Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Jingle Bells: Shchedryk

Peter Ostroushko: Shchedryk


Go back for a moment to Susan‘s excellent post on Carol of the Bells, read it again, and you’ll find the phrase, “ancient pagan Ukranian New Year’s chant”. If you have read any of my posts on British folk songs, you will know that this was a temptation I could not resist. That is why I am posting a song about a swallow, that has no bells, and is a song of spring. Let me explain.

As Susan mentioned, Carol of the Bells is indeed derived from an ancient song from what is now the Ukraine. The original song is called “Shchedryk”. The lyrics are completely different: they tell of a swallow who flies to a farmer’s house to bless him and his family with abundance for the new year. In the pagan tradition of the Ukraine, the year was believed to begin at the first sign of spring, which was the return of the swallows. “Shchedryk” would have been used as a ritual chant to note the occasion.

When the Christians arrived in this part of the world, they imposed their calendar on the people they converted. This was the Julian Calendar, which reckons the beginning of the year as what we now call January 13. And to this day, they still observe New Years on this day, and that is when they sing “Shchendryk”, still with its original lyrics. That poor swallow must be freezing!

So, after learning all of this, the next step for me was to find a version of the song in the original Ukrainian. When I saw the name Peter Ostroushko, I knew my search was over. Ostroushko is a fine mandolin player who frequently appeared on The Prairie Home Companion from its earliest days on. His “Shchendryk” starts with a lovely a capella rendition, followed by a restatement of the theme on the mandolin. From there, we’re off on a wild ride which even makes a brief stop in Christmastown, before returning to the Ukraine by January 13.

Bonus tracks:

This is all very well, but where are the bells? Well, Susan did invite me to present more versions of Carol of the Bells, so why not?

John Fahey: Carol of the Bells


When I want a straight reading of a Christmas song, I like a spare arrangement for a single instrument. Acoustic guitar will do nicely. But because of the rhythmic complexity of Carol of the Bells, it takes a master such as John Fahey to pull this off.

Sylvia Woods: Carol of the Bells


Sylvia Woods has been playing the harp for thirty years. She has appeared on the Prairie Home Companion, and played with the Chieftains, so why isn’t she better known? It’s hard to make a living as a harpist, so Woods also writes harp books, gives lessons, and operates a retail and mail-order harp business. I would imagine that all of this limits her ability to tour. Here, she solves the problem of rhythmic complexity by arranging Carol of the Bells for a harp trio.

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