Street Songs: The Urban Folk Music of Warsaw
#language & literature
default, Street Songs:
The Urban Folk
Music of Warsaw, Orkiestra z Chmielnej (Chmielna Orchestra) in the 1970s, photo: Wikimedia Commons, center, orkiestra_z_chmielnej_gra_na_zoliborzu_1996_agencja_gazeta.jpg
It’s a sound often heard echoing through the streets of Warsaw at the height of summer: the animated melodies of bands playing Polish folk songs popular since time immemorial. Street bands have been a part of Warsaw’s landscape since the Interwar period, carving out a dynamic, fluid sound far from the recording studios of Syrena Record.
Whilst youthful bands like Kapela Sztajer are beginning to fashion their own interpretations of street music, traditional bands, like Orkiestra z Chmielnej (Chmielna Street Orchestra) – established in the 1920s – still play original interpretations today. In fact, street music persisted through the war, when bands played patriotic songs for the underground, and even through the communist period, despite artists being literally hounded from the streets.
Tango with a Polish Twist: The International Roots of Interwar Music
In today’s Poland, there is a statue in Praga that, until recently, played one of 100 Warsaw songs at the sending of a text in order to commemorate those who, for so long, were a fixture of the district’s cultural scene. Bands can be found at concerts – especially around 1st August, the National Warsaw Uprising Remembrance Day – or at historical events. Many remain true to their roots, continuing to perform on the very streets on which their particular variety of Polish culture was first forged.
But what are the songs which have persevered through the ages, still relished on the city’s streets today?
‘Bal u Starego Joska’
The 1934 song Bal u Starego Joska (A Ball at Old Josek’s) can be considered the epitome of interwar folk music. Detailing the frenetic experiences at the real-life eatery run by ‘Gruby Josek’ on Ulica Gnojna, it is a vision of the wild landscape of the Warsaw underworld at the time. It is, in fact, credited as one of the first so-called ‘apasz’ songs of Polish music and, written in the Warsaw street patois, evokes an extremely vivid picture of criminal activity in Interwar Warsaw – especially given the references to real individuals who visited ‘Josek’s Eatery’, or who were notorious during the era.
The Rise & Fall of Polish Song
|On my lips, I can still taste it
That one long and sleepless night
There at Fat Josek’s on Gnojna Street
The good old Praga gang was gathered tight
Little food and little sleeping
But to drink – more than enough
When Feluś goes to town on harmony
It’s time to dance and sing and live it up!
The harmony breaks out in three-four time
The gang starts dancing, clear the way!
All due respect, things can turn on a dime
On good old Gnojna when we play
Everybody knows with Antek
Better not to cause him strife
There was a chap who didn’t know it and
Because of me he lost his life
When street lamps give their way to shadows
And the night guard’s whistle sounds
Hangman Maciejowski’s there beneath the gallows
Waiting for Antek to come around
The harmony sounds out in three-four beats
The gang may dance, but I defer
How can we have our ball on Gnojna Street
When I don’t have a dance partner?
|Nieprzespanej nocy znojnej
Jeszcze mam na ustach ślad
U grubego Joska, na ulicy Gnojnej
Zebrał się ferajny kwiat
Bez jedzenia i bez spania
Byle byłoby co pić
Kiedy na harmonii Feluś zaiwania
Trzeba tańczyć, trzeba żyć!
Harmonia na trzy-czwarte z cicha rżnie
Ferajna tańczy, wszystko z drogi!
Z szacunkiem, bo się może skończyć źle
Gdy na Gnojnej bawimy się
Kto zna Antka czuje mojrę
Ale jeden nie znał jej
I naraził się dlatego na dintojrę
Skończył się z przyczyny mej
Jak latarnie ciemno świcą
Smętnie gwiżdże nocny stróż
A kat Maciejowski tam, pod szubienicą
Na Antosia czeka już
Harmonia na trzy-czwarte z cicha gra
Ferajna tańczy, ja nie tańczę
Dlaczegoż bal na Gnojnej, jak co dnia
Gdy mnie jednej pary dziś brak
The musician in this scene, Feluś, is perhaps a reference to Felek Zdankiewicz, pseudonym Krwawy Feluś (‘Bloody Feluś’). The proclaimed ‘King of the Thieves of Warsaw’, he had participated in multiple acts of criminality, including attempted murder. Later, there is a reference to Maciejowski – or Stefan Maciejowski, the first civilian executioner of the Second Polish Republic, alleged to have executed 100 people in the five years of his career, between 1926 and 1931. Maciejowski, naturally, was not above the law either. In 1932, he was dismissed as a result of drunken misbehaviour, and fell into depravity, ultimately threatening to take his own life.
The song itself was infused with delinquency: it was composed in a style to echo that of the French Les Apaches movement, who were enthralling Paris during the Belle Époque with their barbarity and violence. Their dance style, a violent tussle reminiscent of tango, was later appropriated by the upper classes. It was exactly this enchantment that was conjured by the hypnotic waltz of Bal u Starego Joska.
