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"Those Were the Days": How a Russian Romance Song Became an English Hit

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We love writing about the histories of beloved musical compositions.

A Vinyl of "Those Were the Days" by Mary Hopkin

A Vinyl of "Those Were the Days" by Mary Hopkin

"Stuck in Your Head" Songs

Some time ago, I was volunteering in a local community theater as a stage crew. That summer, they presented “SHOUT!: The Mod Musical.”

“Shout!” is a music journey through the 1960s, featuring five dynamic women with very different backgrounds but with very similar needs and desires. The songs featured in “Shout!” are the type of “stuck in your head” songs that are of the time but also timeless. Each time you hear these songs, your sweet memories come back to you.

The Origin of "Those Were the Days"

One of the songs from the musical is a well-known hit of the '60s, “Those Were the Days.” Originally, however, this was a well-known Russian romance “Dorogoi Dlinnoiu”, which means “By the Long Road”.

When I saw the program for the musical “Shout!” and took a look at the page with the songs' information, I paid attention to that one name mentioned next to the song “Those Were the Days”: Eugene Raskin. Though he only wrote the lyrics to the old and well-known Russian melody, he was credited fully for the song. He himself considered that the melody was a folk song. Many other people thought the same way. Even now many people consider that it was a folk song of Roma origin.

The most widely known recording of the song was by Mary Hopkin, released in 1968. Hopkin's recording was produced by Paul McCartney in catalog number Apple 2 and became a #1 hit in the UK singles chart and reached #2 in the US. The tune topped the Billboard Easy Listening survey.

The song “Those Were the Days” brought millions of dollars to people involved, but it never gave anything to its real “parent”: Russian author Boris Fomin.

Boris Fomin at the blooming time of his creative work

Boris Fomin at the blooming time of his creative work

Boris Fomin (1900–1948), Original Author of "Those Were the Days"

Originally, it was a Russian romance written by Boris Fomin (music) and Konstantin Podrevskyi (lyrics) in the first quarter of the 20th century. It was called “Dorogoi Dlinnoiu” (“By the Long Road”).

Boris Fomin was born in 1900 in St. Petersburg, where his father was a prominent military official. His family line came from Mikhail Lomonosov. As a little boy, Fomin already showed his musical talent. In 1918, his family moved to Moscow, where Fomin lived till his early death in 1948.

In 1919, during the Russian Civil War, Fomin volunteered to the front—and besides being a soldier, he was also giving concerts on the front lines. When he came back to Moscow, he tried out different genres, but the genre of romance appealed the most to his talent. He wrote many famous romances and "Dorogoi Dlinnoiu" ("By the Long Road") is one of them.

Fomin’s romances were tremendously popular and well known at his time and now. No other songs were sung as wide as Fomin’s. Yet, very seldom do people actually know the name of the author of such popular romances as “By the Long Road”, “Only Once in Life There Is a Meeting”, “Hey, Friend-Guitar” and many others. How did it happen that such a talented author was forgotten and avoided?

The Banning of Romance and Fomin's Forgotten Relevance

In spring of 1929, the genre of romances was condemned and forbidden in socialist Russia as a genre of decadence and anti-revolutionary tendency. Heavenly songs of Fomin were taken out of the musical life of Russia, and the stigma of shame was put on the composer himself for the rest of his short life. In 1937, Fomin was even imprisoned for about a year.

With the beginning of the Second World War, Fomin’s songs became popular again. He wrote more than 150 songs, which helped people to overcome the hardships of that time. Then he was forgotten and avoided again both by the official art media (as a “decadent element”) and by his friends (for the same reason). Fomin died in 1948 because he didn’t have money for needed medication (at that time penicillin was distributed only for nomenclature, government workers).

After the 1950s, the genre of romance slowly came back to the public. In the '60s, the recording of the song "By the Long Road" was released in the Soviet Union again, and it was performed by the famous Nani Bregvadze.

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The First Release of "Dorogoi Dlinnoiu" ("By the Long Road")

According to some sources, the first version of the song lyrics were written by Boris Fomin himself for his love and future wife Mania Nebolsina and was very personal. Konstantin Podrevskyi modified the lyrics, giving the song a wider scale and meaning. The year of 1924 is considered to be the official date when the song was born, but it is still being debated. It was released unofficially several years earlier.

