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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bards Star at Woodstock on Volga

MOSCOW — A sea of music fanatics and thrill-seekers drink and sway blissfully to songs of peace and love in a muddy field. It could be a Grateful Dead concert, or Woodstock just half a world away. Call it Woodstock on the Volga.

Every summer, thousands of Russians make the journey to the Grushinsky Festival, known as Grusha, held on a riverbank between two cities, Samara and Tolyatti, Russia's auto industry center. The festival celebrates bard music, a genre identified with the Soviet cultural thaw of the 1960s and the subsequent growth and popularity of allegorical songs as a creative and spiritual outlet. Today conditions are different, but the songs of contemporary bard musicians seem to serve a similarly comforting purpose.

Various theories trace the origins of bard music to Soviet prison camp songs, soldiers' ballads, pre-revolutionary romances and even the songs of the wandering minstrels of centuries ago. Some bard songs even sound like American country music, but by any measure, Russians are much more likely than the average American to pick up a guitar and sing with their friends, all of whom have dozens, sometimes hundreds of songs committed to memory. It is all part of the seemingly infinite national capacity to recite verse.

Fans of bard songs even sound like Deadheads when they talk about what the music means to them. One of those soaking up the vibes with his wife and two small sons at this year's festival was Mikhail Ovcharenko, owner of a bodyguard service in Samara. "People don't communicate with each other enough,'' Ovcharenko said. "We live in a big crowd. Here everyone is equal, everyone is naked.''

This summer's 20th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Vysotsky, a beloved actor and bard, has produced a host of television retrospectives and concerts in his memory. Vysotsky's angry songs about the degradation of Soviet life, sung in his raspy voice at private gatherings and passed around on hissing reel-to-reel recordings, were the soundtrack to a thwarted generation.

"My life, a dumb thing,'' he sang of himself in one of his last songs. Since his death from alcohol-induced heart failure, Vysotsky's lyrics have all been published, a monument of him in a Christlike pose has been put up in central Moscow and he is regarded as a kind of people's poet, quoted as often as Alexander Pushkin and by a broader swath of people.

But for all the enduring popularity of Vysotsky and other bards, the genre has been declared dead as often as rock music has in the United States. Critics charge that it has sold out to the saccharin dictates of the market and been taken over by a pseudo-collective spirit that undermines the music. Some critics are especially irritated by the fashion for singing bard songs in chorus.

"Now bard singing is like fascism,'' said Alexander Marchenko, a Moscow musician and composer who has created arrangements for contemporary bards. "It's a chamber genre meant to be sung in the kitchen. Now they want to make it into a mass genre and say it's so spiritual.'' Even so, "Songs of Our Century,'' a two-part easy-listening collection of classics performed by popular bards in chorus and with instrumentals, has topped Spice Girl knockoffs on the Russian pop charts and inspired knockoffs and pirated editions of its own. Helped by word of mouth, the first recording sold nearly 100,000 cassettes and CDs a month when it was released in early 1999 — a figure unheard of in Russia's struggling, payola-plagued pop music industry.

The bards behind "Songs of Our Century'' call their work a mission. "In a time when the animal instinct rules, we must stand against this,'' Sergei Nikitin told an audience of several thousand at the start of a concert tour promoting part two of the collection. "I am absolutely certain these songs will live in the 21st century.''