The Walls Must Tumble: 10 Polish Songs About Freedom
#language & literature
small, Jacek Kaczmarski at a private concert in Warsaw, 1990, photo: Tomasz Wierzejski / AG, jacek_kaczmarski_ag.jpg
Poles had to endure many hardships on the path to freedom – uprisings, wars, lengthy periods of occupation and repression. This path would have been even more arduous without the songs created by Polish poets and musicians, which buoyed the national spirit and gave listeners hope, as well as the opportunity to better understand themselves.
'Walls' by Jacek Kaczmarski
Jacek Kaczmarski Mury
The song Walls, which was the anthem of the democratic opposition in Polish under the communist regime, has an interesting story – and, as often happens with real works of art, this story has not yet come to an end.
Walls was written in 1978 by the 20-year-old poet with a guitar, Jacek Kaczmarski, who was famed as the chief Polish bard of the Solidarity Era. The inspiration for this song came from the Catalan singer and poet Lluis Llach and his song L'Estaca (The Stake), which was written ten years earlier in protest of the Spanish dictator Franco. The song talks about how all people are like sheep tied to a stake with a rope, and in order to get free, they must knock the stake down. The author was implying that the stake was the Spanish government, which refused to give Catalonia its freedom. We can assume that now, after the referendum on independence, while Catalonia boils over anew, this song can be heard on every corner there.
L’Estaca gained so much popularity in Catalonia that the authorities banned it, and Lluis Llach was forced to flee the country because of persecution – he returned to his homeland only after the death of Franco in 1976, and a crowd of many thousands, raising lit candles, sang his words back to him at a concert in Barcelona. This sight impressed Kaczmarski so much that he immediately picked up his guitar. He did not translate the Catalan’s words into Polish, but he wrote his own original lyrics in the spirit of Llach’s song.
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He was a young and fiery man,
in darkness we followed along
His song it gave us the strength to fight,
as we prayed for the coming of dawn
We all lit candles and bowed our heads,
sang out together in hand
Singing the walls of this prison must tumble,
they must return into sand
These prison walls that hold us still
These whips and chains that break our will
The walls must tumble, tumble, tumble
We must bury this old world!
Trans. Daniel Sax
The song Walls appeared in the very midst of the Solidarity protests and quickly became hugely popular – it was sung by strikers in the Gdańsk shipyards, it was performed at illegal concerts and in internment camps during martial law… Naturally, all Poles clearly understood that the words of the song were about the walls erected by the hated Communist regime. However, another valid and broader interpretation is that people must demolish the walls of prejudice, lies, and hatred. Jacek Kaczmarski later admitted that this song haunts him because people interpret it incorrectly. He said he was singing about the existential loneliness of a singer who is always on his own, and about how in the place of toppled walls, new ones always appear. But it was impossible for him to do anything about this – the song had taken on a life of its own.
'The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski' by Krzysztof Dowgiałło & Andrzej Korzyński
Ballada o Janku Wiśniewskim
The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski, the words of which were long believed to be of folk origin, is dedicated to the dramatic events in Gdynia in December 1970. The city was engulfed in workers’ protests triggered by an increase in the prices of groceries. The leadership of the Communist regime in Poland decided to use force, and on the 17th of December soldiers and police opened fire on the protesting workers. Among the dead during the confrontation was an 18-year-old worker at the Paris Commune Shipyards, Zbigniew Godlewski, who hadn’t even managed to take part in the demonstration – he fell under fire at a bus stop. Workers laid the body of the murdered youth on door that had been torn off its hinges and carried it at the head of the column of demonstrators through the streets of Gdynia to the building of the city administration. That night, Solidarity activist Krzysztof Dowgiałło, an architect by profession, wrote a poem dedicated to this horrible event. He did not know the name of the slain young man (it had been carefully concealed by the authorities), so he gave him the first name that popped into his head – Janek Wiśniewski.
