Wolf Hunt: Vladimir Vysotsky and his Guitar Poetry (In Progress)

By Jørn Simen Øverli

Wolf Hunt was the title of the first song Vladimir Semyonovitch Vysotsky sang publicly. In Russia and Eastern Europe, the wolf was a revered animal, free to wander at will. Wolves were also hunted using a particular style that has been captured in photos taken as recently as during the days of the Soviet dictatorships. Øverli describes images of Soviet and East European leaders like Ceausescu, Gierek, Tito, Brezhnev and Kekkonen hunting wolves on a nature preserve located between Poland and White Russia. Large groups of men and hounds chased the wolves from the forests onto the open plains where more people were gathered, shouting and waving huge flags with images of faces. The wolves were paralyzed by the flags and the shouting and just stood, frozen while hunters fired away

The song by Vysotsky describing a hunt of this sort was a thinly veiled comment on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Vysotsky gained the immediate adoration of the public and the rage and condemnation of the government. This would be the case until his death in 1980.

This is a very personal book. Øverli begins by telling of how he got involved with Polish singers in the Solidarity movement who had been inspired by Vysotsky. He writes, “Vladimir Semyonovitch Vysotsky had been Russia’s most popular artist since the late 1960s, almost completely unbeknownst to the West. We had hardly heard his name until recently. For a long time he was the most popular artist in all of East Europe, and for almost half of all Europeans. He died in 1980 and has since then belonged to the people, in fact to all generations.”

Øverli has written a wonderful book on the life of a man who was seldom allowed to perform or record his music officially. Instead it was copied illegally and passed around on cassettes and scraps of paper. Øverli does a wonderful job of combining an overview of Vysotsky’s music and includes translations of some of Vysotsky’s songs as well as a well-developed discography of Vysotsky’s work.

Øverli does not try to categorize Vysotsky but he does place him firmly into the tradition of Russian poet and bard (avtorskaia pesni), strongly influenced by the songs associated with the gulags and the criminal underworld (blatnye pesni.) The bards of Russia sang to friends in their living rooms and kitchens. It is this intimate style of singing that helped make Vysotsky so beloved. Øverli writes about how Vysotsky was part of a thriving artist community that enabled him to develop his particular style. His songs were like conversations about the things that mattered, things that were difficult and full of pain, longing, and rage. The legend and the man mingle on the pages and for a while at least, we can catch a glimpse of what was and what might have been.

Jorn Simen Overli

About the Author

Jørn Simen Øverli

Jørn Simen Øverli picked up a guitar as a boy and hasn’t put it down since. Heralded as one of the most expressive folk singers in Scandinavia, he plays and sings all the great traditional folk songs and ballads of Norway with a special emphasis on the great Alf Prøysen. The nuanced interpretation he brings to his music adds new dimensions to the experience of the listener. Like many other great talents, he also excels at the art of improvisation. Never a victim of trends, never commercial in his approach, Jørn has always blazed his own trail.

It is by journeying beyond the borders of Norway and Scandinavia that we can truly gain insight into the musician and his art, for he is much more than a Norwegian folk singer, even though that would have been more than enough.

During the 1980s there was a great drama unfolding in Poland. The drama was the Solidarity (Solidarność) movement led by Lech Wałęsa and the battle with the communist government and the implementation of martial law by Jarulzelski. This time of great peril and passion drew Jørn to immerse himself in the people and contemporary songs of Poland. He has since worked with many of the contemporary singers and songwriters in Poland. Jørn was particularly drawn to the music that grew around the Solidarity movement, and that is what led him to the music and life of Vladimir Vysotsky, the legendary Russian folk singer and actor who inspired much of the music of the freedom movements in Poland during the conflict. His translations and his performances and recordings of Vysotsky’s music have been highly praised by both the public and the top Russia experts in Norway and experts in Russia and Poland.

In 2011 Jørn founded a Polish-Norwegian band, Karuzela. The group sings Jørns’s retellings of great contemporary Polish songs, especially the ones written by Agnieszka Osiecka. The group frequently tours in Poland and Norway.

In most books published about Vysotsky or Osiecka in Russia or Poland today, there is usually a section about the significance of Jørn Simen’s work and how he has been able to make the work of these important songwriters available in foreign countries.