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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 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.
The song, or at least the tune, was popularized in the mid-20th Century through a jazz version played by the Glenn Miller Band. Glenn Miller released the song as an RCA Bluebird 78 single 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 Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler recorded the tune in New York City on June 30, 1937. The arranger was Glazounov. It was released by EMI on the HMV Records label as catalogue number B 9182.
The first three lines of the melody can be heard in the background of Billy Squier's 1981 song, The Stroke. They occur beginning at approximately 2:57 into the song as a synthesizer line.
It is often used in various classic cartoons (including Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny) whenever a character is hauling something from one place to another. The music normally goes from the main (usually the chase) theme which slows down as the character drags the weight, and then transforms into the Song of the Volga Boatmen, which stops as soon as the character gets rid of the weight, and then the music goes back to normal.
In The Three Stooges, Shemp sings this to the milkman when he is milking the cow when they are cavemen.
The Heavy, a large Russian man and one of the playable classes of the game Team Fortress 2, sometimes sings this song while pushing the bomb cart towards the objective, after winning a round, or after eating a Sandvich or Dalokohs Bar.
In the first Shrek movie, a group of gnome-like fairy tale creatures sings The Song of the Volga Boatmen with other lyrics as they are taken away in shackles.
On the SpongeBob episode "Employee of the Month", Squidward and SpongeBob try to upset each other with various traps and tricks as each races to the Krusty Krab to be early for work. The final "trap" the two lay on each other sees them both crawling while being tied to a massive boat and an anchor while a deeper, harsher instrumental of the chorus plays.
The German band Scorpions sang it on the start of their DVD To Russia With Love And Other Savage Amusements.
The song was used in Shaun the Sheep animated series.
The Melodic Death Metal Band Dark Lunacy features the choir in their song "Aurora."
In the song Red Fraction from Mel, used as intro song for the Anime Black Lagoon, you can hear "Queen of Ocean, Sing the Volga to you" in the lyrics