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The next day, Dowgiałło asked an acquaintance to print several copies of the ballad and distribute the text to their opposition comrades. For understandable reasons, Dowgiałło’s name was not indicated on the printed copies, and when the ballad began to be passed along and propagated by samizdat, no one know who the author was. In August of 1980, during strikes organized by Solidarity, the bard Mieczysław Cholewa wrote a song to this folk ballad, as he thought it was. In that same year, the text of the ballad was put to music by the composer Andrzej Korzyński, and it was this version of The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski that appears in Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Iron, where it is sung by Krystyna Janda. The film came out in the summer of 1981, and the song instantly became popular.
Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski in Man of Iron
Gdynia boys from all around,
today the cops fired rounds.
We stood bravely, threw rocks aimfully,
Janek Wiśniewski fell.
Down the street on a door, his body we bore,
against police ranks, against the tanks.
Shipyard boys, avenge his death!
Janek Wiśniewski fell.
Trans. Daniel Sax
By request of the filmmakers, Mieczysław Cholewa had to assume authorship of the seemingly anonymous text, therefore after the fall of communism Krzysztof Dowgiałło had to prove his authorship in court. Only in 2007 did the district court of Sopot officially award Dowgiałło authorship of the song’s lyrics. However, authorship of the lyrics was also claimed by the Gdynian poet-songwriter Jerzy Fic, near who’s house Godlewski, the prototype for the ballad’s hero, had been shot. It is hard to say now who is being truthful in this story – and perhaps it is not that important.
An intriguing fact: today there is a street named after Zbigniew Godlewski in Elbląg, where he lived during his work in the shipyards, and in Gdynia and Gdańsk there are streets named after Janek Wiśniewski (though this is indeed a literary character).
'Do Your Own Thing' by Wojciech Młynarski
Wojciech Młynarski Róbmy swoje Opole '88
The recently deceased Wojciech Młynarski – poet, satirist, singer, “the singing intellectual” as he was called – wrote the song Do Your Own Thing (Róbmy Swoje) in 1986, in the prevailing atmosphere of socio-political insanity which followed the institution of martial law in Poland.
This is one of Młynarski’s most significant political statements. Censors periodically removed the song from the broadcast program, and once Młynarski himself went to the censors to defend his right to perform his work. In answer he heard that the lyrics of Do Your Own Thing called for violent overthrow of the socialist establishment.
However, the author had not at all called his listeners to the barricades. On the contrary, he proposed an alternative – a panacea against the idiocy of the system; he formulated his own simple code of conduct, and instructed how to survive trying times while at the same time remaining a free person. Various historical figures are featured in the lyrics of the song – Noah and his sons, Christopher Columbus, Alfred Nobel – and each of them, like a mantra, repeat: 'Do your own thing' (literally: 'we will do our own thing'). And, lo and behold, success is achieved by gaining a moral victory. This is how Młynarski advised the frustrated and tired Polish intelligentsia to act...
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It seems we’re held in ill repute
As terribly ineffectual,
They say: You’ve not an ounce of sense,
You ‘creative intellectuals’!
This world’s crumbling all around,
everything coming crashing down,
Time to think of our own hides,
But nothing but trifles on your minds!
That’s a stern judgement, yes,
So to respond, in earnest:
Let’s do our part!
One thing’s for sure,
Let’s do our part,
Because if we really want more,
Maybe a few trifles can be preserved:
Like freedom of speech, culture and art.
Let’s do our part! Let’s do our part!
Who knows, maybe it’ll be a start?
Trans. Daniel Sax
Młynarski’s song was so beloved by Poles that soon it was being quoted by politicians from completely opposing political camps – in particular, Lech Wałęsa and Wojciech Jaruzelski. To clear up this misunderstanding, Młynarski had to write a few new verses, where he resolutely dotted every 'i': one more verse.
'While We Sit Like This' by Przemysław Gintrowski
Przemysław Gintrowski Gdy tak siedzimy
In 1976, Przemysław Gintrowski, singer, musician, composer, and later one of the legendary bards of Solidarity, met Jacek Kaczmarski and from this meeting their collaboration began. The musicians formed a trio of Gintrowski-Kaczmarski-Łapiński, which originated Kaczmarski’s Walls, which we have already mentioned. Kaczmarski and Gintrowski were equated with Lennon and McCartney: like these famous Liverpudlians, these two Polish bards were united not only by friendship, but also a professional rivalry. Gintrowski had a rather unique technique of playing the guitar – when performing a song, he would build chords like a rock musician. And the piano of Zbigniew Łapiński added a dramatic background to their songs.
