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The history of the "Red Viburnum" song is a history of our people

Everyone knows that Ukrainians are an extremely musical people.

Even the Russians, who don’t recognize Ukrainians as a people. A significant part of our music folklore consists of the Cossacks, the Riflemen and insurgent songs, mainly, about the struggle for freedom.

Many new songs that appeared in the current war are dedicated to this topic.

But now is the time for not only new songs, but also the return to our forgotten ones, when these new circumstances give us a new sound.

Like, “Oj u luzi chervona kalyna”.

The song, which first appeared in its new sound in Ukrainian, then in Georgian, English, German, French.

I first heard it in the late 1980s. In the wake of a national revival in Galicia, the song was performed by the “Ne Zhurys” band, which included Vasyl Zhdankin, Viktor Morozov, Taras Chubai and other famous singers.

Sometime around that same time, I discovered the work of a British band that would become a favourite – Pink Floyd. Despite the chronological coincidence, these two musical manifestations existed in completely different but parallel planes in my mind.

When I tried to sing “Oj u luzi” or “We don’t need no education”, I couldn’t image that in thirty years, Pink Floyd would perform “Oj u luzi”. The collaboration with Andriy Khlyvniuk quickly soared to the top of the world charts, where the song was presented as a new composition of Pink Floyd, recorded for the first time after 30 years of silence.

But the song is not new and is older not only than Andriy Khlyvniuk but even Pink Floyd. Its story is over 100 years old, but its roots goes back several centuries.

The song was first performed on the eve of the First World War in the winter of 1914 in Stepan Charnetsky’s play “Sun of Ruin”. But Charnetsky actually remade a folk song from the Khmelnytsky times, i.e. from the middle of the 17th century. This ancient melody was recorded and published in 1875 by Volodymyr Antonovych and Mykhailo Drahomanov, famous collectors of Ukrainian heritage and figures of the Ukrainian national movement.

Charnetsky’s version quickly gained popularity. And, especially when at the beginning of the World War, it was picked up by the Sich Riflemen – soldiers of the first Ukrainian military formation of the 20th century, though not yet under an independent Ukraine but created within the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian Army. This song for the Riflemen (still slightly changed from Charnetsky’s version) became one of the anthems of their formation.

Already in 1921, veterans of the USR created the publishing house “Red Viburnum”, which published memoirs created by the participants of the struggle for independence, soldiers of the UPR and the WUPR and research on the Ukrainian revolution.

Meanwhile, the song soured overseas. In 1925, it was first recorded by a Ukrainian opera singer at the New York Metropolitan Opera, Mykhailo Zozuliak, the same who recorded Ukraine’s anthem “Ukraine is not yet dead.” In 1944, “Red Viburnum” appeared for a second time on a record in the United States, as arranged by Oleksandr Koshyts, the same one who made the Ukrainian “Shchedryk” world famous.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine the song became extremely popular among UPA soldiers during the Second World War.

In the film “Chervony”, which talks about the uprising of Ukrainians in the Gulag camps of the early 1950s, the heroes sing “Chervona Kalyna” which, given its popularity among the UPA-Bandera members, may have been quite real.

And the real return of the song in Ukraine took place in the 1980s, when it began to be openly sung at concert venues, stadiums and protest rallies. Interestingly, another version with different words appeared:

Do not bend low, oh red kalyna, you have a white flower,

Do not worry, glorious Ukraine, you have a good people.

The author of these lines was a well-known dissident of the 1960s-1980s, Nadia Svitlychna.

Today, “Red Viburnum” sounds across the globe in different languages. A song from the time of the Cossacks of the 17th century, recorded in the era of national revival of the 19th, remade during the Ukrainian Revolution of the early 20th and sung by freedom fighters in the middle of the 20th century.

A song that makes us strong in the 21st century because it unites us with our ancestors who fought for the freedom of Ukraine throughout the centuries.

Volodymyr ViatrovychVolodymyr Viatrovych, PhD, historian and member of Parliament of Ukraine
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