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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Nation, Under Song

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Quick-marching my way through a metro underpass rife with medal-bedecked veterans on Victory Day last month, I suddenly found my undefended left eardrum under attack from a spirited chorus of "Katyusha," an up-tempo ballad from World War II. My surprise at the assault came not from the song but the singers: They were kids, somewhere in the 13-to-15 age range, and they sang the whole song with the gusto of troops just back from taking Berlin.

American kids would not do this, of course. Indeed, they couldn't if they tried, since they don't have any common songs to sing together, about World War II or anything else. Neither do their parents. Try this simple test: Approach a random group of 10 to 15 U.S. citizens and ask them to sing two verses of some song they all know. They will fail; there is no such song. Now, approach a random group of 10 to 15 Russians with the same request. An hour later you will be begging them to stop, to which they will reply, "Wait, wait, just one more" approximately 10 times.

I first encountered this "song gap" in 1975, as a member of a U.S. student exchange group in Leningrad. Shepherded around to various youth-oriented peace-and-friendship functions, we were often favored with a song (or two or three) by our hosts and asked to sing something American in return. We were flummoxed. Repeatedly. Beyond advertising jingles, Beatles tunes and one verse of "Home on the Range," our group had nothing in common. The same anomie prevailed among four disparate tour groups I brought to Moscow in the 1980s and 1990s, and among my high school-aged nephew and his friends when polled in 2003.

It's not that Americans don't like popular music. The United States gave the world jazz and rock and roll. And Americans used to have songs in common, too, some learned at home, some at school and some in church. The progenitors of rock and roll and mainstream country music surely proved the point: When the young Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins turned up by chance one day in 1956 at a studio in Memphis, they naturally struck up the folk music they all had in common -- gospel songs.

That's now history, literally and figuratively. Americans still make music, of course, but tend to do it individually. Two Russians will hand a third a guitar and start singing together before it's tuned. They like to sing together as much as they like to drink and curse together -- and, not surprisingly, they frequently do all three.

The first inkling of how much Russians take songs to heart surely comes to many outsiders from Turgenev's classic story "The Singers." Watching an impromptu singing contest at a village tavern, the narrator quickly succumbs to advanced, third-degree Russianness: "He sang, and in every sound of his voice one seemed to feel something dear and close to us, as though the familiar steppes were unfolding before our eyes." The assembled locals begin to sing along, of course, the room is soon awash in tears and the contest over -- everybody wins. "Ah, beautiful it was, by God!" says one character. "Damn me for a son of a bitch, but that was fine!"

The Russian tradition of group songfests is such that the wartime generation cannot imagine a reunion without them. Total strangers will also sing together, as we students noted in the 1975 film "Afonya": chance acquaintances get so blitzed that one can't recall his name, yet they go on singing. Drunks and holiday revelers are not the only public singers, either: Last Tuesday afternoon, an apparently sober man boarded a Red Line metro car singing a sentimental ballad -- and nobody shushed him. Which was annoying, since at least one American was trying to read.

Granted, Russians warble a lot of awful junk-pop tunes and wallow collectively in the low-end mediocrity of the annual Eurovision song competition. And yet they haven't abandoned a common heritage: Three or even four generations will sing along with Iosif Kobzon, Vladimir Vysotsky of Bulat Okudzhava because doing so means something to them, as substance, ritual or both.

Meanwhile, U.S. teens enjoy the latest hit from Avril Lavigne, a chart-topping song-and-video featuring the observation "She's, like, so whatever," and the chorus "Hey, you, I don't like your girlfriend." How these lyrics could mean much as substance or ritual to anyone besides Paul Wolfowitz is beyond me. And they're a long way from "Katyusha," too.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.