"Bring together two Ukrainians, and you have the beginnings of another choir," an old Ukrainian saying goes. True enough, there is indeed music in the Ukrainian soul. That music ties together the Ukrainian people scattered all over the world with each other, and with Ukraine, their native land in Eastern Europe.
Ukrainian folk music can be melancholy or jolly. When it is melancholy it is very, very melancholy. But when it is jolly, it is infectiously so, setting hands a-clapping, feet a-tapping, and all folks a-hopping. The country dance tunes you hear on these discs belong to that latter category.
This Ukrainian fiddle music reflects the musical interest and traditions of the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants to America, who numbered more than half a million by the 1920's. Emigrating largely from the western regions of Ukraine, now a nation of 50 million people, they began to arrive in the U.S. in the 1880's and settled primarily on the East Coast in such states as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York where they found jobs in coal mines, steel mills, factories and in the service trades. Eventually Ukrainian communities arose in other New England and Central states. Today, the million or more Americans of Ukrainian descent are concentrated in such cities as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Most of the vocal selections on these discs deal with the themes of love, courtship, marriage - usually in a light and humorous (and sometimes spicy) fashion. The songs chosen here are very traditional in form and content, with no references to the immigration experience nor to life in America. Rather, they are faithful replicas of songs that might have been heard back in a western Ukrainian village at family celebrations, community get-togethers, village festivals and gatherings of friends.
An important Ukrainian folk music genre well-represented on these discs is that of the troyisti muzyky (trio musicians) an ensemble which traditionally included a fiddle, drums, and tsymbaly (a type of hammered dulcimer related to the Hungarian cimbalon). However, the "trio" often included a fourth person: a flute player (especially among the Hutsul people of the Carpathian Mountains). Or a String bass might be substituted for the tsymbaly.
Many of the tunes here are in the form of the popular kolomyika (or kolomyjka), which uses the elements of instrumental music, song, and dance, either separately or in combination. Believed to originate in the town of Kolomyya in the Carpathian foothills, it is a form which is probably centuries old. The relatively simple basic structure of the kolomyika lends itself to endless textual and musical variations. There are towns and villages in Ukraine where thousands of texts were copied down, and kolomyikas are still sung by Ukrainians all over the world.
The hutsulka - we hear one performed by fiddler Josef Pizio - is a variant of the kolomyika. Often danced in the highlands of the Carpathian Mountains by the Hutsul people, the hutsulka is sometimes also referred to as verkhovyna (highland). The hutsulka contains just one of the more than dozen rhythm schemes used by variants of the kolomyika.
Another form - the kozak (or diminutive kozachok) - is basically a happy and fast dance associated with the boisterous and courageous exploits of the cossacks, a military brotherhood. Although its rhythm scheme is different from that of the kolomyika, both have the 2/4 meter, so they may be smoothly interspersed with each other if the arranger so wishes.
Then there is the ever-popular polka. Though commonly associated with Poland, this simple two-step is actually a Czech dance in 2/4 lime, with the name polka deriving from the word "pulka" or "half-step".
These tunes, like their performers, came from the provinces of Carpatho-Ukraine and Galicia in western Ukraine, an area which until World War I was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The language and spirit of the tunes on these discs is distinctly Ukrainian. However, Eastern Europe is a region with a relatively large number of nationality groups living in close proximity to each other, and a certain amount of mutual influence of musical genres has occurred. thus, in southern Poland there undoubtedly are influences of Lemko (Western Ukrainian) songs and dances, while on Ukrainian territory one finds mazurkas, polkas, and Hungarian elements. On the other hand, Bela Bartok has written about the influence of the kolomyika on Hungarian folk music.
Such an appreciation of shared musical styles by East Europeans of various nationalities was probably the chief factor in the resounding success of fiddler Pawlo Humeniuk's "Ukrainske Wesilie" (Ukrainian Wedding), a recording which we are lucky to be able to hear once again, half a century after its first release in 1926. Close to 150,000 discs were sold, not only to Ukrainians, but also to Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians - all those immigrants whose origins were in the village, and who could relate to the flavor and atmosphere of this "down-home music", even if they could not relate to the Ukrainian language itself.
