Music in 1950s Poland: When Socialism Met Rebellion
default, Music in 1950s Poland:
When Socialism Met Rebellion, The band Melomani with saxophonist Jerzy Matuszkiewicz a.k.a. Duduś at the 1st Jazz Festival in Sopot, 1956, photo: Tadeusz Kubiak/PAP, jazz_festival_sopot_1956_fot_TadeuszKubiakPAP.jpg
Coming out of the depths of Stalinist influence, the decade’s music featured state-backed songs – quite exotic from today’s perspective – carrying communist messages about work, as well as rebellious jazz played in smoke-filled cellars hidden from the sight of the officials who had banned the genre. Elsewhere, Poland’s 1950s also resounded with nostalgically-aged radio orchestras, and the country’s earliest rock and roll.
Building a New Home
Chór Czejanda - Budujemy nowy dom
We are building a new home
Yet another brand new home
For the better days to come
From the basement to the top
Let the buildings rise with luck
For the dreams of all of us
Quote from the song Budujemy Nowy Dom (Building a New Home), translated by the editor
In the 1950s, the devastation of World War II was still very much visible in Poland. Aside from the estimated 6 million casualties, the war also resulted in the destruction of cities and villages. Warsaw was among the most severely devastated places, with over half a million of its citizens killed and approximately 85% of its buildings destroyed. The epic task of the capital’s rebuilding became a symbol of Poland’s recovery.
How Warsaw Came Close to Never Being Rebuilt
But recovering Poland was far from the free state it had been before the war – communism had been imposed on it by the Soviets. Moreover, in the years 1949 to 1956, this included the Soviets’ official aesthetic doctrine, socialist realism, which was meant to promote the communist worldview by presenting labour-related themes. It encompassed all forms of art, including music. Still, despite the overall darkness of these times, some artworks managed to bring in a little light.
Budujemy Nowy Dom (Building a New Home) is a hit from the comedy musical Wodewil Warszawski (Warsaw Vaudeville) by Zdzisław Gozdawa and Wacław Stępień, written in 1950 for Warsaw’s Syrena Theatre. The socialist-realist story, typical of that era, is about rebuilding Warsaw from the wartime rubble. Its lead characters are an old-fashioned pre-war aunt, a modern niece, an engineer-inventor and a plotting shady type. But the most important part is played by Warsaw builders.
Immensely popular, the musical was played in dozens of theatres across Poland, the songs from it were constantly on the radio, and at the Syrena Theatre alone it was staged over 300 times.
Quote from Piotr Stępień, Wacław Stępień’s son and biographer
Piosenka Autobus Czerwony
Building a New Home, originally recorded by the Chór Czejanda vocal group is one of those early 1950s mainstream songs that aged well, its socialist-realist character simply doesn’t outweigh how nice a composition it is. The 1952 song Czerwony Autobus (Red Bus), praising Warsaw’s public transport, is a similar case. The lyrics were written by Kazimierz Winkler and the music by Władysław Szpilman, the noted Polish-Jewish musician whose wartime fate is shown in Roman Polański’s Oscar-winning movie The Pianist.
Hop on, nobody will be late for work today
We’ll drive fast, though surrounded by sea
A sea of scaffolds which so clearly say
That the flow of time here hasn’t ceased
Quote from the song Czerwony Autobus (Red Bus), translated by the editor
The jazz underground, dance parties & Cold War
Still from the film Cold War directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, starring Borys Szyc & Jeanne Balibar, photo: promo materials
The aforementioned songs became actual hits and are still quite recognisable today. But a lot of 1950s mainstream music enjoyed plenty of airplay not because it was particularly good or popular but simply because it was state-backed. In 1949, to promote the socialist-realist trend, the authorities banned any non-Polish and non-Soviet music from the radio. The regulation lasted until the mid-1950s meaning that even bland tunes like Walczyk Murarski (Builder’s Waltz) were broadcast.
Understandably, this all gave rise to a musical counterculture which at the time revolved around jazz. Jazz was one of the genres banned from the radio in 1949, and even public performances of jazz music were disallowed. The genre symbolised the Western lifestyle, so playing jazz could get you into trouble – students were thrown out of college for it, for example. But despite these efforts, the authorities forgot the basic truth that forbidden fruit tastes best, and, contrary to their aim, jazz became increasingly fashionable:
A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Jazz
The popularity of this music, even though it was forbidden, or maybe precisely because of that, was on the rise. The wave of jazz wasn’t going to be stopped, just like rock and roll wasn’t going to be stopped in the future either. From the big halls, jazz moved to informal social gatherings, often held in adapted cellars (…).
