Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Tribute to Bulat Okudzhava

In 1965, I visited the Soviet Union on Ohio State's Russian Language Study Tour--the second ever to that country. At the age of 19 and a second-year undergraduate, I was the youngest on the tour. I had begun studying Russian in Valley Forge High School in 1961, and this was a defining event in my life. But I won't go into those memories here. I just want to pay tribute to an old pleasure of mine--the great Russian bard/poet Bulat Okudzhava (Булат Окуджава).

Around 1970, I came into possession of a record of Bulat Okudzhava's songs. It was of poor sound quality, but the cover touted him as the "Soviet Bobby Dylan", so I didn't much care about his voice or the scratchiness of the recording. Bulat Okudzhava was frowned-upon by the then Soviet authorities, and that made his music all the more attractive to me. The lyrics were beautiful, and I played the record incessantly in the apartment that I shared with two fellow students. Finally, not being able to take it anymore, one of my roommates threw the record album under the seat cushion of our sofa when I was out, and one of us broke it when he sat on it. I was shocked, but there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't replace the bootlegged copy. I didn't hear his songs for another two decades.

Fast-forward to 1997. That was my next trip to Russia--a much-changed Russia from 1965. Now I was in my 50s, and I was attending a conference of linguists in Yasnaya Polyana, the ancestral home of the Tolstoys. We stayed in an old Soviet-era hotel, which, while broken-down and crumbling, still had blaring loudspeakers playing during the day. In Soviet times, they might have played martial music, news, and propaganda. Now, it was rock music. But the organizers of the conference had thoughtfully hired a "bard" to entertain us. He brought his guitar and serenaded us in the evenings. All the older Russians seemed to know the lyrics of the folk songs, and they sang along.

Finally, knowing that I was an American who spoke Russian, the bard asked if I would like to hear any particular songs. Naturally, I asked him if he knew any Bulat Okudzhava songs. He looked at me strangely at first (because who wouldn't know those songs?) and smiled. Then he told me that Bulat Okudzhava was his hero and that he would have a Bulat Okudzhava concert for me the next night. And he did, and I loved it. Everyone sang my old favorites, especially my all-time favorite "Paper Soldier" (Bumazhnyj Soldat). It was a night I will never forget.

The next day, we trekked to visit Tolstoy's grave. I caught up with the bard to thank him again, but he wouldn't speak to me. I didn't know what was wrong, and he simply would say nothing. He just stared at the ground and walked ahead. Then I was pulled aside and told that Bulat Okudzhava had died the previous night, as the bard was treating us to the concert. The bard was so depressed that he vowed never to play another Bulat Okudzhava song. He was crestfallen that Bulat had died in Paris, not on Russian soil. Later in the trip, my wife and I visited Bulat Okudzhava's ancestral home on the Arbat in Moscow. There was a store at the ground level, but the young people there claimed never to have heard of Okudzhava.

My point in bringing all this up here is that I have just discovered a web site for Russian bards (http://bard-cafe.komkon.org), and they have free downloads of his songs in MP3 and RealAudio formats. So, I just want to recommend them to you. Even if you don't know Russian, perhaps you will enjoy the haunting melodies. If you do, you will be treated to some of the greatest poetry in the Russian bard tradition. I recommend all, but particularly the second (Paper Soldier) and the fifth (Black Cat). Enjoy.

And here are some translations of his lyrics by Alec Vagapov, especially my favorite:


Once there lived a soldier-boy,
quite brave, one can’t be braver,
but he was merely a toy
for he was made of paper.

He wished to alter everything,
and be the whole world’s helper,
but he was puppet on a string,
a soldier made of paper.

He’d bravely go through fire and smoke,
he’d die for you. No vapour.
But he was just a laughing-stock,
a soldier made of paper.

You would mistrust him and deny
your secrets and your favour.
Why should you do it, really, why?
‘cause he was made of paper.

He dreads the fire? Not at all!
One day he cut a caper
and died for nothing; after all,
he was just a piece of paper.


minus273 said...

I'm now beginning to listen Okudjawa with translations and machine translations. He has quite beautiful melodies, after all.

Alex said...

a fine tribute, thought-provoking and moving. i'm sorry i was so late in coming to it. i'm an australian, 36 years old. i lived in saint petersburg for a year in 1991-92, then in vladikavkaz, north ossetia, for a year, 1995-96. from 1993 to 1997 i studied russian language and literature in sydney. i was introduced to okudzhava in the summer of 1992, i think on a friend's dacha south of saint petersburg, and i have listened to him on and off ever since, most recently today. the songs that often come to mind as i'm walking or playing with my one-year-old son are 'vozmyomsya za ruki, druzya' and 'polunochny trolleybus' - i don't know why, i guess they just got stuck in my head. today i've been listening to okudzhava all afternoon, again i don't know why. and this evening it occurred to me to read up on him, hence my discovery of your blog. thank you, copernicus.