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The Upper Don Folklore

The Upper Don folklore is opulent. It is constituted of tales, legends, bylinas, sayings, proverbs, stories of real facts from the past, songs.

The plots of the tales are typical for southern Russia: “Geese-Swans”, “How a Cock Overcame the Tsar”, “Ivan the Prince and Grey Wolf”, “Princess-Frog” and others. Cossack interpretations of the Russian tales are interesting with their dialect peculiarities, witty language. The bylinas make the listeners sympathize with “the Don Cossack Iliya Muromets”, as well as the Cossacks call Alyosha Popovich “a Don Cossack”.

The legends are still told on the Upper Don nowadays, whereas bylina performers are practically impossible to find. Their songs and texts are kept in the five-volume edition by A.M. Listopadov “The Songs of the Don Cossacks”. The book, a bibliographical rarity now, contains about 1200 Cossack songs with their noted records.

The Cossack song was born five centuries ago. Among the oldest is the song about Ermak being elected ataman. It was the XVI century. A performance of this song is a kind of examination for skilful “playing” of authentic Cossack songs performing them in the way they primordially sounded.

The “up-river” performance style is a local variety of the Don Cossack song. In the published record about the expedition of 1902-1903 Listopadov quoted the opinion of the folk performers, Goncharov and Makarov, from stanitsas of Vyoshenskaya and Elanskaya, that the performance of Vyoshenskaya is much more genial in comparison with singing on the Lower Don, – “there they sing harshly and coarsely”.

Slow, drawling songs are sung without a musical accompaniment. More authentic is a performance by a group of five – seven singers. Musical instruments (accordion, balalaika, violin) were used by Cossacks at dancing parties of young people. The dances were those brought by Cossacks from foreign campaigns: polka, karapet, krakowiak, two-step, gallop, padespañ, quadrille and other dances “from Europe”.

At weddings, outings, dinner parties they danced “kazachok”, “barynya”, “kamarinskiy”, “gipsy”. “Quick” Cossack songs “to dance” are performed without musical instrument accompaniment, but to hand claps, yells in time and out of time, and to tambourine.

“Quick” Cossack songs are much more rhythmic and emotional than dance songs “to accordion” in the middle part of Russia. They express a dashing boldness, a skill to set off the members to fun.

In singing Cossacks value men’s voices, while women’s voices are typical of “family”, “maiden”, lyric, wedding songs and in a round dance. But in cases of men’s absence women can take the men’s role in singing upon themselves and perform the same “marching” and combatant songs.

The Upper Don Cossacks are famous for polyphonic singing. It seems to have two “layers”, low and top, contrasting in function. There are no bass voices. Men’s voices sound vibrant for the song to flow easily and freely. A “dishkant”, a high, supporting voice, “soars over the “middle” register. Often a “diskant” has no words, only vowels “a-o-e” are vocalized.

Many songs begin with a recitative. A man’s voice is the first to introduce, it determines a key pitch of the song and its tempo. The rest of the performers, improvising, each in his way, make their singing variant. Usually it is a four-part singing.

There is a specificity in Cossack singing a tune and words in drawling songs. There are breaks off and word repetitions, broad singing of syllables, vowel insertions in the middle of the words, frequent interjections and exclamations. These cause the difficulty for fresh listeners to perceive the singing.

But the folk songs were not intended for an audience or public. They were performed in a friendly circle, for pleasure of the singers themselves.

The songs of the Don Cossacks – historic, marching, combatant, everyday, “to dance”, “to round dance”, wedding, lyric, laments are cherished by the folk group “Zarnitsa” of the State M.A. Sholokhov Museum-Reserve.