“The Song of the Volga Boatmen”

A Russian folk song, a genre created to support a dance coming out of Harlem, and a timeless classic

Today, we delve into Big Band music, a genre that remains captivating if underappreciated, often associated with older crowds and bygone eras. However, a large — if hidden — fan base exists, with new fans being created and recreated through school music programs, films, and television shows featuring tunes from the era.

The Big Band genre evolved to support the popularity of the Lindy Hop, an American dance born in the Black communities of Harlem around 1928. The dance is based on jazz, tap, breakaway, and Charleston, and is a member of the swing dance family.

Big bands generally consist of 10 or more members, and have four sections — trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and a rhythm section of guitar, piano, double bass, and drums.

In contrast to jazz, big bands uses written arrangements, which gave a greater role to bandleaders, arrangers, and sections of instruments.

The influence of the Big Band Era is hard to quantify, but it has been massive. The names of artists from the era are the stuff of legend — Count Basie, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Louis Armstrong, to name a few.

Coming into being in the early days of popular recorded music, radio, and film, and with great songwriters coming out of Tin Pan Alley, the music stands the test of time, and remains a cultural landmark. The popularization of drums, guitars, soloists, and sexualized dancing also served as a perfect precursor for the rock era that followed.

“The Song of the Volga Boatmen” is a traditional Russian song (in Russian, the title is, “Yo, Heave-Ho!”) collected by Mily Balakirev, who published the song in his book of folk music in 1866. The first released version of the song was probably recorded in Russia in 1900 by Alexander Makarov-Yunev. Others who worked on versions of the song include Igor Stravinsky, Arthur Fiedler, and Paul Robeson. Billy Squier included the Volga Boatmen melody as counterpoint in his 1981 song “The Stroke,” possibly sampling it from a 1965 Red Army Chorus recording.

The most well-known version to Western ears remains the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s version of an arrangement by Bill Finegan. Their recording reached #1 in 1941. Miller also charted in the same year with “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” which reached #1 twice during the year, and remains an earworm. (“Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?” — yes, you now have it.)