The famous Russian singer Alexander Vertinskyi sang this song in the early '20s and there is a possibility that he was singing the first (Fomin’s) version of the song.

The first official recording of the song “By the Long Road” in the Soviet Union is dated 1925, and it came out in 10,000 copies with a portrait of the singer Tamara Tsereteli.

The song captured the hearts and souls of people, because the genre of romance encapsulates the personal and global, hope and anguish, nostalgia and reality. Probably that’s why people just adopted this song as their own, as a folk song that expressed feelings of all and each and everyone.

The song “By the Long Road” began the journey of its own. In ole Paris of Russian immigrants of the '20s, the song was heard in Russian restaurants and taverns. By this time, Fomin’s song was more known and popular abroad than in his Motherland Russia.

"By the Long Road" Lyrics (Literal Translation)

(We) rode on a three-horses carriage (troika) with sleigh bells,

And in the distance lights flickered.

If only I could follow you now

I would dispel the grief in my soul!

Refrain: By the long road, in the moony night,

And with that song that flies far away, ringing,

And with that ancient, seven-stringed (meaning guitar),

That used to torment me by nights.

But it turned out our song was futile,

In vain we burned night after night .

If we have finished with the old,

Then those nights have also left us!

Out into our native land by new paths,

We have to go now!

...(We) rode on a troika with sleigh bells,

But long since passed by!

"Dorogoi Dlinnoiu" (Russian Lyrics)

Ехали на тройке с бубенцами, (echali na troike s bubentsami)
А вдали мелькали огоньки... (a vdali mel’kali ogon’ki)
Эх, когда бы мне теперь за вами, (ech, kogda by mne teper za vami)
Душу бы развеять от тоски! (Dushu by razveiat ot toski!)

Дорогой длинною, (Dorogoi dlinnoiu)
Да ночкой лунною, (Da nochkoi lunnoiu)
Да с песней той, (Da s pesnei toi)
Что вдаль летит звеня, (Chto v dal letit zvenia)
И с той старинною, (I s toi starinnoiu)
Да с семиструнною, (Da s semistrunnoiu)
Что по ночам так мучила меня. (Chto po nocham tak muchila menia)

Да, выходит, пели мы задаром, (Da, vyhodit peli my zadarom)
Понапрасну ночь за ночью жгли. (Ponaprasnu noch za noch’iu zhgli)
Если мы покончили со старым, (Esli my pokonchili so starym)
Так и ночи эти отошли! (Tak I nochi eti otoshli!)
Припев: (same)

В даль родную новыми путями (V dal’ rodnuiu novymi putiami)
Нам отныне ехать суждено! (Nam otnyne echat’ suzhdeno)
Ехали на тройке с бубенцами, (Echali na troike s bubentsami)
Да теперь проехали давно! (Da teper’ proechali davno)

Припев: (same)

Gene Raskin's English Rewriting of the Lyrics

Talking about this song, we just have to remember Gene Raskin, because without him America and Great Britain (and the other world) probably would not know this song.

His lyrics have nothing to do with the Russian lyrics, and it is not a translation of Fomin’s song. Raskin made a song of his own though, and the English lyrics are no less beautiful than the original song. “Those Were the Days” is a great song with deep and nostalgic motive.

Raskin, who had Russian roots, was born in New York City in 1909. He graduated from Columbia University, where he studied architecture. He was a professor at the same university from 1936–1976, but it did not prevent him from pursuing his talent in music.

In the beginning of the '50s, he started to sing together with his wife (Gene and Francesca) in small clubs and taverns, just because they loved to sing. Raskin frequented the White Horse Tavern in New York's Greenwich Village the 1960s, and the "Once upon a time there was a tavern" referred exactly to this place.

Raskin died in 2004; he was 94 years old.

"Those Were the Days" (English Lyrics by Gene Raskin)

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...
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

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

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

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

Mary Hopkin's Version

The best recording of Raskin’s song was made by Mary Hopkin.

It was released on 30 August 1968. It was produced by Paul McCartney and became a #1 hit in the UK singles chart, and reached #2 in the US. The tune topped the Billboard Easy Listening survey.

Paul McCartney, who produced the session, also recorded Hopkin singing "Those Were The Days" in four other languages (Spainish, German, Italian and French).


ReuVera (author) from USA on November 27, 2013:

Thanks, James! Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Hanukkah!

