Look around you: it's the steppe, miles and miles without rim or bound. From spring to midsummer, the wind rolls waves over its silk-soft grass. Later the steppe turns yellow in the scorching sun, and the heady smell of thyme fills the ravines. Larks sing their hearts out up in the sky, and higher still, an eagle soars in the cloudless infinity, and down below, a steppe gull teaches its young to fly Just above the wilting feather-grass.
       Abruptly, different sounds are wafted from afar and mixed into the hubbub of the wind, the grass and the steppe birds' trills. That is a team of churnak salt-carters coming, "wagons creaking, oxen lowing, harness rattling." First two or three outriders emerge from around a mound, then the first wagon pulled by a pair of mighty straw-colored oxen, then the second and the third... A chumak train might amount to thirty or forty wagons, and sometimes even twice that number.
       Five hundred years from the 15th and perhaps even the 14th century to the latter half of the 19th did those courageous men tread the steppe roads from the heartland of Russia and the Ukraine to the Black Sea and the Crimea and back again.


       Illnesses and privations of early winter, steppe highwaymen and Tartar bands waylaid them at every corner. So it was not in vain that sabers, lances and firearms always lay handy in the wagons next to cured fish, tar, salt and grain. As soon as the outriders espied a suspicious-looking horseman on the horizon, the wagons were stood in a tight circle and God guard the brave!

From Perekop to Salhira longer are the miles
There lie chumaks by the road in ones, twos and piles...

       Such was the unusual carting trade called chumakuvannya. In time it spread throughout the Dnieper area as well as Central and Left-Bank Ukraine.


       Its economic significance can be seen from the fact that the chumaks yearly carted millions of poods * of fish, wine, wax and tar, let alone salt, and two-thirds of all commodity grain. People had this Joke about the chumak both a good-natured jibe and a token of respect for his trade: "Even though he tars his wagon, he's got salt to salt his bread!" (meaning that a chumak is always on the road but he has precious salt handy).
       And their songs? The artless yet soulful songs they sang on the road, around the campfire and while on campaign together with Cossacks? Who composed them? People had an answer to that, too. The popular belief had it that after market, chumaks went back to the sea, lay low on the shore and waited for nightfall. When stars bestrewed the sky and the Chumaks' Way (the Milky Way) stood out glimmering in its height, mermaids came out of the water to warm up, dance and sing in the moonglade. The chumaks listened and memorized their songs to take them thereafter throughout the Ukraine...


       Like kozak (Cossack), the word chumak is of Turk origin. It derives from chum, a cask (as wagons were often loaded with casks and wine skins). Chumak songs both those they sang themselves and those which fellow villagers sang about them belong to the most original part of Ukrainian folklore. Chumak trade and its "song annals" spanning half a thousand years are unique in world culture. Similar phenomena (for example, Russian coachmen's songs) existed in other cultures, too, and yet nowhere else did carting trade (chumak trains went as far as Muscovy and Hungary) and carters' songs assume such a scope. Along with variants, there are several thousand chumak songs. In part, this is accounted for by the traditions of the liberation war the Ukrainian people had many centuries waged against Turkish and Polish expansion. The chumak tradition emerged and developed at a time when peasants Joined the Cossacks en masse, farmsteads gradually made way down south along the Dnieper and the steppe areas of the Ukraine were colonized.


       The growing needs of the national economy were filled by the chumaks, who were best used to severe mendicant life.
       No doubt, the economic side of the matter was decisive with the chumaks. And yet it is only occasionally remembered in their songs. Such is one of the laws of high art: only that which touches heart strings goes down in the national heritage to be passed on to the generations to come. In this respect, chumak lore is a lyrical diary in its own right, and sometimes these traveler's notes take on a genuinely epic quality. The songs gather around the main events of a chumak's life: leavetaking, setting out on his long journey, traveling adventures more often sad than not (illness, death, loss of oxen or goods, fighting against highwaymen, hardships of wintering on the steppe for late-autumn travelers), the road back and the return home.
       Didactic themes occupy a special place in chumak song tradition. In one such song, a young carefree chumak turns down the request of a farmer to help him take in his hay.


       Come winter, the chumak regrets his refusal as the farmer he turns to for some hay for his oxen recognizes him and reminds him of their summer meeting. Or an entire group of songs about the chumak squandering his geods on drink. In all these songs, the spendthrift is unequivocally censured.

Hey chumak, you drunkard-loafer,
"What did your fine oxen go for?

       Chumak songs are a stylistically heterogeneous genre. The earliest of them are mostly one-voice tunes with a complex, often exquisite rhythm and melody pattern. The best of them belong to the treasure-trove of both Ukrainian and world folklore (Oh, Cross-Flowered Periwinkle, Creep Not Up That Hill; There's A Well In the Field; Making Hay; A Farmer Was Making Hay In His Hayfield). In the 19th century, these and other masterpieces of Ukrainian male vocal art were recorded by the outstanding Ukrainian composer Mikola Lysenko.
       Multi-voiced versions of chumak songs were mostly sung by women or mixed groups. Quite obviously, they were created by chumaks'fellow villagers and family members rather than chumaks themselves.


       Therefore, descriptions of chumak life in these songs are different both in melody and content. Whereas male chumak songs sometimes stretch from the diatonic into the alternating pitches of a wider-than-octave range, multi-voiced versions are as a rule diatonic and suited for the capabilities of the chest timbre of female voices. A part of one-voice songs may be classed a kind of chumak epics: they lean toward the recitative in form and have philosophically contemplative lyrics (A Farmer Was Making Hay In His Hayfield; Shoo, An Owl Comes Flying Above The Wagons). Multi-voiced songs were arranged for several parts and sung in the cantilena fashion. An outsider's look at chumak life is typical of allegoric songs about the burning of a nightingale's or a titmouse's nest or the grieving of a gull which has raised her young by a beaten road (Oh, Chumaks Came Trooping From The Ukraine; Oh, Woe Is That Gull Bird).


       A place apart belongs to a group of songs which are only formally classed with chumak lore. As for their function in everyday life and their rhythmic pattern, these are dancing or Jocular (and sometimes satirical) songs. The Chumak of these songs is to a certain extent a character as collective as the Old Man, Old Woman, Gossip or Cossack of related gopaks, kozachoks, and other kinds of ditties.
       A variety of chumak songs belong to the lyric folk songs which were composed and perfected in the 15th 17th centuries. At the same time, the more ancient of them (one-voice songs in particular) date to still earier, epic sources. This is evidenced in associations with endless roads, the slow progress of the chumak train and the width of steppe expanses both in imagery and in tempo.
       Even today, more than one hundred years since the decline of the trade, chumak songs are still alive in Ukrainian folk tradition. Such popularity is undoubtedly due to the high quality of their texts and tunes as well as the everlasting artistic and ethic values which their nameless authors managed to put into them.

Anatoly Ivanitsky

       * one pood was equal to 16 kg