Éminence Grise

In We the Living, Rand describes a song that was popular in Russia during the early years of the Soviet era:

Historians will write of the “Internationale” as the great anthem of the revolution. But the cities of the revolution had their own hymn. In days to come, the men of Petrograd will remember those years of hunger and struggle and hope – to the convulsive rhythm of “John Gray.” … It was called a fox-trot. It had a tune and a rhythm such as those of the new dances far across the border, abroad. It had very foreign lyrics about a very foreign John Gray …. Its gaiety was sad; its abrupt rhythm was hysterical; its frivolity was a plea, a moan for that which existed somewhere, forever out of reach.

Rand translates the first stanza as follows:

John Gray
Was brave and daring,
Kitty
Was very pretty.
Wildly
John fell in love with
Kitty.
Passion’s
Hard to restrain –
He made
His feelings plain,
But Kat
Said ‘No’ to that!

I’ve long suspected that We the Living’s “John Gray” inspired Atlas Shrugged’s “John Galt” (and likewise that We the Living’s “Café Diggy-Daggy” inspired Atlas’s “Dagny”).

Michael Berliner, in his invaluable article “The Music of We the Living” (in Robert Mayhew’s Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living), tracks down most of the real-life music that Rand refers to in the book. But “John Gray” seems to have eluded him.

In contrast to other cases, he does not identify its composer; he also says that there are “no standard lyrics to this song,” and in evidence he offers some lyrics completely different from those Rand cites:

In a faraway southern land
Where blizzards do not blow
There once was a handsome man
John Gray, the cowboy,
John Gray, strong and rakish
As tall as Hercules
As brave as Don Quixote

But I’ve managed to track down some more info, thanks to the internet and a hazy memory of college Russian, and in fact the song Rand referred to has a known composer, and seems to have canonical lyrics as well; the “cowboy” lyrics, as we’ll see, are a red herring.

The composer is Matvei Blanter (1903-1990), one of the Soviet Union’s most popular composers, who wrote “John Gray” (“Dzhon Grei”) in 1923. And the lyrics, by Vladimir Mass (1896-1979), are the ones Rand cites. Here’s a link to a page with the song’s Russian lyrics, naming Blanter and Mass, followed by a copy of the original sheet music likewise featuring Blanter’s name.

And here’s the song itself:

This is clearly the version Rand discusses. The tune matches her description, and as for the words, one doesn’t need much familiarity with Russian to identify “Kat skazala nyet!

Here are a couple of instrumental versions; the first one does a particularly good job of capturing the “sad gaiety” of which Rand speaks:

(It’s funny how Rand thinks the “John Gray” song sounds so foreign and un-Russian, since to me it sounds utterly Russian, or possibly Russian-Jewish.)

What about the “cowboy” lyrics that Berliner cites? It turns out that they come from a completely different song, with not only different words but different music. The song’s lyrics may mention a “John Gray,” but its title is “In a Far-off Southern Land” (“V Stranye Dalëkoi Yuga”). I haven’t been able to track down any author for the song. But here it is:

As you can see (well, hear), while the two songs have some musical similarity – enough to suggest the possibility of influence (though the direction of influence can’t be determined without knowing the date of “In a Far-off Southern Land”) – the tunes aren’t the same (and to my ear, that of “John Gray” is the more complex and sophisticated of the two).

Well, that’s all.

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2 Responses to Éminence Grise

  1. Charles Polak December 27, 2016 at 8:30 pm #

    Matvey Blanter also wrote the music for one of my favourite Soviet WW2 songs, “Rostov-gorod” (“Rostov City”). His curious martial tenderness in that song, which has become a kind of signature tune for the rather colourful Black Sea basin port city of Rostov, founded by Catherine the Great and with a mixed Cossack and Armenian background, seems to me just what you say: Russian and Russian Jewish (Blanter was Jewish).

  2. Irfan Khawaja January 17, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

    Did you take Russian in college for Rand-related reasons?

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