A Musical Journey through Polish History
The song was composed by one of the only woman composers of the Second Polish Republic, Fanny Gordon – whose works often touched on striking aspects of culture and frivolous living – whilst the lyrics were by Leopold Brodziński and Julian Krzewiński. It was first performed by Tadeusz Faliszewski, a singer known for his flamboyancy and exaggerated delivery, in 1934.
As the name suggests, Tango Apaszowskie (Apasz Tango) was another of the ‘apasz’ genre – it told of the tumultuous and fraught relationship between two lovers, Hanka and Staszek. The tango is also known as Hanka or Hanko, as well as Apaszem Stasiek Był (Stasiek Was an Apasz), and was famously performed in its modern version by Stanisław Grzesiuk – one of the only post-war musicians to maintain the pre-war dialect of singing which had been particularly popular among the street-bands of Warsaw. This dialect continues to prove popular among Varsovians wishing to reminisce about the past; the website Gwara Warszawska (Warsaw Slang) even has a dictionary of the pre-war Warsaw vernacular, with modern translations.
A Short Glossary of Polish Urban Slang
Grzesiuk was indeed famed for his recollection of Polish Interwar music in the post-war environment, performing folk pieces on banjo and mandolin. Though there are some records of Tango Apaszowskie which allege the song was performed in an original version in pre-war Warsaw, Grzesiuk’s version perfectly captures the essence of criminality on the dark streets of the city.
|Stasiek was an apache, you could meet him
In those dark and dirty bars full of despair
And his girl, she was an ordinary streetwalker
She would sell her body on some corner there
Despite it all, that Stach, he loved his Hanka
He’d beat her, though, till she was black and blue
When he’d apologise again to his bacchante
Oh, he would whisper in her ear this tender tune:
Hanko, it’s you I dream of on the sleepless nights
Hanko, I don’t know how I’d ever live without you
Forevermore I would look into your eyes
It’s only you I want to be near, yes, it’s true
Hanko, how your body bends and gives so sweetly
Hanko, give me a kiss now, and forget the pain
Your tears, I know they are my fault completely
I know life flows upon such dark and stormy waves
|Apaszem Stasiek był w krąg znały go ulice
W spelunkach ciemnych tam gdzie podłe życie wre
Kochanką jego była zwykła ulicznica
Co gdzieś na rogu sprzedaje ciało swe
Pomimo to Stach kochał swoją Hankę
Choć nieraz bił, skatował aż do krwi
Bo kiedy znów przepraszał swą bogdankę
No to tak do niej szeptał czułe słowa te
Hanko o tobie marzę wśród bezsennych nocy
Hanko ja bez ciebie nie potrafię żyć
I wciąż bym się wpatrywał w twoje oczy
I przy twym boku ja tylko chciałbym być
Hanko Twe ciało słodko pręży się przegina
Hanko daj usta niech przeminie ból i żal
Że w oczach łzy to wiem, że moja wina
Że życie płynie wśród tak burzliwych fal.
Stachu! (My Stach!) was a typical tango of the era. Focusing on the age-old theme of a lost lover, the song describes the desperation of a besotted woman who dreams of her beloved ‘every hour’, despite his absence for at least two years, and begs him to ‘come back’ to her. It was written in 1938, and was one of the last great tangos of the Second Polish Republic:
|Stach, please come back, I forgive you
Tell her that you two are through
Come back to me
Stach, I still cry every night when
I see you with her again
Come back to me
|Stachu, wróć daruję ci winy
Porzuć inne dziewczyny
Wróć do mnie, wróć
Stachu, ja po nocach wciąż płaczę
Gdy cię z inną zobaczę
Wróć do mnie, wróć
The composer for Stachu was rising talent Zbigniew Drabik, who had also written literary texts and an operetta during the Interwar era. The lyricist was Marian Rudnicki, and records suggest this may have been the only song Rudnicki had written. He was a conductor and musician who had collaborated with Syrena Record with operatic and symphonic recordings in the 1920s, and with the Warsaw Opera and Polish Radio – despite allegedly suffering from a form of paralysis for the majority of his life.
‘Chodź na Pragę’
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Jerzy Kobusz, at a machine to measure muscle strength, in a scene to the lost film 'Legion Ulicy' (Legion of the Street). The scene was filmed at the Praga Lunapark 'Sto Pociech' in 1932, photo: audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Chodź na Pragę (Come to Praga) was the spirited foxtrot of an entire district of Warsaw – that of Praga, the dynamic world on the ‘the other side’ of the Wisła Rive. Composed by musical heavyweight Artur Gold, with lyrics by Tadeusz Stach, Chodź na Pragę was first performed at the revue Uśmiech Warszawy (The Smile of Warsaw) at Morskie Oko by Janina Sokołowska, Stanisława Nowicka and Władysław Walter, who performed against a backdrop of the River Wisła.
