Saturday, May 30, 2015

"A Land That's Free..." - Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby"

One of the most touching and impressive songs in Irving Berlin's oeuvre is "Russian Lullaby", written in 1927 and first performed by Douglas Stanbury at the opening of Samuel Rothafels Roxy Theatre in New York on March 11th 1927 (Kimball, p. 251). It became one of the most popular hits of that year and one of the most often performed songs of the late 20s and early 30s (NYT 8.10.1933):
  • mp3: Roger Wolfe Kahn & His Orchestra, Henry Garden, voc, "Russian Lullaby" (1927)
Since then the song has been recorded - often as an instrumental - by numerous artists. Jerry Garcia has introduced it to Rock-Music audiences. He had learned "Russian Lullaby" from a recording by Oscar Aleman. It was included on his second solo-LP Compliments (Round RX 102, 1974) and became a staple of his live shows. He also recorded it with David Grisman in 1991 (David Grisman & Jerry Garcia, Acoustic Disc ACD 2).

"Russian Lullaby" consists of a verse in D-major (16 bars) and a refrain of 32 bars in d-minor:
Where the dreamy Volga flows
There's a lonely Russian Rose

Gazing tenderly
Down upon her knee
Where a baby's brown eyes glisten

Ev'ry night you'll hear her croon
A Russian lullaby
Just a little plaintive tune
When baby starts to cry
Rock-a-bye my baby
Somewhere there may be
A land that's free for you and me
And a Russian lullaby
The verse has been left out in nearly all recordings I know. The minimalist lyrics only hint at the grim historical and political background. But this minimalism serves the song's purposes perfectly. It's neither an abstract political treatise nor useless propaganda. The whole story with its many facets is condensed to the touching image a lonesome mother with her baby. The writer doesn't even tell his listeners why the woman and her baby are alone and what had happened to her man.

In fact there is a lot of history behind these few lines. On one level the song refers to Czarist Russia and reflects the collective life history of the many immigrants who - like Berlin himself - had come to the USA to escape oppression and find a "land that's free". It may also have been intended as a comment on Bolshevist Russia. Lawrence Bergreen calls it a "quiet protest against repression in the Soviet Union" (p. 275, see also Freedland, p. 97). 

The song also reads like a critical remark to the end of immigration from Eastern Europe to the USA since the National Origins Act (1924). The words "somewhere there may be [...]" win a special poignancy in this context as they were really many people for whom the gates of the "land that's free" had been closed. Already in 1925 Berlin had written the much less successful "Don't Send Me Back To Petrograd", a song protesting the treatment of immigrants:
I want to be
In the land of the free and settle down.
The Liberty Statue down the bay
Is looking right at you and seems to say,
"Oh! Don't send her back"
The year 1926 had also seen a massive fundraising effort - the United Campaign for Eastern European Relief - for the impoverished and persecuted Eastern European Jews (see f.ex. NYT 26.4.1926) that tried to bring the fate of those left behind back into the public conscience. Berlin had given both money and his name (see NYT, 4.6.1926) to this cause.

The song is conceived as a lullaby. Berlin alludes to two well-known popular songs. The first one is James Royce Shannon's "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral (That's An Irish Lullaby)" (1913):
Over in Killarney,
Many years ago,
Me Mither sang a song to me
In tones so sweet and low

Just a simple little ditty,
In a good old Irish way
The other one is "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby (With A Dixie Melody)" (Young/Lewis/Schwartz, 1918), a great hit for Al Jolson:
Rock-a-bye your Baby with a Dixie melody;
When you croon, croon a tune from the heart of Dixie
This was a typical "Mammy"-song, a very popular genre at that time and it seems to me that Berlin is deliberately debunking the cliches of these kind of songs and of the nostalgic lullaby in general. "Russian Lullaby" is not about someone longing back to the fabled homeland of his youth. It's about someone who wants to get out. Berlin's song reads like an answer to the second verse of "Rock-A-Bye You Baby":
Wonder why I went away;
What a fool I've been;
In contrast Berlin explains very explicitly why people want to leave their home! The only thing that will be left of this old homeland - a place they surely don't want to return to - will be the lullaby.

The melody of the refrain is loosely based on the theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (see Gottlieb, p. 75/76). This gives the song an appropriate Russian flavor in line with the musical exoticism prevalent at that time. Berlin turns it into a syncopated waltz by using this rhythmical motif for the most of the refrain's melody:
This is a device he had also used for his immensely popular songs of lost love like "What'll I Do", "All Alone" and "Remember". "Much of the lyrical artfulness of Berlin's [ballads] stems from his subtle fragmentation and juxtaposition of words against music " (Furia, Poets, p. 55f). By setting this ragged melody line against the waltz rhythm he is breaking up the verbal phrases into repetitive fragments and creates an atmosphere of loneliness, isolation, emptiness and monotony. It's like depicting someone sitting in a prison cell who is waiting to be set free. 
'Ry night
You'll hear
Her croon
A Russ-
Ian Lul-
The 32 bars of the refrain are not organized along the lines of the "standard" AABA-form. Instead every strain sounds distincively different. The first eight bars are in d-minor and start on the tonic note. A descending chromatic bass line serves as a counterpoint to the ragged melody line. The word "night" is set to an augmented chord to give an idea of unrest. The second eight bars start a third higher, modulate to F-major and are again underlined by a descending chromatic bass line. The word "starts" is given a slightly dissonant sound by using a g# instead of a g. The next phrase starts another third higher and modulates for four bars to A-major and then the song returns slowly back to the starting point. Berlin uses half tone intervals for the key lines land/that's/free and you/and/me. This careful use of chromatic notes in an otherwise predominantly diatonic melody gives these words even more poignancy.

Additional Resources:
  • Laurence Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer, The Life Of Irving Berlin, New York 1996 (1990)
  • Robert Kimball & Linda Emmet (ed.), The Complete Lyrics Of Irving Berlin, New York 2000
  • Michael Freedland, Irving Berlin, New York 1978 (1974)
  • Jake Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish. How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, And Hollywood, New York 2004
  • Philip Furia, Poets Of Tin Pan Alley. A History Of America’s great Lyricists, New York 1990


  1. This is an awesome post. Thanks very much for your analysis!

  2. you didn't mention Mikhail Lermontov's "Cossack Lullaby" (1838)