9 Politically Influential Singer-songwriters from Europe under Communism
Poets with guitars in their hands singing their own politically loaded songs in shabby flats for small crowds of their compatriots... The bards, as they are called here, are a key cultural phenomenon of 20th-century Eastern Europe.
Despite being censored and intimidated by the Communist state, the bards wielded tremendous moral influence in their home countries. In some cases, their following stretched beyond the borders of countries, languages and cultures. People across the whole Soviet Bloc massively recorded and copied their songs, finding comfort and hope in the Aesopian language of their lyrics, as well as practical hints on how to preserve one's dignity in inhumane times. Here’s our selection of the greatest Eastern European bards who led the way to freedom under Communism.
1. Alexander Galich
Not as famous as the other great Russian bards, Alexander Galich was arguably the most bold of them all – or perhaps just the least lucky. Galich, a successful screenwriter and playwright who only composed songs in his spare time, was the first artist to speak openly about the Stalinist prisoners who were now – after 1956 – leaving the Gulag camps. But he would soon pay the price.
Galich's successful career came to an abrupt end after a member of the Politburo overheard some of his anti-Soviet songs playing from a tape recorder at his daughter's wedding. After a couple of years of constant persecution, Galich was forced to emigrate to western Europe. He died in Paris in 1977.
Compared to Okudzhava or Vysotski (who even sounds a bit like him), Galich's songs may seem more embedded in the specific historical events of the Soviet Union and thus less universal in meaning. Still, he could be considered the first bard – the others were following in his footsteps.
2. Bulat Okudzhava
Born in 1924 to an Armenian mother and a Georgian father (both dedicated Bolsheviks), Bulat Okudzhava was only 14 when his father was killed in a Stalinist purge. His mother eventually spent some 18 years in the work camps of the Gulag. As a young man Okudzhava joined the army and took part in the Great Patriotic War. This experience had a big impact on his works – both on his novels (which he considered his greatest accomplishment) and songs, like Paper Soldier or the Ballad of Soldier Boots.
In Eastern Europe, Okudzhava was the name which came to symbolize highest moral values and dignified resistance to the Communist regime. His songs and performances were praised for their lyrical qualities and metaphysical depth, which made Okudzhava exemplary of the Slavic spirit.
Censored in his own country, Okudzhava was for a long time more popular in the other countries of the Bloc, particularly in Poland. People would recognize him on the street, and he himself called Poland his first love. It was actually here that his debut LP was produced in 1968.
3. Vladimir Vysotsky
Vladimir Vysotsky is one of the greatest phenomena of 20th century Russian culture. Although his songs were never endorsed by the Soviet establishment, and for the most of his lifetime weren’t even released, he became one of the most influential figures of mainstream Russian culture.
Vysotsky’s amazing gift of observation and eye for social detail, which encapsulated the real character of life in the Soviet reality, have turned many of his songs into great realist literature or quasi-reportage.
In his short life he wrote around 1000 songs, spanning different genres of Soviet bard song: from blatnye (outlaw or labor camp songs) and war songs to so-called sea songs and tourist songs in their numerous variants (like mountaineering song), and he was particularly loved for his sports songs. His often humorous lyrics were the first to introduce street jargon into the language of Eastern European song-writing.
Vysotsky, who was also an accomplished actor, died on 28 July, 1980. Despite an information blockade his funeral attracted tens of thousands of Russians who gathered at the Taganka Theatre and later at Vaganskovski Cementery. It was there that people spontaneously burnt their guitars on spontaneous bonfires.
4. Karel Kryl
Karel Kryl (1944-1994) started performing his lyrical songs in the small bars of Prague around 1967. But his career as a bard is closely connected with the events of the Prague Spring of 1968, when he became one of the icons of the reform movement. His most famous song, Bratříčku zavírej vrátka (Close the Gate, Brother - here), was reportedly written on the day of the invasion of the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact, which suppressed the movement.
Kryl, who emigrated to Germany after the Prague Revolution and continued to live in Munich even after 1989, was also fluent in German and Polish – he even sang in the latter language. His song Veličenstvo kat (His Majesty the Hangman) was particularly popular here (see Kryl sing the Polish version here).
Meanwhile in Poland
In Poland under Communist regime, where censorship was for the most time not as harsh as in other countries of the Bloc, the influence of Vysotsky and Okudzhava was particularly strong, reaching into the areas of popular culture (compare the songs of Wojciech Młynarski). After the traumatic events of August 1968, which in Poland included a suppressed student revolt, Kryl's songs were also popular, but the country naturally had its own bards.
