Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, May 21, 2007

how a song commissioned by Czar Nicholas I played a significant role in the political music of Pete Seeger and Irving Berlin.

In Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, Astrov, the environmentalist doctor, passes time playing guitar. I always wondered about that detail, knowing of no other association between Russia and guitars.

A few weeks ago on a whim, never having seen or heard of it before, I picked up a used copy of Oleg Timofeyev’s 1998 CD The Golden Age of the Russian Guitar. Timofeyev resurrects then-popular but subsequently forgotten 19th century hits for the Russian seven-string guitar -- lovely stuff for an instrument even mellower and sweeter than the 6-string guitar. Timofeyev
’s booklet notes charm with affectionately presented information. The guitar was a bourgeois instrument, and most of its composers were amateurs. The peasants played balalaikas.

Vasily Stepanovich Sarenko, one of the featured composers, was a medical doctor and amateur guitarist. Timofeyev quotes from a memoir by one of his patients.

One night my wife became seriously ill. I rushed to the first available doctor, and found myself at the place of V. S. Sarenko. His servant led me to the bedroom, where I saw the doctor sitting on his bed and playing guitar.

He nodded in the direction of an armchair near him and continued playing.

-- Doctor, -- said I -- I am sorry.

-- Just a moment, -- he interrupted, -- now: listen . . . it's growing . . .

-- Pardon me, it is very nice, but . . .

-- Only one more minute, -- he interrupted. -- Listen, what follows. Great music, huh?

-- Very excellent, -- I said, -- however . . .

-- And here comes the finale . . . Listen, listen . . .

Thus he tortured me for about half an hour, before we managed to get on the road. I feel responsible to add that he helped my wife very much, and played better than anything I had ever heard . . .

One of the stodgier pieces on the collection is a period guitar transcription of “God Save the Czar,” the 1833 composition by Alexis Lvov and Czarist Russia’s national anthem. Stodgy -- but fertile.

The opening phrase is strongly reminiscent of the opening phrase of the Civil Rights hymn “We Shall Overcome.” And the last phrase prefigures almost note-for-note the melody of the closing phrase of Irving Berlin’s great American anthem, which ends, “God bless America, my home sweet home.”

Irving Berlin was a child of Czarist Russia whose first memory was of seeing his home burned down during a pogrom. He originally wrote “God Bless America” in 1918, the year after the overthrow of the Czarist regime by the Communists, of whom Berlin was no fan. What can this quotation of Czariana mean in a heartfelt patriotic hymn to his adopted country, in the wake of the execution of the last Czar, by people Berlin despised? He’s on record as being anti-Communist, and presumably he was no fan of the pogrom-condoning Czars either, but when he reached into the melodic well for a patriotic hymn, he borrowed from a recently deposed one from his dangerous childhood.

Berlin was 5 when his family emigrated to the United States. Three years later his father died. Berlin became a street kid in New York City at age 13, scraping by, selling newspapers, busking, waiting tables. John Howard Payne’s 19th century hit Home, Sweet Home may have had particular meaning to Berlin -- enough that the last line of one of his most famous songs quotes the title.

And the tune he borrowed to set that borrowed line of verse recalled his childhood home. According to this translation, the lyric that tracks the tune (minus two syllables) for “God bless America, my home sweet home,” sings, “God save the Czar! God save the Czar!”

It is moving to imagine Berlin's relationship with the tune -- in an impossibly sorrowful way -- the terror of the pogrom intermixed with longing for childhood / home -- when his father was alive and (as far as I know) protecting him. But at the time he wrote the song Berlin did have a home, a sweet home -- America. The melody’s allusion to the past mingles with the present of the song in a dense emotional tangle. In a democracy loyalty to country is not loyalty to monarch. God bless America.

Berlin’s melodic borrowings didn’t stop at the border of Czarist Russia, and they didn't all conjure his childhood. As revealed by the research of my friend Jody Rosen, on an album he curated of 100-year-old Jewish vaudeville numbers, Jewface, Berlin also stole from the tune, “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band.” The melody for his song’s opening line, “God bless America,” tracks, note for note, this phrase from the other song: “Abie then starts to play.” Berlin started his career writing ethnically stereotyped comedic songs, at first lyrics, and then lyrics and music, mocking Jews and Italians and a variety of ethnic minorities. His career had changed with the fashions of the times, and by the time he wrote
“God Bless America” he had been hugely successful for most of a decade. By alluding to a “Hebe” song with his patriotic melody, he states his loyalty to the original American milieu in which he became a rich man -- “God bless America.”

The bottomless mystery of song -- stitching together bits of what I can only imagine was at best a wildly ambivalent nostalgia for childhood, with a famous swatch of 19th century pop poetry, and early 20th century rough-and-rude vaudeville, Berlin came up with a perennial. His tune swells with pride for most singers and listeners (and bores and annoys a huge percentage of others), but even before I knew the sub-tunes and their subtexts, I heard a humble hesitancy in the melody, a pungent melancholy whose particularities can never be adequately described. The melody
’s allusions bespeak a dark path to the singer’s present love of country.

If you’re interested in a tasty slice of the farflung social and musical history of the guitar, you should check out Timofeyev’s disc of music he has unearthed. And there is a Velveeta-y keyboard arrangement of “God Save the Czar” on the Web, if you
’re interested.

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