Quote from the 2006 book Fruwa Twoja Marynara (Your Flying Jacket) by Marek Gaszyńśki
Melomani - Honey Suckle Rose (Fats Waller, Andy Razaf)
Quite a few of the musicians who kept playing jazz in this underground period were involved with the band Melomani, like the saxophonist Jerzy Matuszkiewicz a.k.a. Duduś, or the double bass player Witold Kujawski. The latter is said to have introduced jazz to the young Krzystof Komeda (who went on to become a famous pianist and film score composer) at a jam session organised at his Kraków apartment.
But in music, as in any art form, the lines aren’t really all that clear. Who’s to say what exactly is and isn’t jazz? Sometimes the officials delegated to keep watch over concerts, often simple folks, were confused about whether the music being performed was allowed or not… Making things even more complicated was that, even though jazz itself was forbidden, music that simply included jazz influences wasn’t.
I began to work with Józef Mazurkiewicz’s dance ensemble at a place called Nowy Świat, very elegant and modern at the time (..). We played famous American standards by Gershwin, Cole Porter, but also Polish melodies (…). The parties at Nowy Świat started at 5pm (…). For the first hour people listened to us, later everybody started to dance. Was that strictly jazz? I don’t think so, those were melodies with jazz influences.
Quote from drummer Mirosław Ufnalewski from the book Flying Jacket by Marek Gaszyńśki
Most recently, the jazz-influenced music of this era was evoked by the film Cold War which won its director Paweł Pawlikowski the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Culture.pl’s Bartosz Staszczyszyn writes that:
Cold War, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski – Image Gallery
Cold War is the story of an unusual romance that develops during the 1950s and 60s. The central characters are musicians: Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a sedate intellectual and composer, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a lively girl from the provinces with big career aspirations.
In his article, Staszczyszyn also mentions the soundtrack composed by the noted pianist Marcin Masecki, who made attempts to evoke the era:
Paweł Pawlikowski Wins Best Director At Cannes 2018
The music links folk traditions and jazz, sung poetry and instrumental arrangements to create a soundtrack that enchanted the Cannes critics and audiences alike.
Hooligan behaviour & falling chestnuts
Komeda Sextet - Memory of Bach (1956)
By the mid-1950s, after Stalin’s death in 1953, the socialist-realist zeal began to fade. This new period is appropriately called The Thaw. In music, this was proven in 1956 by the fact that the authorities allowed for the 1st Jazz Festival in the coastal city of Sopot, barely a year after the ban on playing live jazz had been lifted. Co-organised by the celebrated writer and jazz activist Leopold Tyrmand, the festival naturally turned into a big thing. Tens of thousands flocked to the weeklong August event to listen to groups like the aforementioned Melomani, Komeda Sextet and the pianist Zygmunt Wichary’s band. The crowd is said to have especially enjoyed Komeda’s modern jazz:
The boys arrived rather stage frightened. They were young debutants, kids compared to such pros like, say, Wichary’s band. (…) The reception was enthusiastic. We were immediately invited to play in many towns across Poland. We were very happy.
Quote from the book Oj, Zośka (Oh, Zośka) by Zofia Komedowa-Trzcińska, Krzysztof Komeda’s wife
The feel-good atmosphere of the event attended by many young, fashion-conscious music lovers wasn’t to the taste of the still-conservative mainstream media which gave plenty of false and exaggerated reports about purported ‘hooligan’ or ‘indecent’ behaviour. But since nothing actually happened, the authorities permitted another edition of the festival a year later.
Natasza Zylska - Kasztany (1956)
At the same time, radio began to change. There were now fewer labour-related songs, although jazz was only slowly starting to appear. The songs that got the most airplay were by state radio orchestras, performed with various singers. A great insight into this somewhat forgotten realm of 1950s Polish pop is provided by the double album Z Archiwum Polskiego Radia: Szlagiery lat 50. (From the Polish Radio Archives: Hits of the 1950s), which presents tunes from the years 1953-59. On this 2014 release, you can find songs recorded by the Warsaw Radio Orchestra directed by the well-known Jan Cajmer, the Kraków Radio Orchestra and the Wrocław Radio Orchestra.
Ponglish Pop: The Phenomenon Of Polish Songs In English
Among the most interesting songs on the album is Kasztany (Chestnuts), sung by Natasza Zylska, one of the top vocal stars of the era. According to an in-depth article devoted to her at the NaTemat website, she ‘could fabulously interpret even the most trivial melodies. She had skill, feeling and talent for drama’.
