In 1958, at a time when America's paranoia about Communism was rampant and attitudes about the Soviet Union were hardly charitable, the actor and musician Theodore Bikel, after cutting a series of ethnic folk albums for Elektra, took the bold step of recording Songs of a Russian Gypsy, a set of traditional folk songs sung in the Cyrillic tongue. While many of the songs Bikel performed on the album were most common among the Jewish Diaspora who were no more friends of Communism than Richard Nixon, it was still a risky move, but the album became a major success for both Bikel and Elektra, moving over 35,000 in a mere four months (remarkable sales for an ethnic folk album, especially at that time), and the force of Bikel's performance is doubtless what made the record a favorite. Bikel's con brio interpretations of these 14 numbers are great theater as well as great music; even if you don't understand the lyrics (and unfortunately no translations are included), his full-bodied vocal style communicates love, loss, joy, and sorrow with equal fervor. And despite the physical strength of his instrument (which can doubtless reach the back row of a theater with no trouble), the dynamics of Bikel's singing is intelligent and in tune with his backing musicians (including Fred Hellerman of the Weavers). There are few bigger clichés than "music is a universal language," but at a time when the United States and the U.S.S.R. were far from friends, Songs of a Russian Gypsy demonstrated that Russia's legacy of song could communicate to American ears when put in the hands of an artist such as Theodore Bikel.
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