Polish songbook

The Poles have always been a nation fond of singing. Singing was an indispensable part of the feasts and accompanied their most dramatic moments of the history. Songs described the fortunes and misfortunes of the villagers, encouraged soldiers for fighting and sustained the nation’s spirits during the partition, when Poland was absent on the political map of the world. During the People’s Republic of Poland songs served for propaganda purposes or were an expression of opposition against the socialist system.

 Polish songbook can be divided into multiple sections.

HISTORICAL PATRIOTIC SONGS

The oldest Polish song is originating in the 13th century Bogurodzica (Mother of God), the oldest recorded Polish religious song and the oldest surviving Polish poetic text ever. In the second half of the 16th century it acted as the national anthem and was performed by knighthood before big battles, including the the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 and Chocim in 1621.

              Bogurodzica”, Józef Brandt          

Over the following centuries none of the songs has obtained the rank of the national anthem, although in 1797 a song had been composed, which in 1927 became the Polish national anthem – Dąbrowski’s Mazurka. It was originally a song of the Polish Legions in Italy (military ally for Napoleon Bonaparte), which were created and commanded by General Jan Henryk Dabrowski. The song expresses the hope for freedom connected with Bonaparte military actions, who “gave the Poles a pattern of how to win”, but also refers to the victorious battles of hetman Stephen Czarniecki and General Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

  Manuscript of the antherm and  “Polish legions in Italy” by Józef Peszka       

  sport version

Another important song was created in 1816. It was a religious song Boże, coś Polskę (God Save Poland), which after gaining independence by Poland in 1918 competed with “Dabrowski’s Mazurka” for the role of the national anthem. It was a song composed in honor of Tsar Alexander I, on the occasion of assuming by him the function of the king of the Polish Kingdom and the original title was “God save the King”. After changing the text it has become a patriotic song. Depending on the situation “God save Poland” had following changes in text:  “Our homeland deign to come back to us, O Lord” (partitions), “Lord, bless our homeland free” (after 1918) or “Homeland free deign to come back to us O Lord” (the Nazi occupation and communist regime). The song is performed in churches. On the photo above: text of the song published in the newspaper “Gazeta Warszawska”.

Another contender for the role of the national anthem was Rota from 1910 year – the song written by the poetess Mary Konopnicka, which encouraged the Poles from the Prussian part of the partited land to resist germanization and was turned against Germany. (“Rota” means words of the oath). It was publicly performed for the first time on July 15, 1910, during the unveiling of the Grunwald Monument in Cracow, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the victory in the Battle of Grunwald. It was sung during the Wielkopolska Uprising (1918) and the Silesian Uprisings (1919-1921). The song begins as follows:

 “We will not abandon the land of our folk, We will not let our language be buried…”

“Rota” became popular again in 80. of the 20th century with some text changes, replacing bad Germans by bad Russians.

Informal anthem of the anti-socialist opposition was in 80. the song Mury (Walls) by Jacek Kaczmarski, who wrote words to a melody of Lluis Llacha “L’Etaca”. Its words talk about walls which will collapse and bury the old world, and although the ending was pessimistic (the walls go up, and the chains would not fall off), the song became the anthem of Solidarity. “Mury” was (and still is) a mandatory campfire song.

Pull the bars from the walls! / Loose the chains, break the whip! / And the walls will fall, fall, fall / And will bury the old world!”

MILITARY SONGS

One of the oldest Polish military songs is Pieśń o żołnierzu tułaczu (The Song of a Wandering Soldier), which text comes from the 16th century. Words describe hard life of a soldier who wanders through the forest ragged and hungry.

Polish soldiers from 17th century, Jan Matejko

Another soldier’s song of this period is very popular in the 17th Duma rycerska (The pride of knights). “What could be more beautiful than a chivalrous man?”  — say words of this song.

Most military songs are associated with uhlans (lancers), so close to all Polish hearts. Uhlans were Polish light cavalry typicaly armed with lances, sabers and pistols. The first uhlan regiments were created in the early 18th century. Many regiments of uhlan cavalry were created in the interwar period. On paintings they are often shown at a rural landscape with village maidens, like in the song Przybyli ułani (Uhlans  have arrived), in which the cavalry clatter to the window of a beautiful girl, asking her for admittance and water for horses. In Hej hej ułani (Hi hi uhlans) it is said that many maidens and married women will follow the lancers. These and other songs are still popular component of a festive singing. On the pic: “The lancer and the maid” by Wojciech Kossak.