James A Watkins from Chicago on November 27, 2013:

Fantastic lyrics! And a wonderful Hub. Happy Thanksgiving!! :-)

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on February 26, 2012:

Remember that one as a young boy on the radio, who would have thought it came from a Russian love song. Interesting music info ReuVera!

Augustine A Zavala from Texas on February 25, 2012:

I had no idea. I'm sure there a lot of Russian songs, stories, and other aspects that we've copied and not even realized it. Thank you so much for sharing.

yap on September 01, 2011:

Great work!

Moshe55 from London on August 04, 2011:

I agree. That song was one of my favourite. I always thought it was a jewish melody

To me it has the same type of timelessness as "Donna Donna"

ReuVera (author) from USA on August 03, 2011:

Moshe, toda raba for reading and commenting. They say, that only really genius melodies even if written by an author are considered folk songs.

Moshe55 from London on August 03, 2011:

Great article. I have always loved that song. I recall when Mary Hopkins first had that song out, I was about 13 & an aunt of mine recognised the tune. She said it was an old Russian folk song

In later years I heard a Jewish folk outfit perform this song. I notice you mention many people thought it a Gypsy folk song

It is such an evocative melody, I think it feels like a folk song & many people feel it is theirs!!

ReuVera (author) from USA on April 09, 2011:

suze, thank you for reading and commenting. I am glad you like Tamara Tsereteli. I love her songs too. She is a Georgian singer, she is a great singer. She was born in Georgia (Gruzia).

suze on April 08, 2011:

I like Gypsy singer Tamara Tsereteli. I have a rare cd from her earlier career which I love. I got it at a Russian book store. I like to fall asleep listening to it, it's very comforting. It makes you feel cozy, like I'm falling asleep in a gypsy camp caravan, where someone is always singing.

Tatianna Raquel on February 21, 2011:

Here's a MV of Vitas singing "Dorogoi Dlinnoyu (Those were the days)" for you to post on this blog. I found it on You Tube:

ReuVera (author) from USA on November 19, 2010:

RNMSN, thank you. I am very glad that you enjoyed this hub. Sorry for the inconvenience. I don't know why the song wouldn't play from the hub, but if you click on it, you are redirected to youtube and the song plays just fine.

Barbara Bethard from Tucson, Az on November 19, 2010:

beautiful article of one of my favourite songs...wish the hopkins song had pulled over into your hub/it says disabled watch on you tube :( but that's ok I can still hear her in my head and for once its that's version I love more than the beatles probably cause I loved her first!! thank you for a lovely trip to the tavern breakfastpop would love this!!

ReuVera (author) from USA on October 05, 2010:

Tatiana, I would post his version of this song, but I cannot find it on youtube. Vitas is great and he deserves a separate hub, I might write about Vitas separately. He has an amazing vocal diapason.

Tatianna Raquel on October 05, 2010:

Recently Russian popstar Vitas covered the song "Dorogoi Dlinnoyu" (a.k.a. "Those Were The Days"), thus being the Vitas' definetive version of the 2010's. Please publish on your blog an arcticle about Vitas and his version for "Those Were The Days"!

ReuVera (author) from USA on July 01, 2010:

Thank you, Angeline, my friend! I still hope that one day we will get together, sing this song and cook our Russian/Israeli/Chinese cuisine.

anglnwu on July 01, 2010:

Lovely historical story to this evergreen song. Love the lyrics--the meaning transcends time. Rated beautiful!

ReuVera (author) from USA on June 29, 2010:

You are more than welcome, Irina and thank you for visiting and commenting. I love old Russian songs too. Since I wrote this hub a couple of days ago, this song is just stuck in my head, I am singing it both in Russian and English day and even night.

irinaalek7 from Florida,Miramar,USA on June 29, 2010:

Thank you for remembering old Russian songs. I love them very much.

ReuVera (author) from USA on June 28, 2010:

Wanderlust, you are right- not any more. When I think about old time Russian songs, like "Black Eyes", "Kalinka", "Korobushka", I find that they are well known and sang in different countries. But Russian music of nowadays has a tendency to just copy American's.

ReuVera (author) from USA on June 28, 2010:

Vladimir, thanks for being here first to comment.

Wanderlust from New York City on June 28, 2010:

Great hub! Russian music of those days brought a lot to Western culture. Unfortunately not anymore. So, those were the days :)

Vladimir Uhri from HubPages, FB on June 28, 2010:

Great job ReuVera. Great memory.

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