Ukrainian folk songs: 10 of the best
Our round up of the best and most famous Ukrainian folk songs
Given that there are around 200,000 Ukrainian folk songs, choosing our top ten is quite a challenge. Still, we've done our best to convey the richness and variety of the Ukrainian folk tradition – a tradition central to the country's culture. Check out our list and see if there are any important songs that you think are missing.
Best Ukrainian folk songs
Ty zh mene pidmanula
This cheeky folk song, which translates as 'you tricked me and let me down’, probably wins first prize for popularity. It’s about a man complaining to his girlfriend who has promised to meet him somewhere every day of the week, but has failed to turn up each time. Upbeat, fast and catchy, it has been performed and arranged by many singers and groups in and outside of Ukraine.
Oi, u vyshnevomu sadu
Translating as ‘Oh, in the Cherry Orchard’, this is a song about forbidden love, in which a couple meet in a cherry orchard to say goodbye to each other. The text is full of poetic images like 'the chattering nightingale’ and ‘quivering tears’ while the music - slow and elegiac - is equally touching.
Chom ty ne pryishov, yak misiats ziishov
This heartfelt song about a jilted lover comes from the Lemkos - a Ukrainian ethnic group which until 1946 lived in the western-most part of Ukraine on both sides of the Carpathian Mountains. Translating as ‘Why haven’t you come?’ it really caught on in the '70s, when it was performed by the popular Ukrainian trio: the Marenych.
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Rozpriahaite, khloptsi, kni
This song, translating as ‘Unhitch the horses, boys’, dates back to at least the 19th century, but it became widely known after appearing in the 1939 film Tractor Drivers. Although the lyrics speak of romantic love, its vigour and propulsive rhythm made it a military favourite - regularly sung by the Red Army and Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Nese Halia Vodu
This slow and gentle song, which translates as ‘Halia is carrying water’, is about an encounter between a young girl (Halia) and her beau (Ivan), full of flirtatious invitations, accusations of deception, pleas and promises. Some of the lyrics - ‘Ivan follows her like a periwinkle’ - might sound quite creepy, but they’re actually well-intentioned: the periwinkle, in Ukrainian culture, symbolises loyalty and eternal love.
Its lyrics are Transcarpathian - one of the most archaic dialects in the Ukrainian language, with many borrowings from Hungarian - so they’re not the easiest for Ukrainian learners to understand. However, it’s not hard to grasp the flavour of this song, which - with its central image of a duck crossing water as a symbol of death - laments the dangers and the price of war.
Nich yaka misyachna
Written in the 19th century by the writer Mykhailo Starytsky and the composer Mykola Lysenko, 'Nich yaka misyachna' ('What a Moonlit Night') is one of Ukraine’s best-known love songs, as famous for its gentle melody as it is for its image-rich poetry: ‘The sky is deep, all covered in stars/The fine dew under the poplars twinkles like pearls/The night is so moonlit, so starry, so bright/There’s so much light you could gather needles.’ A poignant video from last year shows a Kharkiv City Opera violinist in a bomb shelter playing this song to her fellow shelterees; it gained millions of views.
Oi, u haiu pry Dunaiu
For some Ukrainians, the Danube plays the same role as the River Styx does for the Greeks. It certainly seems to in 'Oi, u haiu pry Dunaiu' ('In the grove, by the Danube'), a song of mourning about the death of a lover. The music is highly evocative, as are the lyrics, which mingle images of death and mourning with symbols of freedom (’In the forest near the Danube river, I am standing all alone, crying. I want to fly like a bird to where my lover is now. And the nightingale is singing.’).
This song from Western Ukraine, which translates as (‘Oh, Marichka’) takes the form of a conversation between a girl who is pretending to be shy and a boy who wants to spend more time with her. Upbeat and lively, it’s a popular wedding song.
10. Chervona ruta
Written in 1968 by the 20th century songwriter Volodymyr Ivasyuk, this inclusion, (‘Red Rue’ in English), possibly stretches the definition of folk music, but it is one of the most popular songs in Ukraine, so it’s going in the pot anyway. According to legend, the rue plant turns red on the Day of Ivana Kupala for a few minutes and the girl that finds that flower will be happy in love.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.