Songs for practicing Russian to

I began studying Russian as a fifth former (junior) at Pingry School in 1960.

Around the same time, I bought an LP featuring Theodore Bikel which had been released by Elektra in 1958, called Songs Of A Russian Gypsy

Instantly this became one of my favorite albums, and has remained so to this day. It included an insert with the lyrics of the songs (transliterated, rather than in the Cyrillic script) and translations. While searching for information about the album today, I discovered a list of the song titles on Bikel’s own website, along with this statement that he too loves these songs. 

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t loved Russian music, or Russian culture. In 4th or 5th grade I discovered and devoured a book by Jules Verne, not one of his science fiction classics, but an adventure novel called Michael Strogoff: A Courier for the Tsar. Verne’s very accurate portrayal of Russian cultures inspired me. I had bought other recordings of Russian folk and popular songs, and picked out the melodies on the piano. I took some of the hide left over when my mother had her mouton lamb coat shortened and fashioned a cossack hat (called шапкаshapka in Russian) much like the one worn by the balalaika player behind Bikel in the album cover photo above. The original hat was damaged, but there was enough hide remaining to make another, taller hat, which I still have, although it’s never cold enough to wear it in Arkansas. 

One of the things that I love about Russian as well as Scandinavian music and literature is their richly evocative nature that expresses interwoven melancholy and joy, sad tales inextricably linked with humor and satire.

By the time I bought this record, I was immersed in the study of the language in a pilot program of a course developed by a company called ALM: Audio-Lingual Materials. Our school was one of 12 in the country that were using this new program. Our teacher was a native speaker. No English was spoken during class time, beginning on the first day. In addition, we had language lab, and were given tapes and records to practice with at home. Very quickly we were speaking the language. We didn’t see the written language for the first month. It’s an excellent way to learn a language, and I absorbed it.

When I saw the Theodore Bikel album in a record store, I immediately bought it, brought it home, & began playing it over and over again. Many of the songs were familiar, traditional Russian or gypsy songs I knew from other recordings, including the famous song Две Гитары (Dve GitariTwo Guitars) that had figured in the sultry tavern scene in the 1958 film The Brothers Karamazov, with Yul Brynner and Maria Schell

Theodore Bikel’s version of the song is less seductive, but just as passionate as the one in the film. A native speaker of Russian (as was Brynner), Bikel’s renditions of these songs employ idiomatic pronunciation and something akin to scat singing, as can be heard in his performance of Two Guitars. 

Here is the translation of the lyrics, taken from the insert included with the record. The traditional Russian, or gypsy, guitar has seven strings, and this song, like many, refers to “my seven-stringed beloved.” The refrain is not included on the lyric sheet, so I’ve added my own translation, including the scat-like distortion in the third line of the word raz, meaning once.

Two guitars,
The sound of them
Reminds me of you,
Dear friend.

Ekh! Raz, yeshcho raz, (Ekh! Once, one more time,)
Yeshcho mnogo, mnogo raz. (Many, many more times.)
Ekh! Ravaz, yeshcho raz, (Ekh! One-nece, one more time,)
Yeshcho mnogo, mnogo raz. (Many, many more times.)

Evening wind in the field
Caressing the corn flowers,
Long, lonely road,
Lonely soul, in despair.


Talk to me! Oh, speak
My beloved, my seven-stringed one.
My soul is filled with joy –
Oh, this night! Oh, the moonlight!


Where does it hurt? What hurts you?
My head is spinning –
Today we drink, tomorrow too;
And so the whole week through.


A wife I had, and just once
She was unfaithful.
Said she, ‘Just once more
Maybe won’t make a difference.’


On the hill a birch tree stands,
And underneath the cherries grow,
A fellow loved a gypsy girl,
Alas, she married another.


Another of my favorite songs from this collection is called Ехали Цыгане (Yekhali TsiganeThe Gypsies Were Travelling). It’s a cheerful song with a minimal story but expressing a strong impression of good times. This song also features a significant amount of scat singing.

Following is a translation of the simple lyrics of Yekhali Tsigane, not including the scat verses.

The gypsies were wandering,
Coming from the fair,
And they stopped to rest
In the shade of the apple tree.

He is drinking, he is dancing,
That handsome fellow,
In his new red shirt,
Having a good time.

Когда Я Пьян (Kogda Ya PyannWhen I Am Drunk, also called Hussar’s Song) is a delightful example of the joyful response to sorrow, turning pain into parody.  

The lyrics of this song are a great example of laughing in the face of pain – which of course is a common theme in drinking songs.

I shall perish, irrevocably,
Forever friends, forever friends;
But nevertheless, in the meantime
I will drink, I will drink.

I drink both from happiness and from boredom,
Forgetting all the world, forgetting all creation,
I will take the goblet boldly in my hands –
When I drink there is no grief.

When I am drunk – and I am always drunk,
Nothing can frighten me;
And no storm or wrath
Can trouble my state of mind.

Half drunk I ride on a fast troika,
And often I think of you,
And when I do the tears come
Rolling down my cheeks from drunken eyes.

At daybreak I returned after a night
At cards and vodka.
At the gypsy university,
That’s where I got my schooling.

The devil with it!

Ничего, Ничего, Ничего (Nichevo Nichevo NichevoNothing, Nothing, Nothing) is not a folksong, although it has folk qualities. It was composed by Daniele Amfitheatrof, and was sung by Bikel in the 20th Century-Fox film, “Fraulein.”

No lyrics are given in the liner notes, very likely due to ASCAP restrictions, but there is this description: “A tormented soul laments the emptiness of his life after silently parting from his beloved.”

Снился Мне Сад (Snilsya Mne SadI Dreamt Of a Garden) is a captivating, sentimental song of love.

Here are the lyrics to the hauntingly beautiful Snilsya Mne Sad.

I dreamt of a garden
In its bridal beauty;
In that garden
Were we, you and I.
There were stars in the heavens, stars in the ocean,
Stars, stars in your heart.

Whispering leaves,
From a breeze in the air
The leaves of the soul
Were shedding.
Fathomless eyes! Speechless lips!
Oh dearest, how I love you!

I will probably return to this album again, introducing more of these wonderful songs in a future post. Of course, you can always find the album or individual songs in the various places where music can be purchased.

For now, I have an appointment with the album, and am warming up my voice for a long night’s singing.