EKH, YABLOCHKO!

Don Barton Johnson—aka Donald Barton Johnson and D. Barton Johnson—is one of the great Nabokov scholars (you can read the beginning of an appreciation here), and an old pal of mine sent me a link to an article of his on a subject that (as my mother used to say) I never thought would come up: Nabokov and Ayn Rand. The two were, of course, both born in Saint Petersburg, and, as Johnson says, “became bestselling American writers in the late 1950s,” but who would have thought there was more to say on the subject? Johnson discusses them in connection with Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky vs. Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and pop music; I’ll quote a paragraph on perhaps the most recondite link:

There is only one slender justification for mentioning We the Living in connection with Nabokov. One of the motifs of Rand’s dreadful revolutionary epic is the folk quatrain (chastushka) “Yablochko” or “Little Apple” (Johnson). The beginning is always “Oy, yablochko, /Kuda kotishsya,” i.e., “Little apple, where are you rolling?” The closing couplet may be anything, but one popular version was “Na Chrezvychaiku, / Ne vorotishsya,” i.e., “to Cheka HQ, / and you won’t be coming back.” The chastushka was especially popular in the Crimea where the Rozenbaums and the Nabokovs spent the civil war years. Nabokov introduced it into both Bend Sinister and LATH! [Look at the Harlequins!]. In the latter Vadim Vadimovich is fleeing across the Russian border in 1918 when he is challenged by a Red border guard: “And whither may you be rolling (kotishsya), little apple” (yablochko)?” Vadim coolly shoots him dead. One is tempted to link this episode to Nabokov’s March 1918 Crimean encounter with a “bow-legged Bolshevik sentry” who threatened to arrest the young lepidopterist for signalling a British warship with his butterfly net (Speak, Memory 131).

Here‘s a detailed Russian Wikipedia article on the song, here‘s a vocal version from the wonderful film of Bulgakov’s Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog), and here‘s an instrumental/dance version—see, you do know it after all, even if you’re not Russian. (Thanks, Growler!)

Comments

  1. So, that’s the source of the title for the novel “Wohin rollst du, Äpfelchen?” which apparently is about a German prisoner of war in WWI Russia.
    Your link to the vocal version is incorrect.

  2. Thanks to this post, I went looking for more Яблочко videos on Youtube and found this.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfYxC8MUuf4
    I blame you for the clockwork nightmares I will have tonight. And by that, I mean, “I thank you, sir!”
    And yes, as Vasha noted, you have two links to the instrumental and none to the vocal and now I’m really curious about which vocal version you were intending to link to.

  3. Oops! Fixed now.

  4. Rand is certainly a more interesting figure if you look at her in the context of her Russian background. I had no idea she was a Dostoyevsky fan – that really makes no sense in the context of her “philosophy”.

  5. “Little apple” was a regular-variety street couplet in Ukraine, with the lines about handsome boys and dinosaur parents, before it became politicised by the revolutionary sailors. There are a few anti-Red versions too, although perhaps apocryphal – here’s the one I remember:
    Пароход идет
    Да мимо пристани
    Будем рыбу кормить
    Коммунистами
    Пароход идет,
    А волны кольцами
    Будем рыбу кормить
    Комсомольцами

  6. Here‘s a direct link to Сара’s video, which does indeed get weird toward the end!

  7. “Yarbles! Great bolshy yarblockos to you!”

  8. Yarbles < your balls, of course.

  9. I’ve come across an interesting historico-linguistic riddle of chastushka folk couplets in Finnic languages of Russian in Christopher Culver’s excellent blog. LH attracts a more diverse readership who are interested in history and folk traditions, and I hope that sharing the story here may yield better clues.

    Christopher looked up a Mari chastushka recorded in a small village in Northern Tatarstan, a few kiometers from the Mari regional border, in 1968. To his surprise, the final line mentioned … Komsomol, a Soviet youth league. So he was, like, what sort of a folk tradition was *that*?

    But as it is common with genre, the tests of Mari chastushkas turned out to be highly variable; the oral version from 1968 actually turned out to be the version sung by a Mari poet and actor, Yvan Kyrlya, in a classic 1931 movie (and then purposefully erased from the official record after he perished in Stalin’s purges) (yes, in a Russian-language movie, Kyrlya’s character belts it out in Mari!).

    So far so good; but a new question emerges. There are many regional substyles of chastushka couplets in the Volga region, and the whole history of the genre is murky. Chastushka only gained prominence after the 1917 revolution (the story of “Yablochko”, above, is very typical). It may have started earlier, possibly assisted by spread of inexpensive button accordions in the countryside of Russia, but its possible spread in XIX c. remained largely unnoticed. Slower couplet forms (such as stradaniya) predominates earlier. Likewise slower Mari songs were reported in XIX c. But the accelerated chastuska sub-genres of the Mari may have inherited a specific rhythmic quirk – a segmented seven-syllable opening line (also known in some Komi chastushkas, but fairly rare in Russian, an example being “Рупь за сено, два за воз, полтора за перевоз…”). So do we know which ethnic tradition influenced which one, and when? How did chastushka’s in general, and seven-syllable variation in particular, emerge?

  10. Very interesting indeed, and the whole idea of a “folk tradition” gets more and more complicated the more we learn about them.

  11. Is the Mari chastushka what Tom Sebeok called the “Cheremis sonnet”? I glanced at a writing of his on that topic long ago, intrigued, only to find that he was using the word “sonnet” with a meaning all his own.

  12. Dave Van Ronk (who should know) on “folk tradition”:

    Dylan is usually cited as the founder of the new song movement, and he certainly became its most visible standard-bearer, but the person who started the whole thing was Tom Paxton … he tested his songs in the crucible of live performance, he found that his own stuff was getting more attention than when he was singing traditional songs or stuff by other people … he set himself a training regimen of deliberately writing one song every day. Dylan had not yet showed up when this was happening, and by the time Bobby came on the set, with at most two or three songs he had written, Tom was already singing at least 50 percent his own material. That said, it was Bobby’s success that really got the ball rolling. Prior to that, the folk community was very much tied to traditional songs, so much so that songwriters would sometimes palm their own stuff off as traditional.

    “Bobby” = “Dylan”.

  13. Prior to that, the folk community was very much tied to traditional songs, so much so that songwriters would sometimes palm their own stuff off as traditional.

    But the point is that the whole idea of “traditional songs” that weren’t composed by anyone in particular but sort of coalesced out of the Volksgeist millennia ago is wrongheaded.

  14. wrongheaded

    Sure. It’s about reception and transmission, not creation. The version of “The Rhyme of the Nancy Bell” that I recite doesn’t come from W.S. Gilbert’s printed text: it comes from my father, and has very typical “folk process” changes in it, including ones I’ve introduced myself semi-unintentionally. “Casey At The Bat” (which I also do) has hundreds of variants: it has a known author, but not a fixed text. The same is true of almost all the songs I sing: see “The Folk Process” at my blog.

    Schooner Faire nailed it: folk songs are songs sung by folks. “Fifty years from now you probably won’t see guys in the bar standing around the old upright synthesizer singing Twisted Sister tunes.”

  15. Well put.

  16. Interesting story, JC! Folk etymology meets rhyme!

    The nature of the process changed quite a but since the beginning of XX c., with the spread of audio recordings listing the authors. And it went both ways, authored => folk and traditional => composed by a known person. Folk airs have been massively appropriated by the composers using (or often slightly modifying) them, especially early on. Many a lawsuit on song intellectual property rights ended with discoveries that something of a folk nature pre-existed before both parties’ work.

    But then, what’s so unusual about folk culture being syncretic?

  17. Nothing, now, but if you were raised at a time when the romantic Volksgeist nonsense was still being passed on to schoolchildren (even if it was already rejected by scholars), it came as a shock to learn.

  18. True to the “romantic Volksgeist nonsense”, the Russian folklorists tended to ignore chastushka as a genre with shallow roots and “unworthy themes” until the pioneering 1901-1903 publications of Dmitry Zelenin, a son of a poor Udmurtia clergyman who was then an undergrad in Yur’ev / Dorpat University, in today’s Estonia (perhaps not surprisingly, Zelenin was one of the early proponents of the important contribution of Finno-Ugric substrate in Russian ethnogenesis). I couldn’t find these early publications online, but they are reviewed alongside with other “new folklore” / “post-folklore” developments in this article (it observes, among other things, how a popular audio recording of a folk song serves to displace alternate texts, and to crystallize the recorded text as “the one correct version”).

    Prior to Zelenin, Gleb Uspensky published an essay on “New Russian Couplets” (“Новые народные стишки”) in 1889, already pointing out the extreme variability of chastushka texts, always reflecting localities and current events. But in Uspensky’s rather patronizing view, the couplets reflected the transitional nature of the post-Reform Russian village, and the great disturbances of the creative ability of the Russian people, which “didn’t yet come to its senses” in its wake. Zelenin himself didn’t argue against the lowly, degraded, ephemeral nature of the folk couplets, but argued that there must be continuity with the disappearing old songs, which would only come in sight after thorough studies. Following in Zelenin’s steps, in 1909 Rev. Pavel Florensky published a collection of chastushki from Nerekhta. In the 1910s, Valentin Serebrennikov collected chastushki of Perm region, Leonid Il’insky in Kazan’ & Vyatka. This geographic distribution does make it likely that chastushka originated as a Volga Basin regional phenomenon.

    The 1913 compendium of Simakov (which I got – 3,341 entries, and not a single expletive ;) ) describes the geographic distribution in slightly different but essentially similar terms, as a “Northern Gubernias” folk form (he included Arkhangel as well as North-West regions from Pskov to Karelia as well as Volga Basin). It also gives a special credit to Zelenin.

    Simakov’s intro section begins from asserting that the study of chastushka couplets has only started in the previous decade or two, because the texts of this genre were considered to be too recent / too much rooted in the youth subculture to be interesting. But he cites an appearance of a chastushka meter – a seven-syllable one – along with a typically preposterous subject – in the 1788 “Pesennik” in the section of khorovod circle dancing songs – to hypothesize that the form is a whole lot older than its highly variable texts.

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