Volga(z)! Heave ho!

Sheet music (partition musicale) of 'Katanga', song by Hippolyte Ackermans & Charles Geuskens, lyrics by M. Roels, 1928, illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.
‘Katanga’ by Hippolyte Ackermans & Charles Geuskens, lyrics by M. Roels, published by Mado Editeur (Bruxelles, 1928), illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.

Voici le style moderne: the Katanga Fox Trot! The forthright and powerful cover made by Alfred Bernier has the typical Art Deco marks. A purified theme, rendered with honest lines and shapes. The natural forms are geometrically stylised, they become streamlined. Repeated elements create a rhythmic tableau of colours, shapes and letters for the song about a man longing both for the faraway land and the woman who lives there.

Lyrics-Katanga

We know next to nothing about Bernier. Having studied at the Académie de Bruxelles, he was active as an illustrator for Belgian music publishers during the end of the Twenties. He was born near Buenos Aires in 1888. We have two other covers in our collection, one of which is the black and white ‘Volga!’. This is thousand miles away from Katanga, but also a delicious Art Deco cover. The stark composition expresses the strength of the workmen and the violent wind. Again, repeated elements create a dynamic scene, frozen in time.

Cover for the sheet music 'Volga!' by Max Alexis and Charles Tutelier, published by Vergucht and illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier
‘Volga!’ by Max Alexis and Charles Tutelier, published by Vergucht (Bruxelles, 1929) and illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.

Lyrics-Volga

The song by Charles Tutelier was probably inspired by the 1926 epic silent movie of Cecil B. DeMille, The Volga Boatman.

Volga boatman Poster Gablin

This big-scaled romantic melodrama, set in the 1917 Russian Revolution, was a shift from the usual anti-Bolshevik films, in that it also focussed on the oppression and the cruelty of the Czar’s regime and did not portray all the revolutionaries as just dumb and violent agitators. On the contrary, our hero is even susceptible to romantic entanglement. See for yourself in this short montage we made from the 2-hour classic of the silent screen.

The film gets an unintentional Dadaistic twist when the social order is being ‘revolutionised’ by the Reds.

The film was an international success and generated sheet music covers in many countries.

Two sheet music covers. Left: 'Le Batelier de la Volga' by Emile Liétard (Châtelineau, s.d.), unknown illustrator. Right: 'Song of the Volga Boatman' published by Keith, Prowse & Co (London, s.d.), unknown illustrator.
Left: ‘Le Batelier de la Volga’ by Emile Liétard (Châtelineau, s.d.). Right: ‘Song of the Volga Boatman’ published by Keith, Prowse & Co (London, s.d.). Both unknown illustrator.
Two-Sheet-Music covers: Left: 'Wolga Lied' published by B. J. Smit & Co (Amsterdam, s.d.) illustration signed F.K. Right: 'La Canzone dei Batellieri del Volga', published by A. & G. Carisch & C. (Milano, 1929), illustrated by Bonfanti.
Left: ‘Wolga Lied’ published by B. J. Smit & Co (Amsterdam, s.d.) illustration signed F.K. Right: ‘La Canzone dei Batellieri del Volga’, published by A. & G. Carisch & C. (Milano, 1929), illustrated by Bonfanti.
'Burlaki (Lied der Barkenschlepper an der Wolga' published by J. H. Zimmerman
‘Burlaki (Lied der Barkenschlepper an der Wolga)’ published by J. H. Zimmerman (Leipzig, s.d.)

One can wonder why in 1917 the title character had to work as a boatman on the Volga. For at least a few decades there hadn’t been any boatmen (Burlaks or barge haulers) working on the Volga. Cecil B. DeMille called this tampering with ‘details’ from the past, telescoping history. His reason was probably very Hollywoodesque: if the American audience knew one Russian song, then it undoubtedly was The Song of the Volga Boatman. Let’s take a minute to hear and see a poignant and primal rendition of the song by the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff.

Ey, ukhnem!’ is the Russian title of the well-known traditional folk song. In 1866 it was published for the first time, with only one (disconcerting Boy Scoutish) verse:

The firm stance of Christoff calls to my mind the posture of the gentleman singer drawn by Jules David  for the song ‘Ténors et Basses’.

Detail from the sheet music cover for 'Ténors et Basses' (Air Bouffe) , by Paul Henrion, lyrics by Emile Barateau, published by Colombier (Paris, s.d.)
Detail from the sheet music cover for ‘Ténors et Basses’ (Air Bouffe) by Paul Henrion, lyrics by Emile Barateau, published by Colombier (Paris, s.d.)

In 1873 Ilya Repin finished his iconic (almost 3m wide!) painting of burlaks along the longest river of Europe, in Tsarist Russia. It both condemns inhumane and harsh working conditions, while also saluting the dignity and long-suffering of the exhausted working class.

Painting by Ilia Efimovich Repin (1844-1930): Volga Boatmen (1870-1873)
Ilya Repin: ‘Volga Boatmen’ (1870-1873), State Russian Museum, St Petersburg (131.5 cm × 281 cm)

It was not only in Russia that ships were pulled by manpower along a tow path. Wherever it was impractical to sail, human force was used to drag the vessels. In the second half of the 19th century it apparently was a favourite theme for painters.

Painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman in 1875: Towing on the Nile.
Frederick Arthur Bridgman: ‘Towing on the Nile’, 1875.
Painting by Telemaco Signorini: L'alzaia, Cascine di Firenze, 1864
Telemaco Signorini: L’alzaia, Cascine di Firenze, 1864

We found unsettling photographs of this human labour.

Burlakwomen photographed on the Volga, 1900s (Wikipedia)
Burlak women photographed on the Volga, 1900s (source: Wikipedia)
Photograph: On the towpath along the river Po, around 1920-1930. (source: G. Giarelli, La cultura del fiume: i barcari del Po, 1986/1987).
On the towpath along the river Po, around 1920-1930. (source: G. Giarelli, La cultura del fiume: i barcari del Po, 1986/1987).
Een man en een vrouw trekken samen een trekschuit door een binnenkanaal. Plaats onbekend, 27 mei 1931.
Man and woman towing a cargo-boat through a ship-canal. The Netherlands, 1931 (source: Nationaal Archief).

Later vehicles and beasts of burden replaced the human pullers, before the work became obsolete when ships were fitted with engines. Towing paths now offer pleasant walks and tourist rides.

Photograph Canal du Midi: chemin de halage (2014)
Canal du Midi: chemin de halage or tow path (2014)

One more thing. Volga also was the name of a car manufactured by GAZ in the USSR from 1956 on. The Soviet nomenklatura chose the Volga as their favourite car to commute between the Kremlin and their dacha. For many Russian generations the brand became the symbol of style and success. The first model was the GAZ-M-21. But then, that’s a completely different hobby…

(credit: Youtube’s Ramzis123)

One thought on “Volga(z)! Heave ho!”

  1. Beste Frank, ik bezit een origineel programmaboekje van de film De Wolga Bootman, uitgave no.2 van Loet G. Barnstijn’s Cinemabibliotheek. De regie is van Cecil B. de Mille. De hoofdrollen worden vertolkt door William Boyd (Feodor) en Elinor Fair (Prinses Vera) . Het boekje omvat 32 pagina’s met een beschrijving van de gebeurtenissen in de film. Het boekje is gedrukt in 1926, dus 90 jaar geleden. Dat moet je maar eens bekijken bij een eventueel bezoek aan mijn adres.
    Hartelijke groet aan jullie beiden van Bram

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