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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
* one pood was equal to 16 kg
* one pood was equal to 16 kg