What we have in "Wesilie" is a portrayal of village wedding customs, instrumental music, songs and a largely humorous conversation between characters at a traditional village wedding. The parents of the bride invite the musicians to play, and the guests to eat, drink, dance and be merry. In a serious moment, the father of the bride gives the young couple the traditional parental blessing.
"Chrestyny" (Christening), a sequel to Wesilie, is done in a similar style. Here, interspersed with rollicking dance tunes is a spirited and humorous disagreement between a mother, father and god-father over the naming of the new born son. Shall it be "Ivan" or "Hryts" (Greg)? The father wants "Ivan." The mother wants "Hryts." The godfather doesn't think the name makes too much difference. The mother wins. Then there follows a bit of flirtation between the god-father and Hryts' mother. We listen to these selections "Wesilie" and "Chrestyny" and wonder about their creator. Who was fiddler Humeniuk anyway? Pawlo Humeniuk (1884-1965) immigrated to the U.S. from western Ukraine at age 18. As a child of six, he had begun to play the violin, taking lessons from a local teacher, and learning many of the tunes of his native region. In the U.S. he continued to study with a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. A tanner and instrument-maker in Ukraine, in the U.S. he created a musical ensemble which played at concerts, festivals, weddings, vaudeville and balls. By 1940, the end of his recording career, Humeniuk had recorded over 100 discs.
Our link with Humeniuk and other Ukrainian-American fiddlers of half a century ago is the youthful (at age 84) Myron Surmach, Sr., founder of Surma Ukrainian Shop in New York City in 1916, Ukrainian entrepreneur par excellence, and a record publisher himself. From the beginning of its establishment. Surma (now located at 11 E. 7th St.) became a kind of Ukrainian community center and Surmach was well-acquainted with Ukrainian musicians of the time, making recordings of their music on his own Surma, Boyan and Fortuna labels.
What does Surmach remember about the musicians of the 1920's and 1930's? He remembers being very impressed by Josef Pizio's fiddling talents: "He was a real folk musician. A tall fellow, drank a lot. I never saw him without his fiddle. He couldn't read music. He'd just close his eyes, and start fiddlin' away. By the time I'd get an orchestra together to record it, he'd forget that tune, and couldn't repeat it. Had to record a different one!" Pizio had apparently arrived in the U.S. sometime before World War I, stayed poor, and died before 1945.
This is what Surmach remembers of John Grychak, who performs "Koketka Polka" on this disc: "One day this Grychak walks into my store Surma. He was from somewhere around Easton, Pennsylvania. He was carrying his tsymbaly. I liked tsymbaly a lot, even then. So I said to him "How about if we make a record?" So we made a record on the Surma label."
And what of Josef Davidenko, who performs the "Kozak"? He is remembered by Surmach as a singer from a Ukrainian choir and a Broadway actor who, as a matter of fact, courted and married one of Surmach's employees, "such a charming girl, she could sell $30 worth of records to a man without a phonograph!"
My favorites on these discs are the kolomyikas sung by Theodor Swystun. Perhaps because kolomyikas are just irresistible. Or perhaps because Swystun's clear and pleasant voice and a rather polished rendition of these tunes come closest to the modern-day kolomyikas I have heard sung by young and old at parties, campfires, or other musical occasions. I was curious to know more about Swystun, so I asked Mr. Surmach about him. "Swystun was a young fellow from Philadelphia. He was brought up to New York by Columbia recording company, because they heard he knew a lot of kolomyikas. Later on, he went to law school and became a lawyer."
The one selection on these discs which is somewhat of an anomaly in terms of style and theme is "Pyesnya o Bodnarevnye" (Song about Bodnarivna), a ballad of social protest based on the Ukrainian duma tradition. A duma was a ballad sung by wandering minstrels, dealing with contemporary and historical events, usually the military exploits of the cossacks. The story in this song is about Bodnarivna, a young peasant girl who is mercilessly taken advantage of by an exploitative master, Kaniowski, probably a Polish landowner in the area.
Some insight into the Tziorogh Troupe which performed this ballad is given by Surmach. He remembers Professor Tziorogh as a choirmaster and music scholar who came from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. Tziorogh knew many folk songs and insisted that traditional music be performed exactly as it might have been heard back in the villages. Thus, in the Bodnarivna song, we hear the "authentic" sound effects of village women wailing and weeping as the balladeer tells of the miserable fate of the young girl. Tziorogh was also known to have used background sounds of clucking hens and barking dogs in some of his other recordings. According to Surmach, this type of music was not as popular
with Ukrainian-Americans as were cheerful dance tunes. Still, it's interesting to hear it on these discs as a contrast to other selections.
