Songs are an excellent way to practice a language and they can also be a very good guide to cultural and historical events in which they were created or refer to. They often reflect not just musical fashion, but they are a commentary on the political situation as well.
Let’s look at some examples – here’s a short history of modern Polish history in 5 songs.
Pałacyk Michla The Palace of Michler – it’s a song created on 4th August 1944 during Powstanie Warszawskie Rising ‘44. The title refers to a building which stood in ulica Wolska Wolska Street in Warsaw; at the beginning of the Rising, this elegant town house whose owner was Karol Michler, a local miller, was the location of heavy fighting between the insurgents from the ‘Parasol’ ‘Umbrella’ scout fighting group and the German forces. The author of the song was a young poet Józef “Ziutek” Szczepański, who used his lyrics to a melody of another popular song. Sadly, he was wounded in action on the 1st September ’44 and died a few days later. The lyrics talk about chłopcy od Parasola boys from the Parasol group and using visy VIS pistol against tygrysy tigers (common name given to German tanks used in Warsaw against the insurgents) and the scouting call Czuwaj wiaro! Be prepared! Wiara here means a close-knit group of people e.g. scouts.
Nim wstanie świt Before the dawn breaks – it’s a soundtrack to 1964 film directed by Jerzy Hoffman Prawo i pięść The Law and the Fist.
The film is set in 1945, just after World War II and tells the story of Andrzej Kenig, a former resistance fighter and a survivor of the German concentration camps. He travels with a small group of men to Ziemie Zachodnie Western Territories (also known as Ziemie Odzyskane Recovered Territories, the territory of pre-war Germany that became part of Poland after World War II) to secure property left by the retreating Germans. When they reach the abandoned town, Andrzej discovers that the other men from his group intend to loot rather than protect and he decides to fight alone against the gang. Because the film strongly refers to the motifs of the fight of good against evil and the lone fighter, it’s been often described as a Polish western.
The song describes the destruction of the war but also the hope of rebuilding and a fresh start. It was sung by Edmund Fetting, one of the most popular Polish actors.
Dziwny jest ten świat It is a strange world
It’s the best-known song by Czesław Niemen, probably the most talented Polish artist of the post war era. It was published in 1967, at the time when in Poland the communist regime loosened slightly its tight political grip and the international affairs were dominated by the Vietnam war and the Cold War. The song laments the world full of zło evil and nienawiść hatred, where człowiekiem gardzi człowiek man despises man, where ktoś słowem złym, zabija tak, jak nożem someone through a bad word kills just like with a knife. But Niemen believes that ludzi dobrej woli jest więcej there are more people of good will and świat nie zginie dzięki nim the world will not be destroyed thanks to them.
Fast forward to 1983. Although the immediate threat of nuclear war had diminished, life in Poland under the communist regime was hard. The hopes born out of the Solidarność Solidarity movement were quashed by General Jaruzelski’s regime. Poland was just emerging from the martial law imposed on 13th December 1981. One of the best Polish lyricists, Marek Dutkiewicz was reflecting on the world that surrounded him – millions of Poles forced to live in the betonowa wieś concrete village of massive housing estates; in tiny mieszkania flats where the sound resonates so much, that you can hear most intimate moments of human life; where the shortage of even basics make people stand in long queues, in Polish known as ogonek little tail, they feel fearful of the theft of what little they had – rygle, zamki zabezpieczą drzwi bolts and locks will protect the door and szklany judasz gości skontroluje glass spyhole will inspect any guests. Television was the only entertainment. When you walked around the estates in the evening, in thousands of windows you could see szyby niebieskie od telewizorów window glass radiating blue glow of TV sets. That’s the moment when Dutkiewicz wrote the lyrics of Szklana pogoda Glass weather sung by Lombard, one of the best Polish rock groups.
Six years later, in 1989, the communism as a political system in Central and Eastern Europe collapsed. Poland was slowly emerging from the shadow of the totalitarian regime. Life was changing. Exhausted, ridden with massive debts, Poland yet again had to rebuild itself. And it was not just in terms of the material world. The most challenging aspect was to rebuild what’s known as social capital – its intellectual potential, its cultural institutions free from communist influence, its economic and financial institutions, its military force (Poland by now was a member of the NATO and the EU) and to fully reveal and come to terms with its painful history of the last 70 odd years.
And then on 10th April 2010 the plane carrying the Polish government delegation including the President of Poland, his wife and the elite of the Polish public life, crashed just before landing at Smoleńsk in Russia. There were no survivors. 96 people perished. It’s no surprise that in the wake of the tragedy, the national trauma was reflected in songs such as Boso Barefoot by Zakopower. The song talks about the transient nature of life, where the possessions: nieużyty frak unused tuxedo, dziurawy płaszcz a coat with a hole, znoszony but worn out shoe are all left behind kiedy zawoła Bóg when God will call, pożegnam wszystkie te rzeczy I’ll say farewell to all these things and pójdę boso I’ll go barefoot.
Photo copyright ©Ula Malmon 2015
Polish tutor tips
- Listen to the songs and look at the lyrics at the same time.
- Pick up any words or phrases you know or can understand.
- Practice the pronunciation by singing along