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Those Were The Days: the 1960s hit song and the 1920s Russian original

Famous chart topping song from the 1960s is based on a Russian Romance written and first recorded in Moscow in the 1920s

Back in 1968 a song – Those Were The Days – sung by the British singer Mary Hopkins and produced by the Beatle Paul McCartney, became a chart-topping success.

It has remained popular ever since, as I was reminded when I heard it recently performed by a band in the palm court of a London hotel.

Here is a video of Mary Hopkins performing the song

At the time the song was credited to Gene Raskin, a New York architect turned singer/songwriter, who duly obtained copyright for both the lyrics and the music.

Most people listening to the song have noted its Russian feel.  However when I used to hear it in London in the 1970s the general view was that its origins were in the Jewish community of New York who of course had a strong historic connection to the former Russian empire.

In reality the music of the song derives from a purely Russian song written in 1924 by the Russian song writer Boris Fomin.  The original song Dorogoy Dlinnoyu was recorded in Moscow by its original singer Tamara Tseretelli, perhaps in 1925.  Here is the recording

It became known in the West when it was brought there by the Russian singer Alexander Vertinsky.  There is a recording of him singing it possibly in 1926

It is sometimes said that Raskin wrote wholly new lyrics for the song.  This is something of an overstatement.  Here are the lyrics of the original Russian song of the 1920s

They were riding in a troika with bells,
and in the distance there were glimmering lights.
I’d rather go now with you, my dears,
I’d rather distract my soul from the yearning.

[Chorus]
Along a long road, and on a moonlit night,
And with that song that flies away with jingle-jangle,
And with that ancient, seven-stringed one (guitar)
That tortured me so much at nights…

Living this way, without joy, without torture,
I do remember the past years
and your silvery hands
in a troika that flew away forever….

But it turns out our song was futile,
In vain we burned night in and night out.
If we have finished with the old,
Then those nights have also left us!

The days run on, multiplying the sorrows,
it is so hard for me to forget the past.
Some day, my dear,
you shall take me to bury (dead hero to the cemetery)

Out into our native land, and by new paths,
We have been fated to go now!
…You rode on a troika with sleigh bells,
[But] you’ve long since passed by!

And here by comparison are Raskin’s lyrics

Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la…

Then the busy years went rushing by us
We lost our starry notions on the way
If by chance I’d see you in the tavern
We’d smile at one another and we’d say

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days
La la la la…

Just tonight I stood before the tavern
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days
La la la la…

Through the door there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name
Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser
For in our hearts the dreams are still the same

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days
La la la la…

Though the lyrics are different, both are songs of reminiscence, of someone old looking back on the pleasures of youth.

As might be expected the Russian song is distinctly more plaintive and down beat, and this is reflected in Tseretelli’s and Vertinsky’s performances.  By contrast Mary Hopkins’s joyous performance from 1968, when she was just 18, has always seemed to me weirdly discordant and at complete odds with the song’s lyrics.

Putting that aside, the runaway success of Those Were The Days, which continues still, does beg the question of whether within the rich mine of Russian Romance songs there might be other such nuggets waiting to be rediscovered.

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