A 'Soviet Joan Baez' and her thoughtful, cheering fans
Moscow — The rumors are legion. That she changed her name to have the same initials as Joan Baez. That she recorded an album of Red Army songs which she later managed to suppress. That she has engaged in shouting matches with rival Alla Pugachova.
Janna Bichevskaya can afford to shrug off the rumors. After 10 years of rural concert tours and benign neglect from hidebound Soviet cultural authorities, she is finally gaining recognition as about the best female singer in the Soviet Union today.
A Bichevskaya concert is a treat. She tries to play in small halls, like those found in small colleges in the United States. Her audience reminds one of the generation of Americans that still listens to Dylan or Baez -- the thirtyish , middle class, largely urban intelligentsia.
They cheer wildly when Bichevskaya, sporting a new guitar hand made by a craftsman in Magnitogorsk, strides onto stage. The atmosphere is relaxed, informal. "You can do what you want in here," she says. "Clap, shout, stamp your feet -- just make yourselves at home."
And she solicits questions -- passed up from the audience on scraps of paper -- and answers them in between songs. One note criticizes her for "too much lecturing, not enough singing." She snaps bakc, "If you want just singing go over to the Estradny concert hall" -- where the party-line groups ply their trade -- " -- you won't get speechifying there."
A question from the audience: "How do you collect your songs?"
"With difficulty," she laughs. In fact, she spent the early years collecting alone, traveling through the villages of central Russia with a knapsack and a small tape recorder. "The trick was to look unobtrusive and find the old women who still remembered the village's songs."
One summer she was caught in a rainstorm in the northern province of Karelia, on the Finnish border, and directed to the house of Granya Astakhova, the local songstress. "She wasn't interested in singing for me, but she took pity on this skinny Muscovite standing in the rain. She told me to sit down and laid out a huge table with all the local delicacies. She ordered me to eat -- and then she ordered me to bed."
After several days of "woman talk," the two became friends. One morning, unexpectedly, Granya threw a linen handkerchief over her head and belted out a song, whirling around the small hut. "I stayed for four more days," Bichevskaya recalls, "laughing, singing -- and recording songs."
Bichevskaya, who calls herself "a collector and performer of Russian folk songs," encourages comparisons with Baez. The long straight chestnut hair, the bell-clear voice, the wistful poses on her record albums evoke the softer Baez of the early 1970s. In interviews with Soviet music magazines, Bichevskaya has referred to Baez, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger -- whom she saw in a 1969 concert in the Soviet town of krasnoyarsk -- as "my ancestors."
Relaxing in a comfortable Moscow apartment, Bichevskaya recalls the excitement of her first encounters with the music of Hank Williams, Judy Collins , and Joni Mitchell -- "I loved them all."
It was not an American but Bulat Okudjava, the musical guru of the Soviet counterculture, who started her on her career. Okudjava met the young guitarist from the Moscow Circus and Popular Music School at a New Year's Eve party in 1969. Unpacking his guitar, he sang her "Matushka" ("Dear Mother") -- a slow ballad sung by a young man going off to war."
"He told me, 'That's what you should be singing,'" Bichevskaya recalls. "I loved his style and I loved the song. I spent the next two summers collecting folk songs and began to perform them. I had found my calling."
Ten years after her professional debut and 7 million record sales later, Bichevskaya is still the only Soviet performer who sings folk songs accompanied by the guitar. There is still no clear place for her in the Soviet musical firmament, dominated by squeaky clean groups like the Happy Boys and the Singing Guitars who thump out soulless ballads to the Young Communist League "hero project" of the moment. Prime rival Pugachova recently upgraded her standard repertoire of weepy torch songs with several lyrics based on poems by Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam -- and drew fire from the Ministry of Culture daily Newspaper, which blasted "Alla Borisovna's new tendencies."
One indicator of the state of Soviet popular music is the annual hit parade based on opinion surveys, not record sales -- just released by klub magazine. Bichevskaya ranked sixth in the female singers category, behind runaway leader Pugachova. Ironically, the Beatles also ranked sixth in the band category -- although they formally dissolved over seven years ago and never released a record in the USSR. She found one of her best songs -- "My Little Flower" -- scrawled on the back of one of Granya's icons. The traditional wedding song was carved there so that the marriage procession could read the words while following the icon out of the church -- a 17th-century version of crib notes.
In the song, the bridegroom dances along the wedding procession, shooing away his new mother-and father-in-law and beating up the rest of his new relatives in a series of brawls. When the song ends, only he and his bride -- "my little flower" -- remain on the scene."Now I'm alone and I'm happy," he sings.
Bichevskaya learned another, very different wedding song from the old Karelian singer. "Sisters, My Friends" is funereal, accompanied only by the slow ringing of a single church bell. "It's sung by the 'crier' of the wedding." Bichevskaya explains, "a women who bemoans the loss of the young girl to marriage." In 17th-century Russia, weddings were sad events for women, who became the chattel of violence-prone husbands. To symbolize their mastery, men carried a whip to the marriage ceremony.The singer of this song, an orphan without brothers or sisters, is appealing to her friends "to come to my bitter wedding" -- and share her sadness.
During one concert someone in the audience asked "Why isn't your second record in the stores?"
"It's funny about that second record," she said. . . . Indeed, Bichevskaya has had a checkered recording history. Her first album, released in 1974, sold 4 1/2 million copies. Her second album, released just before last year's Olympic games, has sold over 2 million. In addition to domestic sales, record companies in Japan and France have bought the rights to her songs.
But there have been stumbling blocks. The state record company Melodiya sometimes distributes her records in unmarked jackets. And despite the large printings, her records are virtually unobtainable. Salesgirls in record stores speak of Bichevskaya records in the same despairing tones their grocery store counterparts speak of butter: "Sometims we have it . . . it comes and goes. . . ."
Bichevskaya reluctantly admits that she and other artists have suffered from the absence of qualified promoters and managers in the Soviet Union. Her husband, Valentin Zuyev, now acts as full-time manager, as well as piano accompanist on some songs. "Show business is the same, East or West," says one Soviet music critic. "It you're in it you've got one item to sell -- yourself.
Skillful management has begun to change her fortunes. Two years ago Bichevskaya started to travel abroad, with considerable success. Popularity in the West may reap special rewards with the cultural authorities because tours and record sales bring in needed foreign currency.
Already a new mythology has sprung up around Bichevskaya's third record, which may or may not be released within the next year. The new record will have more of her collected songs -- so far she has recorded only about 35 of the 200 she has stocked up -- along with a few changes in accompaniment. "I'd like to mix in the sound of running water, or the whistle of the wind in the grass," she says. "After all, those are the richest sounds, aren't they?"