The Russian folk song in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona

I thought it was a recent version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka theme, but it turns out that Pete Seeger is the intermediary. Plus an East End Jewish version of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance.

There’s no reasonable explanation as to why the Coens haven’t won all the Oscars every year since the 1980s, so one was watching Raising Arizona (1987!) the other night, and there’s that great tune which I know best from the Wet-Nurses’/Nursemaids’ Dance at the beginning of the 4th tableau of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka:

Sergey Pavchinsky’s piano arrangement of Petrushka, p. 42. Source: IMSLP.

You’ll find the 4th tableau at 20:34 in this Bolshoi mashup, and the dance begins at 21:44:

In “Some Russian Folk Songs in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka” (1945, official source JSTOR) Frederick W. Sternfeld identifies Stravinsky’s source:

[T]he tune of the third [folk song] is sung widely in Russia to two totally different sets of words. One of these, Down the Petersky or Petersburg Road, has even been made familiar to Western listeners through the singing and the early Victor recording by the great Russian baritone, Chaliapin.

Chaliapin in 1929:

Back to Sternfeld:

Melgunov prints this version of the song, together with five variant forms of the melody. Rimsky-Korsakov decried the Melgunov settings as barbarous, but modern folk song collectors would be more likely to praise them for their scientific approach. The Rimsky Korsakov and Tchaikovsky editions are obviously adaptations for rendition by voice and piano or by piano alone. Melgunov reproduces the polyphonic setting inherent in Russian folk songs, with motives wandering through the various parts and with a proper regard for their original texture and flavor as apprehended by him in his field trips. Readers having access to his book may wish to compare his treatment of the song on page 10 of his collection, but since his version is not that used by Stravinsky, and since the apparatus is rather complex, it seems sufficient to give here only the second form of the song.

Known to Russians as “Ia vechor moloda” and possibly more widely spread than the first, it is given in a standardized homophonic setting by both Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Balakirev used the tune as early as 1858 in his orchestral piece, Overture on Three Russian Themes.

Listen out for it at 03:40:


The form of the melody used by Stravinsky to accompany the Dance of the Nursemaids in the Fourth Picture comes closest to the version given by Rimsky-Korsakov. The structure of the melody calls for short, almost exclamatory phrases of only five syllables, and since this space does not permit of much development of an idea, the poem, even in the original Russian, verges on the impressionistic. Coupled with the difficulty of fitting in sixteen words rhyming with “night,” the translators found it necessary to invoke a certain amount of poetic license in dislocating the normal order of the words, but the general psychic crescendo of the young wife-the “moloda” as she reels home may still convey some of the feeling of the original and help to show why it is so popular.

Sternfeld provides a translation:

Gossiping galore, with the wife next door,
Mead was not just right, nor was beer my type.
I drank with delight, vodka so divine,
Pony not for mine, nor a glass for wine,
But this young wife might drink a bucket quite,
Drink a bucket quite, filled to its full height.
Homeward without fright, through the forest dark,
‘Cross a field aright, straight upon the mark,
With the yard in sight, swaying in an arc,
Grab the gate-post tight, gate-post to me hark,
“Gate-post, gate-post, mine; you must know my plight,
Hold me straight in line, tipsy as I am,
Tipsy as I am, stupid drunken lamb.
Lord! my husband is such a drunken wight.
Wine he need not drink, water from the sink.
Am I not the boss, in this house all right:
Having scrubbed the porch, with it make some bortch;
Having cleaned the spoons, bake some pies like moons;
Keep the house so clean, …

Like I say, I thought the Coens had taken a modern banjo etc. parody of the Stravinsky, but it turns out that it’s track 8 (09:57) in Pete Seeger’s Goofing-off suite, released 1954:

Full track listing: Opening Theme / Cindy / Blue Skies / The Girl I Left Behind Me / Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring / Duet from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 / Chorale from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 / Russian Folk Themes and Yodel / Antira’s Dance and Brandy Leave Me Alone / Opening Theme (reprise) / Mexican Blues / Time’s a-Getting Hard / Empty Pocket Blues / Sally My Dear / Oh! Liza, Poor Gal / Sally Ann / Woody’s Rag.

I think the Coens’ use of the theme universalises the film. Russian (late) Romanticism is a fertile ground for such pillaging. An entertaining example heard today: a London East End Jewish act, Baker & Willie, singing, on date unknown, “A Day In The Lane” (i.e. Petticoat Lane) to a Khachaturian’s “Sabre dance,” lightly modified, on track 6 of Alan Dein’s new compilation, Music is the Most Beautiful Language in the World (see Spitalfields Life, “East End Yiddisher Jazz”).

Did I mention my barrel organ arrangement of the beginning of the 1st Tableau of Petrushka?

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