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Chanson, Russia's Rebellious Folk Music

10. September 2009 by Admin 0 Comments

America has a long folk history of Outlaw songs. From the dark and often violent lyrics of traditional bluegrass standards to the raucous Outlaw movement of the 60’s and 70’s including the music of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings; Outlaw Songs have been a musical staple in Americana for decades.

Russia has its own history of Outlaw music called “Chanson” or “Shanson” (not to be confused with the French song style), not based off the Folk/Blues mixture that spawned traditional American music but instead borrowing elements from 19th Century Russian Romance songs. The lyrics to the songs are written in rhyming couplets, similar to much of the poetry written in medieval times throughout Western Europe, and rarely will feature a refrain or chorus.

During the Soviet years, especially under the Stalin regime, guitar music itself was considered out-of-favor with the government, and certainly outlaw songs with their glorification of violence, rebellion and often indignation at the purges that happened under the Soviet leader were held in extremely low regard. Many of the authors and performers of the Chanson style either left the Soviet states or moved on to officially accepted genres of music during this period.

While officially frowned upon, Russian outlaw music managed to survive the oppression of the government and even develop its own culture and urban legends. Contemporary songs of the times would be attributed to prisoners of renown, sometimes even ones who had been dead for decades. A famous singer and writer in Russia named Alexander Gorodnitsky often told how he narrowly escaped a fight after being shown the grave of a criminal who allegedly had written one of Gorodnitsky’s own songs and trying to contest the attribution.

Today, the Chanson style still exists in Russia’s popular music, although it has mixed with other notable styles such as Pop, Rock and Jazz and even has been fused with a modern Western equivalent: Punk rock to form the genre “Anarcho –Chanson”.