Ukrainian-Americans did not limit themselves to only one type of music. They produced and performed choral works and liturgical music, staged Ukrainian traditional operettas, and employed music to accompany their folk dance groups. From the very beginning there was hardly a community which did not have a choir or dance group. This was a perfectly natural development for a people who had preserved their cultural heritage despite a rather tumultuous political history and centuries of foreign rule.
The Ukraine, "the granary of Europe," is a country about the size of France, with a distinct history and culture. Some important historical eras include the Kiev-Rus Empire that rivalled Constantinople in the 10th century; the Kozak period of the 17th and 18th centuries; subsequent partition of Ukraine by rival empires; and lastly, unification as the Ukrainian SSR.one of the 16 republics of the Soviet Union.
Ukrainians (sometimes referred to as "Little Russians" or "Ruthenians") constitute the second largest Slavic group in the world, and have fostered a rich musical culture. Leopold Stokowski has pointed out the particularly large number and beauty of Ukrainian songs. Indeed, the largest single edition of East European folk songs ever assembled are the volumes of Ukrainian Folk Melodies, a collection of 12,000 songs.
Some Ukrainian melodies have travelled into both Eastern and Western Europe and even made their way into the classical compositions of Haydn, Beethoven and Wagner. The American music field has also felt the Ukrainian musical touch.
"The Carol of the Bells," adopted as a Christmas favorite by American audiences, is actually a Ukrainian New Year's carol called "Schedryk." Written by M. Leontovych and performed First in Kiev in 1916, it was popularized after a 1922 tour of Europe and America by the Ukrainian National Chorus. Since that time, over 50 recordings have been made, and it has been performed by countless choruses, chamber and pop ensembles, and symphony orchestras.
Dinah Shore's 1940 hit "Yes, My Darling Daughter", which sold more than a million discs, is based on a Ukrainian folk tune "Oy, ne khody, Hrytsyu" (Don't go, Hryts). George Gershwin wrote "Cossack Love Song" based on elements from a Ukrainian folk song.
As for influences on American fiddle music, a remarkable similarity has been pointed out between a Ukrainian "Dowbush Kozak" and the North American fiddle tune "Flop-Eared Mule," although we are at a loss to explain this "fiddle connection."
With the passing of decades, Ukrainian-American musical tastes changed. As peasants became middle-class Americans, appreciation of 'down-home" fiddle music decreased. Children of the immigrants were learning classical music, taking piano lessons, and moving out of the original settlements where traditional music was performed. Furthermore, after World War II, 80,000 additional Ukrainian immigrants arrived - this time political refugees from Soviet occupation of their land. Largely educated city folks, their musical tastes ran to Ukrainian art songs, opera and classical composers. Recently, however there has developed a new interest in traditional folk music and instruments, especially the bandura - the Ukrainian national instrument.
But Ukrainian fiddle music lives on. The Hutsul people from the Carpathian Mountains, living in communities in the U.S., have preserved intact the original tunes and dances of their native mountain regions and are now recording them for posterity. And Ukrainian country music is popular in western Canada, among the descendants of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada.
Folk tunes like the kolomyika have never died, merely passed on to a new generation who continue to improvise new texts, as their ancestors have done for generations. Dances like the hutsulka are popular with folk dance groups. At dances in Ukrainian-American communities, the band will sometimes switch from the tango or hustle into one of the traditional tunes, and the crowd is transformed, hands clapping and couples spinning on the dance floor.
The old tunes remain, living on in the cultural consciousness of Ukrainians everywhere, not only among the million or more Ukrainian-Americans, but also among Ukrainians in Canada, Brazil, Australia and many other countries of the world where they have settled. In fact, the charm of Ukrainian fiddle music reaches out to people of all cultures who love rhythm and melody. The tunes you hear on these discs are rooted in the Ukrainian tradition: their language is Ukrainian, but their message is universal. - Anisa H. Sawyckyj N.Y.C. March 1977
Special thanks to Roman Sawyckyj for materials used in the preparation of these notes; and to Myron