In Search of a Song.

A proposal and a solicitation.

By Matanya Ophee.

 Here is a song, as I remember it from my childhood, and which I harmonized in some tentative fashion:

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Perhaps no other song had ever impacted my soul as much as this simple melancholic tune called דוגית שטה (Dugit Shata). We sang it around bonfires in youth movement outings, in celebrations, in festive occasions, and even in intimate moments between individuals. And to judge by the number of hits the name of the song gets in Google, דוגית שטה has never lost its popularity and to this day it is a major part of the Israeli musical scene.

We were always told that that tune was an old Russian folk song and that was easy to accept, since the majority of songs we sang in the 1940-50s, were Russian songs, folksy or otherwise, that were translated en-masse during WWII and disseminated as authentic folk songs of the Yishuv (The Jewish population of Palestine, before the creation of the State of Israel). The lyrics of Dugit Shata were authored by the well known popular poet Nathan Yonathan. Here they are:

דוגית נוסעת, מפרשיה שניים
ומלחיה - נרדמו כולם.
רוח נושבת על פני המים
ילד פוסע על החוף דומם.

ילד פעוט הוא ועגום עיניים
שוטפים המים...למרחק אין סוף...
אם לא יעורו כל מלחיה
איכה תגיע הדוגית לחוף?

Here is a literal translation:

A small fishing boat, it has two sails,
and its sailors — all fell asleep.
The wind is blowing over the water,
A child is pacing on the shore not talking.

He is a small child and his eyes are sad
The waters flow... to a distance without end...
If all the sailors would not wake up
How would the fishing boat reach the shore?

I do not recall anyone ever questioning the story line of the lyrics or is logical unfolding. The imagery, as distant as it was from our daily lives, was sufficiently  in tune with the melancholies of the melody, and we simply loved to sing it. At any opportunity. I do not recall when exactly it was, but a Soviet made film about the Childhood of Maxim Gorky was imported to Palestine. Actually, there were many Soviet films shown in movie houses in Tel Aviv, and even without understanding the language, subtitles were always provided,  these films were shown to packed houses. I vaguely recall this film about Gorky's Childhood, and the only thing I have had in my memory all these years, were black and white images of a solitary child walking along the river's shore. I have been looking for this film for many decades now, without success. I asked Russian friends, and no one were able to help. And then came the Internet and YouTube. Here is the closing episode of this film:


 It is sung in the background by a children's choir in unison, without any harmony or accompaniment. Once I listened to the actual words these children were singing, it became instantly clear that these had nothing to do with fishing boats, large or small, and/or with somniferous sailors. The words do not seem to have any direct connection to the actual action or dialog unfolding at this point either. Here are the Russian lyrics:

«Город на Каме,
Где – не знаем сами,
Город на Каме,
Не дойдём ногами,
Не найдём руками,
Город на Каме,

In translation:

A town on the Kama,
Where — we do not know ourselves,
A town on the Kama,
The mother river,
We do not get there it with our feet,
We do not find it with our hands,
A town on the Kama,
The mother river...

The Kama river is a major tributary of the Volga. It is not clear which particular town the song refers to, but it is said that reference is made here to the town of Elabuga, whose major claim to fame is that it was the home town of the painter Alexander Shishkin and that is where the famous poet Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide. In retrospect, it is highly likely that the Israeli poet Nathan Yonathan had seen the movie at about the same time I did. The imagery of Dugit Shata is clearly not based on a translation of the lyrics of Gorod na kamy. Having found the full version of the film on the Internet, I now know that the lyrics stem out of a discussion between a group of children, in which the main hero, a child named Alexey Peshkov, is leading a conversation with a strange Tatar boy asking him where he is from. He says:

___. From a town on the River Kama.

___. which town? where is it?

___. I do not know, he answers.

Then the children get into making up a chastushka on this fragment of conversation, and that is the entire basis for the lyrics.
 Nathan Yonathan was correct in ignoring them. They would have made no sense to us in Palestine of WWII. I am assuming that the tune is not a folk song, but that it was composed for the film by Lev Alexandrovitch Schwartz (1878-1962), a well known Soviet composer of film music and the titular composer of the music for this film. The song is not known as a folk song to specialists in Russian folk music. I suppose that in the years of WWII,  in Palestine, under the British Mandate, it was easier to pretend that the tune is a folk song, and not the creation of a living person.

Needless to say, the tune of Dugit Shata is somewhat different than that of Gorod na Kame. Actually, as a perceived folk song, it lends itself to improvisational modifications.

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Last Modified: Sunday, January 10, 2010 02:23 PM