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Roast Chicken/Цыплёнок жареный

I’m so relieved: I’ve finally discovered the name of the song that appears in Shostakovich’s operetta Moskva, Cheremushki and Gogol Bordello’s Start Wearing Purple.  It’s taken me nearly twenty years.  I loved the music in one of the dance scenes in Moskva Cheremushki, and for years, thought it was original Shostakovich. But then around 2000, I bought Gogol Bordello’s album Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike, and fell in everlasting love with “Start Wearing Purple.” After a while, I noticed that somewhere in the song, they played a tune that was identical to the Shostakovich. Were they quoting him? Or were they both quoting a folk song?

Here’s the Shostakovich (should start immediately at the right place, but if it doesn’t, it’s at about 2 minutes in)

And here’s the Gogol Bordello song: (should start automatically at the right place, but if not, it’s around 2:44)

Phase 3: help from a Russian

Then one day recently, I was playing class for Irek Mukhamedov, and almost by accident, started playing the tune. He looked round and smiled, and said “What is that song? Something about a prison, is it?”  That gave me a clue and a reason to start searching, and it only took a few minutes to find that in fact, prison does feature in the song.  Tatyana Kabanova’s version of the song has a translation, albeit not a particularly good or accurate one, but roughly speaking, there’s a chicken that gets arrested and sent to jail. It’s a song dating from the “war communism” period of Soviet Russia during the civil war (1918-1921), though it seems likely that it’s based on a folk song that predates this. Despite the song’s references to St Petersburg (such as the Nevsky Prospekt), S. Yu. Neklyudov’s history of “Roast Chicken” (with a table of comparative versions of the lyrics) cites other versions that place it originally in Moscow.

Here’s a recording of Arkady Severny singing it – appropriately, since Severny was known for his prison songs.

The Vyborg Side, anarchy and Shostakovich’s “Roast Chicken”

The song has a long history of being associated with anarchists, but that may be due to the way that it has been used in films. It exists in several versions, and is known as a childhood song as well as a war-time one. The history of “Roast Chicken” at has an interesting chronology of the books and films that have referenced it since about 1918. In one of the films, The Vyborg Side/Выборгская сторона, a band plays the tune of “Roast Chicken” as a group walk past with a banner saying “Long live anarchy!” And the film’s composer? Dmitri Shostakovich. According to the BFI page on this film, Shostakovich’s music “wittily riffs on Kurt Weill in depicting the (implicitly German-influenced) enemies of the Revolution.” Really?

Clip should start automatically at 18.42:

Later, Platon Dymba (played by Mikhail Zharov) sings the song  (clip should start automatically at 35:19)

In the film Alexsandr Parkhomenko, it’s sung by a group of anarchist sailors on an armoured train called Anarchy (of course). Clip should start automatically at 7.42.

I didn’t know any of this until I decided to try and trace the connections, but as with a lot of the tunes I play for class, I had an inkling, and I like the idea that someone, somewhere is going to look up from their tendu and go “Oh my God, did he just play that?” It only happens about once every 20 years, but when it does, it’s worth the wait.

And finally

This has nothing to do with “Roast Chicken” but in the same film, there’s a fabulous scene in a bar, where the character Tapersha (played by Faina Ranyevskaya) sings a sentimental waltz-song “Cruel Romance” (by N. Bogoslovskii, lyrics here) on an out-of-tune piano, with a cigarette drooping out of the side of her mouth. If you want to know what playing for class feels like some times, just watch a few seconds of this (should begin automatically at 13:16)


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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist