Updated May 30, 2022
Rarely do I wake from a dream realizing that in the dream I knew I was dreaming.
I recently dreamed that I was lost in the woods, exhausted, when I found a cave just before dark. I reclined on a sloped rock with my head on my fanny pack and fell asleep. That’s when I dreamed that I knew I was dreaming, making it hard to separate reality from the dream. Even when I woke up I didn’t know if I was only dreaming that I did.
When I woke up, the black overcast sky offered no moonlight, no starlight. It was so dark that I could not see. I seemed actually blind, and it scared me for a moment.
I was distracted from the blindness by something I heard. At a distance, there was music. Chanting, drums, flutes, bells. I was at least three miles from the nearest house, and there were no trails so high on this mountain. Who would be having a party up here?
Or am I still dreaming? Oh, that’s it. I’m still dreaming, and now I know that I am. It seems so real, and yet surreal, too. I went with the flow of the dream, letting it take me where it would.
I dug the headlamp out of my fanny pack and turned it on. Pointing it at the mouth of the cave, I saw outside, dimly, the faint image of a person standing in the trees about thirty feet away. I leaped to my feet and said, “Hello?”
It was an old woman, smiling. She silently turned and almost disappeared into the dark when I decided to follow. The music grew louder as she led me through a narrow pass through dense forest, over rock flats along the ridge above the cave.
I’ve been spending a tremendous amount of time immersing myself in Ukraine’s history and culture, with an emphasis on music. It occurred to me in the dream about dreaming that this was what I was dreaming about, Ukrainian music, from centuries past.
Soon, in a hollow below us, I saw the light of a bonfire flickering through the trees, with the pulsating drums and chanting now much louder. It was a fantastic party, celebrating the arrival of spring, which was the traditional New Year of Pagan, pre-Christian times in Ukraine. The music was familiar, more a chant, but there were unusual stringed instruments and flutes (among 60 or more instruments invented by Ukraine, for real, not dreaming), and several drums.
When I hear music I fear no danger, I am invulnerable, I see no foe.
I am related to the earliest times and to the latest.
— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 13 January 1857
The woman bowed slightly and extended an arm, welcoming me into the camp. I felt like I naturally belonged there, like coming home.
She said in a smile, “You are just in time for the big fire circle dance, Cave Man.”
It was mesmerizing. The music rattled me and thrilled me. Dancers scattered around the clearing in pairs and threes and fours, wearing fabulous, brilliantly colored outfits, doing dizzying things.
Then came the big dance. They danced in a circular path around the fire, doing steps that I could never master (I’ve been told I have no rhythm), and athletic choreography, like ballet. It could be done only in a dream, I thought. Ukrainians may differ.
Many of their steps were connected hand-in-hand, or arm-in-arm, in an unbroken chain while dancing in a circle around the fire.. Toward the end, some of them did fantastic backward flying kicks, both feet sailing high, without breaking the chain! How could they hold on to each other doing such a vigorous dance and circling the fire at the same time? And they were singing!
The dance, the drums, the bells, the singing and the air filled with night potions released by the trees, and bright, hot fire, all combined to drive them into a finely controlled rapture. I say finely because of the expert dancing, exquisite singing, and masterful music.
To them, it was more than a party. It was a religious ritual, a form of prayer. It summoned magic to bring a good harvest, with peace and happiness among the people.
From the Wikipedia article on Dance in Ukraine:
Judging by the figures depicted in motion on Trypillian clay vessels, dance has been performed in the lands of present-day Ukraine since at least the third millennium BC. It has been assumed that up to the introduction of Christianity in Kyivan Rus in 988, dance served a very important ritual function in the lands of present-day Ukraine. Pre-Christian rituals combined dance with music, poetry, and song. A remnant of these ritual dances (Ukrainian: Oбpядовi танці, translit. Obryadovi tantsi; see also Khorovody[a combination of a circle dance and chorus singing]) which survive in limited form today are the Spring Dances, or Vesnianky, also referred to as Hahilky, Hayilky, Hayivky, Yahilky, or Rohulky. Another seasonal event featuring dances was the yearly pre-harvest festival of Kupalo, which to this day remains a favorite theme for Ukrainian choreographers.
These religious ritual dances proved to be so strongly ingrained into the culture of the people prior to the introduction of Christianity, that rather than attempting to eliminate them, Christian missionaries incorporated Christian themes into the songs and poetry which accompanied the dancing, using the dances to spread their religion, as well as enabling millennia-old steps and choreographic forms to continue to be passed down from generation to generation. –Wikipedia article on Dance in Ukraine
You never know what you’re going to learn in this blog, do you? Now back to the dance on the mountain.
It was the last night of the full, free, traditional worship of the old Slavic gods, as Christianity reshaped or removed spiritual traditions. As I witnessed the questionable reformation, I vowed to keep the old music playing for life, the joyous voices singing, the sacred drums beating to the wings of the swallow.
Within this dream about a dream, I watched myself wonder what would happen when I woke up. Would I remember my vow? I did not want to wake up.
I said to the old woman, “Don’t wake me up.”
She said, “You are more awake now than ever, Cave Man, like spring rising out of winter. You see the nature of things differently now. Celebrate it with us. Here. Ring this bell and sing.”
I refrained from quoting Huxley to her. He wasn’t born until centuries later.
All that we are and will and do depends, in the last analysis,
upon what we believe the Nature of Things to be.
–Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, p. 44, 1944
Suddenly I had uncanny rhythm in my bones, but only for a minute. Ringing the bell stirred me out of the dream.
When I woke up at the campsite here at Balsamea, wishing it were not a dream, I tried to remember the tune that they played. I felt it. I knew it. I could not get it back. Dreams escape too quickly. I tried to sleep again, hoping to return to their camp, their music. I could not sleep. I was frustrated. Annoyed. I lit a fire. While feeding sticks into it, I felt better. (As I say, when in doubt, have a campfire.) I thought about the dream, laughing at myself, glad that I had the dream, feeling silly, and feeling good about feeling silly. Campfire therapy. Still, the music haunted me. What was it?
Back at the house, I combed through my collections. It took a while, then … Bingo!
It was Shchedryk (Щедрик), the ancient Ukrainian Spring New Year Celebration Song. Shchedryk means “generous” or “bountiful.” It was one of the chants they sang in celebration of spring, which was their New Year. It was (still is) a song about a swallow who visited a home to tell of good things to come.
Likely only one reader of my blog would know the song.
Here are the lyrics:
Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka
Here flew the swallow from afar
Started to sing lively and loud
Asking the master to come out
Come here, oh come, master – it’s time
In the sheepfold wonders to find
Your lovely sheep have given birth
To little lams of great worth
All of your wares are very fine
Coin you will have in a big pile
You have a wife
Fair as a dove
If not the coin, then the chaff
You have a wife fair as a dove
♫ Lyrics in Ukrainian / Текст українською:
Щедрик, щедрик, щедрівочка
Стала собі щебетати
Вийди, вийди, господарю
Подивися на кошару
Там овечки покотились
А ягнички народились
В тебе товар весь хороший
Будеш мати мірку грошей
В тебе жінка
Хоч не гроші, то полова
В тебе жінка чорноброва
Щедрик, щедрик, щедрівочка
In 1916, Mykola Leontovych, a Ukrainian (of course) composed a modern version of Schedryk. This composition came to light during the period when the Russian Empire fell and the world was at war, and Ukraine claimed its independence, at great cost in war. When the smoke cleared, Leontovych was executed by the Soviets for his independence activism.
Here is a synthesized instrumental performance of the modern music.
That’s right. I said you don’t know the song. You recognize the tune, but not the original song.
Built on only four notes, this is one of the most beautiful songs the world has ever known, but do we know it? Non-Ukrainian people know it by its Christian lyrics, not as a spring New Year celebration. For people all around the world, it is a Christmas hymn, Carol of the Bells.
Listen and learn, from Eileen, the enchanting Ukrainian singer (and professional interpreter) who is on a mission to create English versions of Ukraine’s famous folk songs.
Her traditional outfit is fabulous. Seriously, I love their traditional attire, for men and women.
It is such a gift to us that she sings it in both languages.
(YouTube link: https://youtu.be/GqeJ38DThVc)
Explore Eileen’s enchanting music
at her YouTube channel.
I make no excuses and hold no reservation about proclaiming Ukraine’s blessings. The only shame would be in my failure to share them.
It is what I have chosen to do in response to the war: open paths for Ukraine to lift herself up in your heart, by her strength and beauty, to encourage your unity with her, and compassion toward her, and effort for her.
So, today I share Shchedryk. The song and its story embody portions of the soul of modern Ukraine. Though most of the world does not know the original meaning and story of its Ukrainian origin, the song has inspired spiritual uplifting of hearts, minds, music and voices around the world, heard every year nearly everywhere.
The Christmas version of the song has been one of the most popular holiday songs, destined to remain so forever. However, the pre-Christian one, the original, must never be forgotten. It tells a different story than the Christmas song. It comes from the spirit that binds Ukraine’s historic roots to its modern culture, a bond that wars have failed again and again to conquer.
Whatever power rules the land, Ukraine is Ukraine, and will regain her independence, again and again.
At least three times in Ukraine’s history since the 17th Century, Russia has tried to wipe out Ukraine as a nation and a culture. Now we see the worst one of all: Putin’s declaration that Ukraine is not a country and his “special military operation” to destroy and kill all he can within her borders.
He says she is not a country. In truth, he is trying to destroy her because she is such a great country. He has not, will not, and cannot kill her.
This leaves us the question, “How much must she suffer?”
Celebrate the indomitable spirit of Ukraine in her song of celebration of the bounty and generosity of the eternal New Year spring season, continually granting her the soul to create boundless beauty, and to not merely survive hell, but rise from it renewed, and now, in greater renown than ever.
Ukraine is uniting the world, inspiring it, and, I’m sorry to say, preparing it to face terrible crises to come. As the planet’s usable natural resources continue to retreat from humanity, what will humanity do about it? Hug and sing kumbaya?
Music will have its place, and Ukraine is music.
Learn about the endless ways that people all over the world have celebrated with this song, and always will. Make it a celebration song for yourself, your family, your community — seriously, share it in your churches and clubs — with a new understanding of its role in culture.
Those repeating four notes? Think of the flight of a swallow. Recall that this was originally a pagan ritual chant, rooted in connectedness with Nature. It is a “bird song.” You can feel the bird swishing and swooping, tumbling and diving, sweeping and darting its way through the music. We mimic bird celebrations of spring.
It is said that the chant has magical powers. Get the hint that it’s more than just a folk song? To Ukraine, it means more than the words, more than the music, more than the dance. It is part of the magic of Ukraine and her people.
While the beauty of the song is incomparable, its story is just as important. Here is the history of the song, in brief. (Only 2.5 minutes and it saves me so much writing that would put you to sleep! Again!):
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/LFhUWApeNJA)
That’s right. Leontovych, who was an activist for Ukrainian independence, was murdered by a Soviet agent in 1921, a year before his composition was made world famous before a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall, New York City.
The Carnegie hit was NOT the Christmas song published in 1936 by Peter Wilhousky to the music of Leontovych. It was the folk song, Shchedryk. It was Ukraine in New York. Imagine how the Ukrainian National Choir must have felt to be an astounding hit at Carnegie? Imagine how Ukraine felt? The choir carried Ukraine to Carnegie and into the ears of the world forever.
In December 2019, Lydia Tomkiw wrote an exhaustive, enlightening history of the song and relevant portions of Ukraine’s national and cultural history in her article in Slate, Toll of the Bells; The forgotten history of nationalism, oppression, and murder behind a Christmas classic.
As an ancient, pre-Christian holiday folk song, and as a famous song updated by a national independence activist/martyr, the song has patriotic and other cultural meanings for Ukrainians. That period in their history is the same one from which arose their patriotic “second anthem” that I wrote about recently, Oh, The Red Viburnum in the Meadow, which celebrates the Sich Riflemen in Ukraine’s War for Independence, 1918-1921. Sing Schedryk or Red Viburnum within hearing of Ukrainians, and you’ll have friends singing along with you, with immense pride, sometimes with tears.
Next time you hear this song that you’ve known before as the Christmas hymn, Carol of the Bells, think of Ukraine, and thank her. Then help her through this war.
As I did with a Red Viburnum (Chervona Kalyna) playlist (28 videos), I have compiled a Shchedryk YouTube playlist (48 videos) containing 47 versions of Schedryk, plus the history video above, performed in just about every genre and style over the past hundred years, right up to hard rock.
For this year’s 100th anniversary of its Carnegie Hall debut on October 5, 1922, today sadly during another Russian war on Ukraine, give the song and Ukraine some time in your heart by immersion in the following performances, then act on what your heart says.
Before moving on to the concert below, see the following links for verified charities and Ukraine government agencies where you can help Ukraine fight, survive and recover, and help its refugees scattered around the world. Thank you. Every bit matters.