Just before the implementation of martial law in 1981 the trio recorded an album in Paris. Gintrowski and Łapiński returned to Poland to play concerts, but Kaczmarski stayed for some time in France to settle the formalities associated with the release of the album. And that’s how they were caught by martial law. Kaczmarski chose to emigrate, Gintrowski stayed in Poland.
Przemysław Gintrowski wrote songs to the poems of many Polish poets, such as Zbigniew Herbert (for example, Report from the Besieged City) and Tomasz Jastrun. The song While We Sit Like This, which was dedicated to the members of the underground and the conspirators during martial law, was based on the verses of Leszek Szaruga, the famous poet, writer, critic and opposition activist. What does this song tell about? Black night, white snow (it seems like the song takes place in winter, though the time of year is not specificed), activists of the opposition, warming themselves with knockoff liquor, printing agitprop literature, testifying that the regime hasn’t ground all of the opposition into the dirt…
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As we sit here drinking hooch
Our homeland is dying
Our friends rotting in prison
The mimeograph slowly keeps turning
The pamphlets we’re printing
About how we are still alive
Would get us sentenced
To ten years in jail
Not far from here
One of us was stopped by a patrol
We’re drinking to his health
He’ll need it his prison home
Trans. Daniel Sax
In the song, the depression of the mid-1980s is clearly heard, when the ranks of activists thinned out, hope for change died away, and the leaders of the opposition were more and more seized by a feeling of despair and desolation. But there was some hope, the stoicism of man, who promises himself to hold on, while he still has strength – and still holds on when strength runs out.
'Let Poland Be Poland' by Jan Pietrzak
ZEBY POLSKA BYLA POLSKA -JAN PIETRZAK
Jan Pietrzak, a man of a working background, was considered to be the embodiment of the people’s common sense, a 'Polish Béranger' in Poland during the communist era. He debuted as a poet and satirist in the 1960s, and was one of the writers and actors for the popular Warsaw cabarets Hybrydy and Pod Egidą. Later, from 1975 to 1982, he edited the satirical weekly Szpilki, which was so beloved by Poles of that generation. Pietrzak was always interested in politics – so much so that after Poland regained its independence he announced his candidacy for the presidential elections of 1995, where he lost to Aleksander Kwaśniewski. However, the Pietrzak’s chief form of participation in political debates were his poems and songs – and in this arena, there were few who could compete with him.
The song Let Poland Be Poland, which is sometimes called the unofficial anthem of the Poles, was written by Pietrzak in 1976. The music was written by composer Włodzimierz Korcz. Since the reason for writing the song was the wave of strikes that rolled through the country in June of 1976, the song quickly became one of the symbols of the struggle against Communism. Responding to these events, Pietrzak, to bolster the national spirit of his compatriots, looked to their country’s past, where the Poles faced more than a few troubled times, but never yielded, calling back to their roots and traditions.
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When fate had us scattered
in many lands of different manners,
When foreign winds blew round
Foreign eagles on the banners,
There would erupt by the fires
an invincible, familiar song.
Let Poland, let Poland,
Let Poland be Poland!
Yet apart from the political tone, the song also had musical and poetic merits, for which the song Let Poland be Poland won the grand prize at the Festival of Polish Song in Opole in 1981. The composition’s guarantee of success was that it reminded Poles of a simple and important truth – to be free, you need to keep being yourself.
The song gained worldwide fame with its use on the American television show Let Poland Be Poland in January 1982, which was a collection of global cultural figures performing to show their support of Solidarity. The show, in which celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Paul McCartney took part, was seen by 185 million people in 50 countries around the world.
'Television' by Salon Niezależnych
Salon Niezależnych - Telewizja 
A song about television was one of most popular and amusing creations of the cabaret-trio Salon Niezależnych (Salon of Independents), which was composed of Jacek Kleyff, Janusz Wiess, and Michał Tarkowski. The trio’s first performance as this group took place in December 1970 – in the midst of labour unrest in northern Poland.