My love, my love
Chestnuts are falling like they always have
Beneath the feet of couples so glad
Like wonderful, ginger hail
Quote from the 1956 song Kasztany (Chestnuts) sung by Natasza Zylska, translated by the editor
pamiętasz była jesień
Another highly popular singer of the time was Sława Przybylska who sings on two songs on the album. But it’s a different tune that she’s best remembered for, namely the haunting love song Pamiętasz Była Jesień (Remember that Autumn) recorded for the 1958 film Pożegnania (Goodbyes) by Wojciech Jerzy Has:
10 Quotes from Classic Polish Love Songs
Remember that autumn, the little Roses Hotel, room number eight
The old porter with a smile, he’d give us the key
You’d kiss my hair on the stairs secretly, with a thirst so great
Were there more golden leaves or caresses is a wonder to me
Quote from the 1958 song Pamiętasz Była Jesień (Remember that Autumn) sung by Sława Przybylska, translated by the editor
Although much of 1950s mainstream music has been criticised for being dull, infantile or even poorly delivered, some of the songs, like the aforementioned Chestnuts have aged well and from today’s perspective seem nostalgically charming. That’s not to say that the bad songs weren’t bad. For example, a 1958 journalistic text describes the song Pies Dingo (Dingo Dog) as ‘completely devoid of sense’, which is an understandable comment after you see the first line of the lyrics: ‘Dog, they say it’s a dog, nervous as a dog, dingo – almost a fox.’
Rebellion begins to rock
Zygmunt Wichary - Piano Blues - Ceasuri Muzicale
Toward the end of the 1950s, rock and roll started to substitute jazz as the music of the young rebellious generation, so some jazz players tried to capitalise on the new craze. The saxophonist Jan ‘Ptaszyn’ Wróblewski reminisced about the band Jan Grepsor i Jego Chłopcy, led by Krzysztof Komeda:
We didn’t earn much with Komeda’s Sextet so in the autumn of 1957, we founded a rock and roll band. But this rock and roll didn’t bring us much money either, the concerts occurred only slightly more often than the jazz ones. Above all, the concert earnings were low.
Quote from the 2006 book Fruwa twoja marynara (Your Flying Jacket) by Marek Gaszyńśki
Zygmunt Wichary’s band tipped its hat to the new genre too by bringing elements of rock and roll into their style. At this point, it’s worth saying that in the 1950s both Komeda and Wichary, as well as other Polish musicians, enjoyed a bit of international success. In 1957, Komeda’s Sextet enchanted the audience of Moscow’s Youth Festival. A year later Wichary and his band played at Hungary’s 1st Jazz Festival, much to the amusement of the 60,000-strong crowd at Budapest’s Ferenc Puskás Stadium.
Marek Tarnowski - Elevator Rock
But the rock and roll forays of jazzmen just couldn’t substitute the real deal, so when Rythm And Blues – largely considered Poland’s first fully-fledged rock and roll band – burst onto the scene, the hype it generated was huge. Founded by guitarist Bogusław Grzyb (AKA Leszek Bogdanowicz) and vocalist Bogusław Wyrobek (it also included other singers, such as Marek Tarnowski), Rythm And Blues became an overnight sensation after its first concert. The memorable performance took place at a small club called Rudy Kot in the seaside city of Gdynia in March 1959. Bogdanowicz’s electric guitar, a Czech instrument called Grazioso, attracted plenty of interest as did the band’s renditions of popular rock and roll tunes like Rock Around The Clock and Elevator Rock.
How Rock 'n' Roll Conquered Communist Censorship
It wasn’t long before the group went on a tour of Poland that took them to a number of large venues including multiple dates at Warsaw’s Gwardia Hall, drawing a full house there each time. Here’s how the Sztandar Młodych newspaper described one of those September gigs (that same year, the capital’s famous writer and urban folk singer Stanisław Grzesiuk was making the earliest of his famous recordings of classic Warsaw tunes):
The Writers of Warsaw
Gwardia Hall hasn’t seen a crowd like this since Poland’s boxers were winning European Championship titles here, and its building hasn’t heard an audience reaction like this since (…) A lot of people shouted and whistled to express their enthusiasm (…)
Sadly, Rythm And Blues’ wonder tour ended after 39 concerts, the same year it started. The communist authorities weren’t happy with the kind of entertainment the group was providing and forced it to disband.
Poland under communism
polish pop music
jan ptaszyn wróblewski
polish rock and roll
But rock and roll wasn’t going to be stopped. Some of the band’s members went on to play with the newly-formed Czerwono-Czarni, another rock and roll group that became wildly popular. But their story belongs to the following decade.
Author: Marek Kępa, June 2018