A regular part of the repertoire of older generations of Poles are other military songs from before World War II, like sentimental O mój rozmarynie (Oh my rosemary), about a young man spurned by a girl, so he enlists in… of course, the lancers.

WAR SONGS

Rich repertoire of military songs have evolved from the  World War II era. They can be divided into partisan and insurgent song, songs of Polish Armed Forces created in the USSR and the Armed Forces in the West.

Popular partisan song Dziś do ciebie przyjść nie mogę (Today I cannot come to you) tells about the partisan, who tells his girl that he can not visit her because is awaited by his colleagues in the partisan unit.A kind of anthem is a partisan song Rozszumiały się wierzby płaczące (Rustling crying willows), in which soldier asks the girl not to cry, because the guerilla life is not bad and grenades make music to dance by. Photo: partizans from Homeland Army (Armia Krajowa).

The flagship song of the Polish armed forces created in the USSR is Oka. The title refers to the Russian River Oka, over which, in the village Sielce, The Polish 1st Tadeusz Kosciuszko Infantry Division was formed in 1943. Soldiers sing that Oka is beautiful river but the most beautiful is Polish Vistula.

Polish Armed Forces in the West had their own song – Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino (Red flowers on Monte Cassino), praising heroism of soldiers of the Second Polish Corps fighting on the famous Italian hill.  That song was written and composed in the night of May 17/18, 1944, a few hours before the capturing of the monastery. Its words explain, why Monte Cassino poppy flowers were so red – because they drank Polish blood. As the song praises of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, was unwelcome by the communist authorities.

Popular song “Red flowers at Monte Cassino” first time performed to Polish soldiers in Italy.

Many songs accompanied insurgents during the Warsaw Uprising (1944). One of the most popular was Pałacyk Michla The( palace Michl),  which says that the insurgents have vises against German tigers (vis was a Polish military pistol 35, considered one of the best military guns in the world). Hej chłopcy, bagnet na broń (Hey boys, bayonet on the gun) – the title speaks for itself.

 FOLK SONGS

Themes of Polish folk songs cover all aspects of daily human life: love,  work, play and rituals. Accordingly, they are divided into ritual songs (wedding, harvest), moral songs (love, flirt, soldier’s), chants accompanying dance melodies, ballads and religious songs. For centuries they were handed down orally from generation to generation, without notation or verbal. Many of them were saved by ethnographer Oscar Kolberg, who in the 19thcentury began the process of fixing these songs in writing. Traditional Polish folk song are mainly sung with a solo  voiceone voice singing; polyphony meets only in Podhale and Pieniny mountains.

  Folk band uit Niżany, www.ludowakapela.cba.pl

Here are a few songs performed by authentic folk bands:

 Grodziszczoki, a folk band from Grodzisk Dolny

Zbojnicki – Hej Cyrwono – performed by the folk band Galicow (Tatry Highlanders)

Songs and dances are also performed by professional national song and dance ensembles. The most important are Mazovia (Mazowsze) and Silesia (Śląsk).

 Gęsi za wodą (Goose on the water) by National Folk Ensamble „Mazovia”

Polish folk songs often inspire by many Polish folk artists or bands. Here is the traditional folk song Dwa serduszka (Two hearts), by Anna Maria Jopek.

Fantastic results in fostering a Polish folk music and songs (mainly from Mazovia) obtain Kapela ze wsi Warszawa – the Warsaw Village Band, which performs the music in an avantgarde way. The band plays traditional folk instruments such as violin, dulcimer, baraban, cello, hurdy-gurdy and in songs uses traditional techniques of singing (the band members took lessons from authentic folk musicians). The “Warsaw Village Band” also inserts folk music from other countries to their compositions. Here are 2 of their performances: Hej zagrajcie muzykanty (Let’s play musicians) & U mojej matecki (At my mother’s).

The most attractive for performers are very energetic highland songs. Highland folk can be successively mixed with… reggae, what has been proved by ensamble Trebunie Tutki, which invited for common performance reggae ensemble the Twinkle Brothers: W murowanej piwnicy (In the brick basement).

Folk songs – those authentic as well those pseudo authentic – are a regular element of the Polish festive repertoire.