5. Jacek Kleyff
One of the most important Polish bards of this era was Jacek Kleyff (born 1947). Kleyff started his career as a singer-songwriter in 1967, inspired by the bards of the Soviet Gulag like Galich and Shulz, as well as the American folk tradition of Bob Dylan. However, it was the political events of March '68 – which in Poland included street riots and student demonstrations, and climaxed in the expulsion of Polish Jews from the country – that became a key moment in the process of forming his artistic personality.
In 1969, Kleyff co-founded Salon Niezależnych, a cabaret group which combined witty social critique with an ironic and often absurd sense of humour. One of the songs performed by Kleyff at around this time became a hymn to the March generation (see Dobre wychowanie here)
In later years Kleyff’s unorthodox personality and his constant quest for personal freedom led him to explore Rastafarian philosophy (see here) and other ethnic traditions (like American Indian, see here), as well as endorse an ecological lifestyle.
6. Jan Krzysztof Kelus
March 68' was a formative experience for Jan Krzysztof Kelus, but maybe not as much as his first prolonged stay in prison in 1970 after he was sentenced for smuggling forbidden books through the Tatra Mountains.
Throughout the 70s, Kelus authored very serious if ironic ballades which dealt with the most important moral concerns of his generation: the sense of honour, friendship, decency in the time of political oppression, his songs capturing the spirit of the most important political events, like the Radom Strike of factory workers in 1976 (see below) and the formation and evolution of the Solidarity movement (Sentymentalna panna S. - here). He wrote for a close circle of friends, rarely performing live – his songs circulated on tapes which Kelus recorded himself, becoming a pioneer of Polish magnizdat.
Throughout the 70s he was consistently harassed by communist security forces. Interned in prison during Martial Law, he wrote some of his last songs there. After 1989, he never returned to his career as singer-songwriter, staying away from the mainstream and living a very private life in the Mazurian countryside. In 1997, Kelus became the hero of a documentary film, in which he famously refused to speak to the camera.
Kelus’s musical style is marked by very simple guitar technique (as he claimed, only 4 chords) and the impeccable integrity of his lyrics.
7. Jacek Kaczmarski
But it was Jacek Kaczmarski (1957-2004) who came to be known as the ultimate Polish Bard. Kaczmarski considered himself a successor to Vysotski, yet his singing style and guitar-playing manner (as a left-handed guitarist strumming heavy the bass strings) had a distinct quality of their own.
His songs, like Mury (Walls) or Obława (Wolf-hunt, based on Vysotski’s song), were well-known to workers striking in the Gdańsk Shipyard in August 1980, and eventually became the quasi-hymns of the first Solidarity movement.
The poet – along with fellow musicians Zbigniew Łapiński and Przemysław Gintrowski – performed at rallies and strikes for the whole period of the so-called Solidarity Carnival, a period which ended abruptly with the the imposition of martial law in 1981.
8. Stanisław Staszewski
But being a bard doesn’t necessarily have to imply a strong political stance. One of the most fascinating figures of Communist-era Eastern European bardship may be Stanisław Staszewski (1925-1973), a Polish singer-songwriter who emigrated to France in 1967. Rather than exploring the social and political aspects of life under the Communist regime, Staszewski engaged in writing some of the most beautiful Polish lyrical songs of the century. Staszewski would perform these at spontaneous house parties thrown by friends and acquaintances in any town he happened to be in: be it Warsaw, Płock or Paris.
For a long time, and even after his death in 1973, Staszewski’s songs were known to only a handful of friends and acquaintances. After tapes with amateur recordings of his songs started circulating, some of them were performed at by Jacek Kaczmarski at his concerts. Still, the bard was virtually unknown in Poland until the 1990s, when his songs were performed by his son Kazik (by this time an accomplished figure of Polish punk scene) and his band Kult. The songs of the bard returned to his native country in hard rock form some 20 years after his death.
Bards in Eastern Europe today...
9. Jaromir Nohavica
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and ensuing political freedom, the tradition of East-European bardship may have died down a little. However the spirit lives on with such singer-songwriters as Jaromir Nohavica, a Czech bard and friend of Karel Kryl. Loved in his country, where he even starred in a movie (The Year of the Devil), Nohavica is particularly popular in Poland where he often sings in Polish.
Nohavica proves that Eastern European bards don't have to pursue a political agenda or high lyrical themes to sound poetic. Thay actually don't even have to strum guitar (Nohavica often plays accordion). They can even sing about soccer match... or maybe it's just Czech bards that can.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 25 January 2016.