Kleyff, Wiess, and Tarkowski made a wonderful combination – all three had sharp tongues, they weren’t afraid of anything, and they did not keep their words in their pockets. The musical shows of Salon Niezależnych, full of absurd and venomous humour, sharply criticised the Polish government of the Gierek era. The group gained its popularity in 1970s Poland with numerous performances in then-popular cabarets, which were much more than just musical theatres, where theatrical performances and concerts were put on – it was a way of life, a way of thinking and relating to the surrounding reality. But problems came along with their popularity – in 1976, Salon Niezależnych was banned from performing.
Officially, this was because Jacek Kleyff signed a letter against the introduction of an article into the Polish constitution the leading and guiding roles of the Communist Party. Kleyff was forbidden from both performing and printing materials. Because of problems with censors the trio’s activity gradually diminished to nothing, and Kleyff ultimately left the musical underground.
The song Television, written in 1972, ridiculed the televised propaganda of the day, which the leadership of the Communist regime shamelessly fed to the population. The ludicrous television shows, which the song is commenting on, are interspersed with instruction on how to correctly spread margarine onto bread (because there was no butter in the stores).
It was shown on television
And schoolkids picked up before long
How out in Asia you can sew
A pig’s head right onto a dog.
Uncle’s making paper cut-outs,
The dog has found the still in time,
And the TV broadcast’s showing
The right technique for spreading jam. (...)
A proper citizen is watching
Days and hours go by swiftly
While beside him on the sofa
Lounges his whole family.
His mother from the television,
Children from the papers too,
A wife from off the radio,
And he himself – straight from the news.
Trans. Sean G. Bye
And although now butter is readily available, the nature of television has not changed much in more than forty years – just turn on the TV to see. Or rather, don’t turn it on.
'My Litany' by Leszek Wójtowicz
Moja Litania - Leszek Wojtowicz
Leszek Wójtowicz – poet, composer, guitarist, and member of the well-known Kraków cabaret Piwnica pod Baranami – worked on his song My Litany for three months. 'And all because', he later admitted, 'such songs are only written once in a lifetime. And, I won’t feign any false modesty, I’ll say it directly – I knew that I was writing something very important'.
Wójtowicz began working with Piwnica pod Baranami at the beginning of the 1980s (and is now one of its hosts). Before this, he was a member of the 'Workshop' (Pracownia) poetry group, composing songs for the poems of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska and Andrzej Bursa. He wrote My Litany in 1980, when thanks to the efforts of Solidarity, freedom swept through Poland, although briefly. The premier of the song happened in December of the same year at Piwnica pod Baranami, and half a year later, it was awarded a prize at the Festival of Polish Song in Opole.
The song My Litany expressed hope for democratic changes in Poland and was imbued with true, but not showy patriotism:
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How many times will you pull a fast one
What dead end will you lead me to
How many times will you nip my fingers
Until my hand can reach the door
To open up the way to your heart
That’s had so many attacks by now
No one wakes up anymore
Shots are fired in your honour
I don’t want you to be great at all
Armed to the teeth from sea to sea
And I don’t want them to look at you
As a gift from God the almighty
I want a home inside your borders
With no tenants who pound the walls
When someone sings a little louder
About what we all already know.
Trans. Sean G. Bye
Later Wójtowicz ironically noted that thanks to this song he still feels like a 'guardian of democracy'. Recently he said in one interview, how in 2009, after a concert at “Piwnica pod baranami”, a certain youth came up to him with his beautiful bride in an embrace and thanked him for the songs, but especially for My Litany, adding: 'Listening to it, I realided how much you hate those in power now'. Wójtowicz had to explain to the young listener that the song was written 29 years earlier.
'Ballad of Highway E-7' by Jan Krzysztof Kelus
Ballada o szosie e7 - Jan Krzysztof Kelus
The celebrated Polish bard Jan Krzysztof Kelus had a solid experience of resistance even before the appearance of Solidarity. In March 1968, while a graduate student at Warsaw University, he sided with the rebelling students. And a year later he was involved in the so-called 'Mountaineers Trial' (sprawa taterników), when several young people were arrested and convicted of smuggling the magazine “Culture” and the publication “The Literary Institute” into Poland. The members of this group were called “mountaineers” because they illegally transported forbidden publications across the Polish-Czechoslovakian border in the Tatras.