URBAN SONGS

Urban folk art mainly represents pre-war Warsaw and Lvov songs. Warsaw street songs, mostly of a ballad type, were sung by representatives of the lumpen proletariat (working law class residents of Czerniakow and Wola suburbs), often petty criminals. (Although these individuals were at odds with the law, they possessed their own, peculiar code of behavior, which a chief value was the honor.) Many of these songs were written in prison. Those urban folk ballads tell the stories of a common day life, betrayals, dintojra (bloody revenge), lovers, condemnetion and so on. The indispensable instruments for street bands  were the mandolins and the accordions, and performers had to wear a plaid jacket, baseball cap and a scarf. After the WW II these songs were highly popularized by pre-war urban hero Stanislaw Grzesiuk (on the pic), a very interesting person who deserves a separate attention.

Bal na Gnojnej (The party on the Gnojna Street) – Stanisław Grzesiuk

After WW II Warsaw urban singing has been continued and is now performed by various bands, such as Orchestra from the Chmielna Street, Czerniakowska Band or by individual artists, which compose their new repertoire.

 Sztajerek from Targówek by Czerniakowska Band

The most popular songs are also performed in various and modern way, like Komu dzwonią (To whom the bell rings) by Maciej Maleńczuk & Wojciech Waglewski.

The song is an anthem for an old drunk, who says in the moment of his death that a bell won’t be ringing for him coz he is not worth it.

Also Lviv, which until 1939 belonged to Poland, was famous for its urban songs. They were sung in a very distinctive, easily recognizable accent, and were popularized before the war (and after the war) by duo Tońcio and Szczepcio, a Lviv counterpart to Warsaw lumpen proletariat. After the war folk songs from Lvov were banned in Poland for political reasons (the town was incorporated into the USSR), but survived in people’s memory. Some of them still classic belong to a Polish festive repertoire. In the example below, in Tylko we Lwowie (Only in Lvov) song from the movie ”Vagrants” (1939), Szczepcio and Tońcio declare that they will never abandon Lvov coz they feel the best there. But they did, forever, just after the outbreak of the war, and never returned, as many other people. Photo: Szczepcio and Tońcio in “Vagrants”.

DISCO POLO

The “Polish songbook” cannot miss – we like it or not – a highly popular “disco polo” music, which is equivalent to “Italo disco” and similar genres. This very specific, urban folk music is presented today by the populist environments as a truly Polish, most fully expressing the needs (and tastes) of the common people. It is also important that it is anti-elitist. A very ludic disco polo is the most popular in the eastern, rural Poland (Białystok, Podlasie) and among poorly educated people. This type of music is characterized by a very simple melodic line (rhythm 2/4 or 4/4), performed to the accompaniment of a synthesizer or a keyboard.

Akcent ensamble with Zenon Martyniuk, the present “King of disco polo” (left) / picture by Karol007

Unsophisticated, almost kitschy lyrics talk generally about love and sweethearts, encourage fun, often have an erotic context.

Here is an example of the great hit from 1994 r. Panties in dots, performed by the Bayer Full:

Panties in dots  wo ho, ho, ho
blue ribbons wo, ho, ho, ho
white bra   wo, ho, ho, ho
tiny button wo, ho, ho, ho
This is the uniform of our ladies
With lace and tulle, I say to you.

more examples:

She dances for me performed by Weekend (2012)

I adore  her.
She is here.
and dances for me ’cause she knows it well that I will grab her
And I will hide her at the bottom of the heart.

Bałkanica, performed by  Piersi

There will be! There will be fun!
It will happen!
And the night will be short again.
It will be loud, it will be joyful
Together we’ll dance the whole night through. 

Disco Polo was born in the 90s and was called initially “music from the pavement” (as audio cassettes were sold directly on the street) and became extremely popular (even had its radio and TV programs in commercial stations, like Disco Polo Live). Less popular in early 2000s, is currently undergoing a renaissance. The music is of “love or hate” kind, by some it is considered (rightly) to be a symbol of bad taste. But it is necessary to admit, however, that disco polo like no other genre affirms life and encourages for fun. And most Poles have a great fun with this music, whether at concerts or discos, or at weddings.

FESTIVE REPERTOIRE

Poles have always liked singing during parties and festivities. The festive repertoire is very rich and the songs come from all categories presented above (patriotic songs, military, folk, urban). Each birthday party starts with the song Sto lat ([We wish you] A hundred years) which is a Polish counterpart to famous “Happy Birthday”. Often performed “party” song is Pije Kuba do Jakuba (Cuba salutes to Jacob) whose pedigree goes back to the 18th or maybe even 17th century. The words of the song encourages for drinking in a very special way: “Cuba salutes to Jacob, Jacob salutes to Michael, you drink, I drink, drinks the whole company and who doesn’t, will be placed among two sticks”. Interestingly, the song recommends moderation in drinking.

