Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
… live the life we choose
… fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
If you like your nostalgia tinged with a dose of world-weariness, “Those Were the Days” is guaranteed to send you into a reverie populated by your own loved and lost, tempered with a dark veneer of experience.
It’s a folk survival anthem in a minor key, occasionally betraying its somewhat lugubrious, fatalistic Russian roots before rallying itself for that instantly recognizable, bittersweet refrain that harks back to more carefree times.
“Those Were the Days”
Originally a Russian romance song, “Those Were the Days” was credited to Gene Raskin, who put a new English lyric to the Russian version “Dorogoi dlinnoyu” (literally “By the long road“). Composed by Boris Fomin (1900–1948), the song was penned by the poet Konstantin Podrevsky.
The song deals with reminiscence upon youth and romantic idealism.
However, Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin made it popular and introduced it to the English world.
Mary Hopkin’s Recording
Produced by Paul McCartney, Mary Hopkin’s 1968 version became a number one hit on the UK Singles Chart. With an arrangement by Richard Hewson, it became a number one hit on the UK Singles Chart. Moreover, the song reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100, behind McCartney’s own band The Beatles‘ hit “Hey Jude.“
In the United States, Hopkin’s recording reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Moreover, it topped the Billboard Easy Listening charts for six weeks.
Armed with a voice as pure and true as anything that has graced the charts in the decades since, and a plangent arrangement that featured various strings – including a Hungarian version of the dulcimer – and a boys’ choir, Hopkin scored a huge international hit and secured her own place in pop history.
Mary Hopkin played acoustic guitar on the recording, and Paul McCartney also played acoustic guitar and possibly percussion. The hammered dulcimer, or cimbalom, was played by Gilbert Webster. Nevertheless, it is unknown who played the banjo though McCartney is known to be a banjoist.
Hopkin’s version was released on the back of her success on the television talent show Opportunity Knocks. Around the time of its release, popular singer Sandie Shaw was also asked to record the song by her management. They felt that it should be done by a “real” singer. Shaw’s version was released as a single. However, it did not match the success of Hopkin’s version.
The song in other countries
The Russian origin of the melody was accentuated by an instrumentation that was unusual for a top-ten pop record, including balalaika, clarinet, hammered dulcimer, tenor banjo and children’s chorus, giving a klezmer feel to the song.
On the other hand, In France, the song was at no. 1 in the very first edition of the singles sales chart. It was launched by the Centre d’Information et de Documentation du Disque in October 1968.
In the Netherlands, it topped the charts for two consecutive weeks.
Versions of the song were also recorded in Spanish, French, Italian and German by Hopkin and McCartney. John Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, also recorded a version.
The origins of the melody appear to be strongly claimed by the Russians. In addition, Russian gypsies consider it their song.
The name of this song seems to be “Dorogo’ Dlinnoyu” when translated means “By a long road (or way)” or “Along a long road (or way)” or “On a long way.” Some sources claim it was written at the end of the 19th century or at the beginning of 20th century.
There is another song, Russian title given “Darogoi Dli Mayou” calling itself “Dear to Me.” This, too, is supposed to be a version of “Dorogo Dlinnoyu,” first recorded by Alexander Wertinsky in the 1920s.
But the song was probably first heard more widely when it was sung by Maria Schell in the 1958 film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. Around the same time, the great American folk composer and songwriter, Gene Raskin, encountered it and produced the English lyrics we know today.