#110 Slavic Influence on American Music

Published on November 21, 2006

=> “The Slavic Influence on American Music” – text
=> “Further Explorations in Slav-American Music” – research tasks
=> In the Next Issues

About this Issue

This issue features texts that should be of interest to Ukrainians and Russians. The audio version of the text (a podcast) with music clips is available in two parts at

You are free to download the files and use them.

In next week’s issue will have cool proverbs from Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and so on, for those subscribers outside Russia and Ukraine.

The Slavic Influence on American Music

There are American songs that nearly everyone in countries of the former USSR seems to know, songs like “Summertime,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” But the composers of these very American-sounding songs had Russian or Ukrainian roots. Some were born in Russia, and some in New York to immigrant parents. Most were Jews. One thing is certain: 20th-century American music would be a mere shadow of itself–and somehow less American–without the contributions of these Eastern Europeans.

First, take Irving Berlin. He was born Israel Baline, probably in Tyumen, Siberia. Berlin had more than 200 hits on the Top 40 charts. He even wrote God Bless America,” which, though not the official national anthem, is just as popular–or more so. In fact, on September 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks, it was this song that members of congress began singing on the steps of the US Capital. [You can hear them sing at this link.

Jerome Kern, another American songwriter, said of Berlin: “He is American music. Some praise for a man born in Siberia!

George and Ira Gershwin were born in New York to parents who had immigrated from the east: whether from Russia, Ukraine, or Lithuania isn’t absolutely clear. George Gershwin wrote music usually, and Ira lyrics. They teamed up with Dubose Heywood for “Summertime,” one of the most frequently recorded songs of all time. The music, written by George, may even have been inspired by the Ukrainian folk lullaby “Oy Khodyt Son” which Gerswhin heard at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1929.

One of the most famous American musical plays is Fiddler on the Roof, based on the stories of Shalom Aleichem, who lived and wrote in Ukraine.

Lyricist Yip Harburg was born to Russian immigrant parents. He would later write the words to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the film The Wizard of Oz.

Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky (on a moving train near Penza!) wrote jazz songs later sung by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, like “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York.”

These are some of the names, but they are not all the names. The influence of these Eastern European composers on American music has been enormous.

Exploring More Music Connections

Below you’ll find a list of more Slavic links to American popular music. It’s your–or your students’ task–to explore further.

1. “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” by Pete Seger . What does the song have to do with the novel And Quiet Flows the Don

2. “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkins spent six weeks on the charts as a number one hit. What old Slavic melody is used?

3. Waron Zevon. His biggest hit was “Werewolves of London” Who was he?

4. Igor Stravinsky. Where did he die?

5. Sergei Rachmaninoff. When did he come to America? Where did he die?

6. Bering Strait. What kind of music does this group from Obninsk play? Where do they live?

7. Vladimir Horowitz. Who was he? When did he come to the States?

8. The Russian Tea Room, NY. Where exactly was it? Who started it? Who frequented the place? What happened to it?

9. Lev Termen. (In English: Leon Theremin). What did he invent? What’s his American connection?

10. http://www.rccny.org/ Find out what this URL is.

11. Russian Groups and Singers: Which tour the U.S. occasionally? What type of audience do they play for?

12. Isaac Stern. Where is he from? What’s his America story?

In the next issue

#111: A Variety of Proverb Activities. Dec. 1, 2006
#112: An announcement that will proabably change the future of English language teaching and learning for eternity and beyond. Dec. 10, 2006

Copyright 2006 Kevin McCaughey & I.M. Poosheesty

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