Photos of Brzeska Street in Praga – Image Gallery
The song quickly gained a reputation as the anthem of Praga, encapsulating not only the liveliness of the neighbourhood, but also the propensity to find street music on its very doorstep:
|Over here, we don’t play games or play the radio
Pure harmony – that’s our instrument
|Nas tam nie bawi żaden bajc i żadne radio
Tylko harmonia – to instrument nasz
The song also mentions the Lunapark in Praga, a popular pre-war theme park located in Park Praski, which gathered bustling crowds every Sunday. The park, established in 1933, had a labyrinth, carousels, and even a rollercoaster. Film footage from 1938 shows that the queue for the ride could be illuminated, suggesting attractions were open into the evening and night. Polska Zbrojna reported in 1934 that:
The carousel was spinning, numerous couples were spinning in the dance hall, and excellent spectacles were showing on the open stage, which gathered time and again many hundreds of viewers, with enthusiastic applause for the first-class performances.
In recent ages, Chodź na Pragę has achieved new popularity for its evocations of Praga. In 2018, Kazimierz Nitkiewicz from the Warsaw Sentimental Orchestra played the song in performance from the balcony of a hotel at the corner of Targowa and Wileńska streets. Even before then, in 2002, the song gained notoriety during renovations of a clock on the Władysława IV High School in Praga – the oldest secondary school in the district. The first song the clock chimed when fixed was Chodź na Pragę.
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‘Jadziem, Panie Zielonka’
Jadziem, Panie Zielonka (1937), like Bal u Starego Joska, was another insight into the intoxicating whirlwind of Interwar nightlife, written by the famed poet and lyricist Władysław Szlengel – alongside Józef Lipski (with whom he co-wrote Tango Notturno) and Bołeslaw Mucman, a well-known composer of humourous melodies. Jadziem, Panie Zielonka was certainly in keeping with Mucman’s usual style.
The song had comic undertones, though also the hint of desperation, as demonstrated in Faliszewski’s crazed delivery:
|Waiting for the bus, I get into a state
That old rogue the moon is shining in my face
The streetlamps all are laughing that my cap has fallen down
Not a soul would have me in this town
After a few glasses, my heart’s tight in my chest
I’ll leave the bar again tonight, drink upon my breath
Here's a fancy set of wheels – Mister, won’t you stop?
Be a good old pal and pick me up
Mr Zielonka, we’re off
I’ve got the dough today, I’m feeling well
I took a loan out on my scarf
And so how could I not toast the ladies’ health?
|Czekam na autobus i się wściekam wprost
Księżyc, stary łobuz, świeci prosto w nos
Śmieją się latarnie, że mi dęciak znikł
Nikt mnie nie przygarnie, nikt
Po kieliszkach paru tęskny w sercu ścisk
Znowu mnie dziś z baru jazda, won na pysk
Jest dryndulka klawa, panie starszy, stop
Weź mnie z sobą, bądź morowy chłop
Jadziem, panie Zielonka
Ja dzisiaj forsę mam, ja dzisiaj humor mam
W zastaw poszła jesionka
Więc jak nie wypić dziś, mam za zdrowie dam
Jadziem, Panie Zielonka was also a traditional exclamation from the period to express departure – much like the famed Allons-y Alonso.
Tango Andrusowskie (Roguish Tango) was written by Jerzy Petersburski and Andrzej Włast, and told of meeting at the Kamienne Schodki in Warsaw’s Old Town for an extravagant ball – picture endless tango dances and frivolity.
‘Tango Milonga’: The Remarkable Journey of a Polish Interwar Hit
The song even hinted at the South American origins of the tango, which had infused so much of Interwar Polish music with hints of the Argentinian (the prime example being Chór Dana, who had, for a period, performed under the name Coro Argentino V. Dano). Tango Andrusowskie makes explicit the connections between the Polish and Argentinian tangos, but with a little bias too:
|Even a Spaniard from Argentina
Couldn’t do it better himself
|Że nawet Hiszpan z Argentyny
Lepiej nie potrafi też
In his memoirs, Ludwik Sempoliński describes how he first performed the song for the premiere of the 1932 revue show Golden Parade at Morskie Oko, alongside Janina Sokołowska – explaining that it was the song on which the finale was based. The song would later be performed by Tadeusz Faliszewski, Mieczysław Fogg and Adam Aston.
Last Days: Warsaw’s Shining Cultural Moment on the Eve of WWII
Its prime performances, however, as for all of the songs above, remain on those ‘Kamienne Schodki’, those streets of the city, which promised to transport vast audiences to a world of excitement, time and time again.
polish artists of the interwar period
Written by Juliette Bretan, Jan 2018; song lyrics translated by Lauren Dubowski