To Scream or to Sing: Vladimir Vysockyj and the Tradition of the Blues

Ruby J. Jones, University of Texas, Austin

Within the last few decades a number of historians and academicians have begun drawing parallels between the economic systems of slavery and serfdom--both in the execution and the aftermaths. Kolchin's Unfree Laborhas traced similarities between the development and implementation of slavery in the United States and serfdom in tsarist Russia. Although an ocean separated these two nations, a portion of their inhabitants experienced similar fates. The serf in eighteenth and nineteenth century Russia had no more freedom than the black slave in the United States. Dale Peterson, in his Up from Bondage, has looked at similarities in the literary traditions of Russia and the United States. Both literary traditions are deeply rooted in examinations of the "soul" or the Russian dusha as partial refutation of the Euro-centric cultural evaluation of certain peoples, which left both blacks in the United States and the native Russians as distant cultural throwbacks, not worthy of being included with the more "civilized" Europeans. Kolchin and Peterson drew parallels between the two peoples, beginning in the nineteenth century for Kolchin, and continuing into the early twentieth century for Peterson.

Although serfdom and slavery ended in the same decade (1860s), freedom did not bring the expected benefits to the freed peoples. What was written and decreed by law did not impinge on everyday life or attitudes toward the disenfranchised. Those who were considered inferior before they were freed, were still powerless and voiceless. They were far removed from the wielders of power; and the freedom, which they had finally gained, still did not allow them to express any discontent.

Blues in the United States has been described as a particularly American genre, arising as an expression of the pain and suffering of slavery and its aftermath. At the heart of this definition of the blues is the idea of its being rooted in the detritus of the slavery and post-slavery (i.e., Jim Crow) periods of US history. I propose that the social and cultural conditions which culminated in the blues (as one form of expression), did not simply dissipate in the Soviet Union, but found partial expression in the creative output of its bards.

Vladimir Vysockij has been praised as one of the most talented bards to write and perform in the former Soviet Union. His music has been adopted by the people as an expression of their lives--the truest depiction of what it meant to live, love and suffer under the communist regime. Vysockij gave voice to the people: what they could not say, he could sing. In this way, his songs can be seen as a "blues" expression. His songs express the same themes and sounds as their American counterpart: the pain of unrequited love, dead-end jobs, drunken nights, prison suffering, etc.


There are, naturally, differences between the topics of Vysockij's songs and the topics of the standard blues songs of the same period; but, these differences, in my mind, do not outweigh the similarities. Those who wrote the earlier blues songs were, for the most part, uneducated; the language was that of the common man. Part of the earlier refusal of the "literaturnoe obshchestvo" to accept the works of Vysockij was because he used the language of the streets, not the "literaturnyj jazyk" of the established art form. The sound of the blues was rarely smooth; the voices were often rough and scratchy, transmitting the echoes of their pain and suffering. The creators of a later blues form, the smoother rhythm and blues (r&b) of the mid-twentieth century, were more educated than their predecessors; this change was reflected in the language of the songs. This was the same time frame in which Vysockij wrote and performed. Although his lyrics reflect his educated background, Vysockij's gravelly voice expresses the same lack of refinement and pain in his songs.

I will analyze one of Vysockij's later prison songs, "Mat', davaj rydat'" ("Let mama weep for me"). As an example of the perceived similarities between his songs and the blues of the US, I will draw parallels between Vysockij's treatment of this social phenomenon and one of the many American blues songs about prison. Prison songs have almost always expressed the experience from the point of view of the prisoner, either as a contrite penitent, or (more often) as the rebel fighting an unjust system. Vysockij managed to combine both points of view in this one song. "Mat', davaj rydat'" reflects the creativity, power and cultural awareness of Vysockij's songs. If the blues in America has been seen as the voice of black people, the songs of Vladimir Vysockij can be called the "voice of the Soviet common man."