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1902 record by Feodor Chaliapin
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The "Song of the Volga Boatmen" (known in Russian as Эй, ухнем! [Ey, ukhnem!, "yo, heave-ho!"], after the refrain) is a well-known traditional Russian song collected by Mily Balakirev, and published in his book of folk songs in 1866. It is a genuine shanty sung by burlaks, or barge-haulers, on the Volga River. Balakirev published it with only one verse (the first). The other two verses were added at a later date. Ilya Repin's famous painting, Barge Haulers on the Volga, depicts such burlaks in Tsarist Russia toiling along the Volga.
The song was popularised by Feodor Chaliapin, and has been a favourite concert piece of bass singers ever since. Glenn Miller's jazz arrangement took the song to #1 in the US charts in 1941. Spanish composer Manuel De Falla wrote an arrangement of the song, which was published under the name Canto de los remeros del Volga (del cancionero musical ruso) in 1922. He did so at the behest of diplomat Ricardo Baeza, who was working with the League of Nations to provide financial relief for the more than two million Russian refugees who had been displaced and imprisoned during World War I. All proceeds from the song's publication were donated to this effort.
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The song, or at least the tune, was popularized in the mid-20th Century through an instrumental jazz version played by the Glenn Miller Band. Glenn Miller released the song as an RCA Bluebird 78 single, B-11029-A, in 1941 in a swing jazz arrangement which reached no. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart in a 10 week chart run.
A translated vocal version was sung by Paul Robeson.
The catchy tune of The Song of the Volga Boatmen has led to its being used in many musical situations, particularly as background music, often with the theme of unremitting toil (or, alternatively, devotion to duty). Some uses, particularly those portending doom or despair, employ only the iconic four-note beginning; others go so far as to add new, often wryly humorous, lyrics, such as the "Birthday Dirge". Some of the uses acknowledge the tune's Russian heritage; very few use the original lyrics (i.e. its use as the introductory theme of the Soviet boxer, Soda Popinski, in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!).