Sometimes Polish festive songs have crossed international boundaries, as evidenced by the success of the Polish-Ukrainian song Ukraina (also known as Hej sokoły), which was written in the 19th by the Polish-Ukrainian poet and composer Thomas Padura. “Hey falcons” expresses love and longing for Ukraine (which some territories belonged once, up to WWII, to Poland). According to the nationality of a singer, the hero of the song is a Polish lancer or a Cossack.

In the souls of the Poles there is also a longing for a Gipsy romanticism – the song My Cyganie (We, Gypsy people) is an indispensable element of every campfire or party.

Here is a set of festive songs performed on a real wedding. This is how Poles have fun!

CHRISTMAS CAROLS

Polish Christmas carols are the most beautiful in the world. The oldest carol comes from 1424 year. The increase in popularity of the species occurred at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the carols have a polonaise tune (traditional Polish dance), such as Bóg się rodzi (God is born) or W żłobie leży (Lying in a manger), which melody originates in a coronation Polonaise of the King Wladysław IV. While some of the carols announce in the lofty spirit the birth of a Christ, there are also many beautiful lullabies, while others are sung in a very lively note. They are performed by folk ensembles, choirs and singers in more or less traditional way.

Wśród nocnej ciszy (In the silence of the night) by Golec uOrkiestra

They are sung even by the biggest opera singers…

Lulajże Jezuniu (Hush little Jesus) by Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo

… but the most beautiful ones are performed by highland folk ensembles!

Malućki malućki (Baby, baby), performed by Little Trebunie Tutki

Read also: Polish carols

 THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ROCK SONG

The most important Polish rock song is Autobiografia (Autobiography) by Perfect, which tells a tale of unfulfilled life and lost dreams of a boy who wanted to make a great stage career. The song uses autobiographical motifs of its creators; it also shows a slice of life in socialist Poland.

AUTOBIOGRAFIA

I was ten at the time

When the world has heard of him first,

We had a club in my basement.

A buddy of mine brought a radio

I heard “Blue suede shoes”,

and I couldn’t sleep that night.

The wind of change was blowing,

There was amnesty,

You could laugh again.

The buzz of cafes

Was invaded by jazz like tornado

So I wanted to play too…

My father, God knows where,

Was setting open hearth furnaces,

A nail came off my finger.

I turned the neck of my guitar to sawdust,

I played millions of silly songs,

And found out what sex was about.

The sound postcard craze*,

Everyone had hundreds of those,

Instead of a new pair of jeans.

And on Saturday nights,

                            
There was radio Luxemburg,

free house and booze,

Life was good!

There were three of us

Each of different blood

But united with one goal in mind

In a few years,

To have the world at our feet,

To possess everything.

A gulp of cheap wine,

And discussions till the morning

Impatient were our souls,

One got smacked in the face,

Another would cry, Things happened.

She was the reason of our quarrel

Had a face of Pola Raksa**

Than everyone would die for.

One summer night

I took a blanket out to the roof

And I got what I wanted.

She told me there might be problems

I told her I had an exam coming.

She turned the gas knobs on

Nobody came to knock in time,

I was alone again, like a dog.

Hundreds of various parts to play

That would quench my pain

Life has taught me.

Lying flat in bed

I wasted my time

The best time of my life.

For cheap cheers in bars

The klezmer made me play,

Things I’m still ashamed of.

One day,

 I realized that

 I am useless.

Listen to me!

 I have defeated myself,

 Finally my dream has come true,

 Crowds of thousands

 Drink words from my lips,

 They love me.

A fan in a hotel

 Says: “I’ve got that on tape,

 The moment they start to sing!”

 I open the door

 And speak no more

 To four walls…

Renata Głuszek

published: 10 August, 2012 / update 5 February 2017

* In Poland during the communist period foreign recordings were not available.
Hits could you just get on audio postcards on which the songs were recorded in a very poor quality. Hits could be found on audio postcards but they were inferior quality.

**Pola Raksa – a popular Polish actress

 Photo: Marcin Kaniak, Wikipedia, Karol007, www.ludowakapela.cba.pl