Why poetry should be heard, not seen
BY MICHAEL LIND
The proxy war in Syria between Russia and Turkey is only the latest of many clashes between these two great powers. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 left its mark in Anglo-American literature and culture, when it inspired the British songwriter Percy French to write “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” a comic ballad about the fatal duel between an Ottoman soldier and a Russian soldier:
The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir …
Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.
Sung or recited, the ballad became a staple of vaudeville halls in Britain and college glee clubs in the United States. The late Thomas M. Disch told me he heard it recited at county fairs in the Midwest in the mid-20th century. MGM made a cartoon based on the ballad in 1941, called “Abdul the Bulbul Ameer,” which I remember having seen as a child in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the British actor and writer Stephen Fry portrayed the Russian count in a Whitbread beer advertisement on television.
Listen to Frank Crumit sing ABDUL ABULBUL AMIR (1927)