— International Rescue Committee (one of my favorites)
— Stand for Ukraine (44 organizations of all kinds) “Stand for Ukraine is an aggregator of reliable organizations that helps to fight the Russian invasion and overcome its consequences. … This website is made by IT engineers, managers, designers, writers, translators, journalists, and activists from all over Ukraine & beyond.”
— Support Ukraine (UA government site with list of ways to help)
Here are ten more of my favorite Shchedryk performances. You’ve got to try them. You will not be disappointed. Then, see the full playlist for more. It has something for every taste, from classical to rock. Really!
The first known recording of Shchedryk: Ukrainian National Chorus, led by Alexander Koshetz, circa September 26, 1922 during their European and American tour.
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/lXQ15PyKM-M)
Remember the Tom Hanks movie, Big, where he wakes up as a boy in the body of an adult? He played a giant piano with Robert Logia by dancing on the keys.
Well, they got nuthin’ on these girls taking a Shchedryk instrumental performance to new heights of cuteness:
(YouTube Link https://youtu.be/qlZYGZEHMgU)
In another instrumental of a special kind, this is the couple at the center of the Ukrainian group B&B Project (bandura and button accordion). I fell in love with them when I saw their performance of one of my favorite classical composers, Vivaldi, played outdoors in great Ukrainian scenery. It is a joy to watch, and their music is amazing, unlike anything you typically hear in the American popular music market, but certainly should. They have a playlist with 67 of their pieces. YOU MUST CHECK IT OUT.
The bandura, as you know by now from this blog, is the famous Ukrainian instrument. This is pure fun (thank you, Ukraine):
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/dZXYpwycBAQ)
Next, the young Yaroslav Dzhus does “a fantasy” of the song, again on the bandura, which he seems to know his way around.
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/1ybUOMIIXXM)
I remember when I had hair like that. Long since, I donated most of it, roots and all, to science.
Another instrumental, this is Al Di Meola in the 2008 Our Christmas show in Kyiv. It has high flying dancers, literally.
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/dA_jAxTFLM4)
Finally! One with singing! Sorta. A silly-funny animation from Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks Christmas album Crazy For Christmas! It’s a weird sort of beautiful. The squirrels kill me.
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/pOonKkGnNRI)
SEE??? Say THANK YOU FOR THE SONG, UKRAINE!
These folks may be having just a bit too much fun. What else would you expect from a group named The Last Bison?
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/qMM5qb43LAc)
Now we get tribal, banging on pipes. A talented American teenager, Kent Jenkins, made a musical instrument out of PVC plastic pipes and performed Shchedryk on it with a friend (or his brother? or a doppelganger?) I’m amused by the glances they give each other.
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/ygjYHldtzaw)
I am happily obliged to share a singing and dancing performance in traditional clothing. I was going to put this one first, but I decided to leave you with its taste in your senses and memory. This is pure delight. I love the shows in traditional dress. (Eileen’s is especially good that way.)
This is also a choir with a deep history, founded and first performing during World War II as Ukraine again struggled for freedom, from the Nazis that time. It is fitting that this performance be here during today’s war. Kyiv was destroyed, they write. It came back. It will again, as will all of Ukraine, if we help them.
Here is the text from their YouTube page:
“Grigory Verevka. Today this name is known far beyond the borders of Ukraine. And it all started in 1943 almost immediately after the liberation of Kharkov from the Nazis, when it was decided to create a Ukrainian folk choir. Grigory Verevka was appointed artistic director. The selection of artists was not easy. Some musicians were specially searched for at the fronts by field mail letters. And vocalists were recruited on trips to cities and villages. Many did not have a musical education – they just loved to sing and had strong vocal abilities. Then the choir moved to Kyiv, and on September 6, 1944, the first concert was given – it was dedicated to the people of Kiev, who were rebuilding their destroyed city. They had to perform without costumes – women hid tarpaulin boots behind the backs of men standing one row below. This was the beginning of a long and glorious journey. On our stage, the pride of Ukraine is the National Honored Academic Ukrainian Folk Choir named after Hryhoriy Verevka.”
(YouTube link https://youtu.be/caIMVBzLOWg)
Now that your appetite is up, you can have fun exploring the remaining three dozen performances in the playlist.
Ukraine is music for the world. Help them.
Слава Україні! Героям слава!
Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!
Don’t wake me up.
Second day of the war, February 25, 2022. Ukrainians taking refuge underground at night during bombing of Kyiv. What are they dreaming when they can’t sleep? Photo by Sergey Korovayny.
Look closely at each person in the picture.