Thursday, December 18, 2008

Love, Longing, Uncertainty, and Booze

These are the principal recurring themes in the Lithuanian songs my grandfather, Julius Jušinskas, sang.

With the thin but treacherous layer of ice covering sidewalks throughout the city, this week was the perfect time to put a kettle on (or more precisely, flip the switch on the electric water boiler) and spend some quality time with the musical impetus for this opera. This exploration included transcribing melodies and tracing (or, as in some cases, guessing) their origin, but it also included translating the text of each song. While this translation work is far from complete (here I must credit my mother for her extensive help), it so far has yielded several and sometimes unexpected rewards.

On a purely musical level, it is worth noting that although my grandfather's control of individual pitches was shaky at best (he was, after all, about 90 years old at the time the recordings were made), his sense of key and pitch center was quite consistent. Here are two short excerpts of my grandfather singing the song from which the title of this blog is derived. The first was recorded in 1999, when he was 89 years old, and the second was recorded three years later in 2002, just two years before he passed away. Apart from the variation in melody and with the exception, perhaps, of a few microtones, the key is the same.

Whether it was because of the muscle memory he developed during his long lifetime of singing the same songs (most other songs fall between the keys of F and A-flat), or perhaps because of a more inherent sense of absolute pitch, this phenomenon is remarkable for a man his age (Elliott Carters of the world excepted), especially one without any musical training. If the former is true, then it highlights the frequency with which my grandfather sang these songs and therefore their importance to him.

Musical peculiarities aside, the songs offer a wealth of information about my grandfather's life as well as insight into his personality. Apart from a few phrases, I never spoke or understood Lithuanian before my grandfather passed away in 2004. Despite having lived in the United States for over fifty years, he spoke only broken English, and any conversation I ever had with my grandfather was either through my mother or limited to short phrases. Furthermore, I only saw him for two or three weeks out of the year, and I certainly didn't have as many questions for him then as I do today.

My grandfather left Lithuania when he was 30 years old, just after he married my grandmother, Adelina. It is no wonder then, that the love and lost youth which dominate the largest group of songs are embodied by imagery from Lithuania. In the recordings he sings of smoking with his brothers (all of whom he never saw again), bathing in the local river, and of his many loves. In most cases, the latter of these is compared to or represented by different plants or flowers. For instance, in one song he sings that he "planted many flowers- some blossomed, some did not," and in another he sings of the flax he planted on the river embankment: "it grew... it bloomed... I pulled it out of the ground... I took it home." The tone of these songs is usually nostalgic, and he frequently notes that the loves he had eventually vanished and that his youthful days will never return.

My grandfather grew up during the first period of Lithuanian independence, a relatively peaceful time which ended when the Soviet army occupied Lithuania in June, 1940. This development is clearly echoed in a song about a bittersweet spring. In the song, he sings about how the weather is beautiful in the spring and that flowers are bursting from their buds, to which he adds that "our brothers are saddling the horses" and that "one can hear the sounds of swords."

In March of 1941, my grandfather and grandmother, along with their infant son, Julius, Jr., left Lithuania. During the ten years that followed, they lived as displaced persons (DPs), eventually ending up in Germany. Towards the end of WWII, my grandfather was absorbed into the masses of foreign labor used to fuel the waning German war industry, and the family was often forced to live in separate parts of the country. The stress of difficult labor and agonizing separation magnified his short temper, which, coupled with his stubbornness, often landed him in prison. "Dainuoju Dainą," the song I discussed at the beginning of this post, is a prisoner's song in which he describes the hard beds, the sounds of chains and shackles, and the unattainable luxury of rest. In this same song, he sheds light on the hopeless uncertainty of he and his family's situation- a gypsy predicts for him a long journey. In another song he reflects upon having been born and raised in Lithuania, but only God knows where he will die, perhaps in Warsaw or in Moscow.

These and the other songs my grandfather sang are, in the end, quite revealing about his personality and about the experiences he constantly revisited and which affected his character throughout his long life. I was pleasantly surprised that over the course of listening to the songs, I discovered things about him which would have otherwise remained uncovered.

And some things about him which were already abundantly clear were reinforced, in particular his fondness for alcohol. In fact, the liquor he made with homemade stills during his time in DP camps made him exceptionally popular and, on more than one occasion, greased the palms of those with the power to make his family's life impossible. Later in life, a dose or two of "medicine" was the only necessary prelude to a performance of these songs, and it is not surprising that booze earned such a prominent place among the most important themes. The last recording of the collection reflects his hard-headedness as much as it does his abundant sense of humor: "I got drunk as a rooster. No one will scare me off."

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