite the fact that the poet did not actually serve any time in the military. Yuri Vizbor wrote war songs in which not the war, but the people involved were the most important element. In these songs, the war itself would often be happening in the background while the actual song would be in the style of the Tourist song, with emphasis on nature and human emotions.
Some bards also wrote children's songs for various festivals and plays. The poets chose to write these songs in the same fashion as their other songs. This resulted in songs that, while directed at children, were enjoyed by adults as well as children.
Famous bards of Soviet epoch
- Vladimir Vysotsky
- Victor Berkovsky
- Alexander Dolsky
- Alexander Galich
- Alexander Gorodnitsky
- Alexander Gradsky
- Evgeny Kliachkin
- Yuliy Kim
- Yuri Kukin
- Novella Matveyeva
- Sergey Nikitin
- Tatyana Nikitina
- Bulat Okudzhava
- Alexander Rosenbaum
- Yuri Vizbor
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Aptekman, Marina. 2002. "Modern Russian history in the mirror of the criminal song" Johnson's Russia List. Brown University. Retrieved November 29, 2007.
- Malina, Alex. 2002. The Soviet Underground Literary Kicks. Retrieved November 29, 2007.
- Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. Yale University Press, 1991. ISBN 0300059345
All links retrieved September 20, 2023.
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