Kelus was the first person in Poland to produce samizdat (more precisely, published-by-him-himself) audio cassettes, going down in history as a pioneer of Polish musical samizdat. He composed songs in the style of the American bards Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He wrote long ballads, the most famous of which is Belomorkanal Cigarettes. Kelus had a very recognizable, almost emotionless manner, never breaking into a shouting tone, a calm and a bit detached voice, as if tired from the injustice and pain of the world. But behind this external impassivity can be felt an enormous internal strength.
Ballad of Highway E-7 tells about the organized by the campaign of the Workers’ Defense Committee, with which Kelus actively cooperated, to aid the oppressed workers of Radom, who had participated in massive riots in the summer of 1976. Highway E-7 is the road from Warsaw to Radom, by which opposition activists would often travel at that time.
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I saw Red Radom when it was blue
Like bruises on a beaten back
Highway E7, a muddy station
A few addresses, a little cash (…)
Driving at night on different highways
I know that Radom has not forgotten
As the wipers sweep my windscreen
Of rain that falls in gentle droplets.
Trans. Sean G Bye.
'I Love Freedom' by Chłopcy z Placu Broni
Chłopcy z Placu Broni - Kocham wolność
The band Chłopcy z Placu Broni (The Arsenal Square Boys, also the name of a famous Polish book about wartime) were heroes of the new independent Poland. The group first appeared in Kraków in 1987 and got its name from the novel of the same name by Hungarian author Ferenc Molnár (the English translation of this book is called The Paul Street Boys). The band’s founder was singer and guitarist Bogdan Łyszkiewicz, who was known as the 'Polish John Lennon' because of his love of The Beatles music and his resemblance to the leader of the Fab Four. In the year 2000, Łyszkiewicz tragically died in a car accident and the band broke up.
The song I Love Freedom was written for the band’s debut album O! Ela, which came out in 1990.
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I can think so little / And I don’t mean much
I’ve heard so little / And I can’t do much
Freedom, I love and understand it / Freedom, I can’t give it up
Freedom, I love and understand it / Freedom, I can’t give it up
Trans. Sean G. Bye
It so happened that this simple composition unexpectedly was actualized in our own time, finding in today’s Poland a new, dramatic meaning. On 19th October 2017, 54-year-old Kraków resident Piotr Szczęsny as a sign of protest against the policies of the government set himself on fire in Warsaw’s Plac Defilad outside the Palace of Culture and Science. As eyewitnesses recall, Szczęsny set up a loudspeaker, put on the song I Love Freedom by Chłopcy z Placu Broni, distributed leaflets and, declaring his disagreement with the policies of the powers that be, poured flammable liquid on himself and set himself on fire. Passers-by were able to extinguish the flames, but after several days Szczęsny died in the hospital from his burns. Now Varsonians bring candles to the site of his desperate action.
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'Freedom' by Marek Grechuta
Wolność - Marek Grechuta
The renowned Polish singer, poet and composer Marek Grechuta, who was one of the pioneers of the 'sung poetry' genre and was incredibly beloved by Polish listeners even from the beginning of the 1970s, has no need for special presentation.
In 1994, he recorded his concept album 10 Important Words, each song on which is dedicated to one of significant categories of human life – the songs have the names Homeland, Love, Solidarity, Authority, and of course, Freedom. The musician himself called this record 'the ten commandments of the modern man'.
Freedom, according to Marek Grechuta, is something like a diamond that still needs to be polished: it is not an end in itself, but a means of accomplishing a completely new spiritual condition. But that’s why freedom is so necessary to each of us. The only thing possibly more important that freedom is love – and it is no coincidence that the album ends with the song Miłość (Love). But on the other hand – what is love without freedom?
Freedom – it is the brightest star,
A sunbeam through the dark, it’s hope
Freedom is a fiddle whose melody
Can bring to life a masterpiece
But when a bad musician plays
All you’ll hear is hiss, sob, scrape
For freedom means to live among the wise
See good and happiness in their eyes
Freedom means amid life’s hills and fogs
Getting through every forest, over every wall.
Trans. Sean G. Bye
Jan Krzysztof Kelus
Originally written in Russian, translated by KA, 2019