How Polands Folk Music was saved

In the 1950s, 303 researchers travelled through Poland and gathered over 46,000 recordings of folk music. It was one of the largest campaigns of its kind in Poland.

Near the start of Paweł Pawlikowski‘s Oscar-nominated movie Cold War, two of the characters spend time exploring the countryside, recording village musicians. These scenes weren’t a figment of the director’s imagination. In one, we see the pair field-recording some bagpipers from Wielkopolska (in fact, it’s the band Manugi – you can find profiles of the other bands take took part in the film on the Fundacja Muzyka Zakorzeniona‘s website). The story behind the real-life events that inspired these scenes also begins with the low and raw sound of bagpipes and the kozioł (a Polish version of the bagpipe).

A Rescue Mission

It’s 1934. Two young ethnomusicologists, Jadwiga Pietruszyńska and Marian Sobieski (they would marry two years later), travel around Wielkopolska to ‘catch folk songs red-handed’ and ‘hunt for bagpipers’:

We grabbed a phonograph, hopped on our bikes […] and began our five-week journey.

They travelled over 1,200 km and brought hundreds of recordings back home. Years later, they still vividly remembered this adventure:

Wax cylinders, Edison’s phonograph, first recordings… oh, we were so proud of our recording of the great bagpiper from Wielkopolska, Michał Kulawiak from Michorzew, who used to play on the streets and backyards in Poznań – it was such a good piece of work, the sound was really clear… To be honest, when you compare it with contemporary tapes, the quality was utterly poor… Well, at least back then you couldn’t compare it to anything else in Poland.

They were working for the Regional Phonographic Archive in Poznań, established in 1930 by professor Łucjan Kamieński. The Central Phonographic Archive in Warsaw also conducts research during this period, studying the folk music of central and eastern Poland.

It’s 1945. The Sobieskis, displaced from Poznań during the war, return to their hometown. They discover that all their pre-war work has disappeared. Even today, it still isn’t clear whether the tapes were intentionally destroyed by German occupiers or smuggled away. The Central Phonographic Archive in the National Library was destroyed by flamethrowers after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising. Around 24,000 recordings disappeared. Few pre-war gramophone recordings with folk music survived these tragic events.

The couple were desperate to rebuild the archive on their own. In August 1945, they hopped on their bikes, loaded up with self-made equipment. They went to familiar villages to see whether the local musicians had survived the war and whether they still had their instruments – the German occupiers had destroyed many kozły (n.b. plural of kozioł), as they considered them an inherently Polish instrument. It turned out that many musicians hid their instruments in attics, buried them or submerged them in wells. Jadwiga and Marian also knew that back in the 1930s, there were musicians in the Lubusz Land region to the west who played similar music on the kozioł. But at the time, they could not get permission to conduct field research in the Reich (since traditionally Lubusz crossed the borders of Germany and Poland), so they decided to catch up after the war. They established the Western Phonographic Archive, and by 1947 they already had over 450 recordings on Decelith flexi-discs.

Riding a bike with 40kg of apparatus is a truly gruesome task, so they invited many musicians to Poznań. But they wanted to record sounds in their natural habitat, not in the studio. They believed ‘authenticity has documentary value’.

They filed for subsidies and lobbied to organise a nationwide campaign to collect folk music. They managed to get a car: a musty Citroën previously used by the army on the African front. They came across instruments described by 19th-century ethnographers, which were considered extinct in the 1950s – mazanki (a small violin) and a type of kozioł used during wedding ceremonies.

Back in the middle of the 19th century, the famed Polish ethnographer Oskar Kolberg stated that traditional music was on the verge of extinction. After the war, the situation became even worse. As already mentioned, most of the archives burned down and many musicians died. Apart from that, there was a massive wave of migration – many villages became deserted, as people chose to live and work in cities.

Finally, the couple received the funding they needed from the authorities. In 1950, they began a campaign called Akcja Zbierania Fokloru Muzycznego (Action to Collect Folk Music). It was the very last moment they could do it: the social transformation, the growing popularity of the radio, and popular ‘polished’ versions of folklore would soon irreversibly change the music of the Polish countryside.

Two important things happened before the beginning of the research. In May 1949, Warsaw hosted the Folk Music Festival. Over 1,500 musicians came to the capital to perform during this three-week event, organised by the Ministry of Culture and Polish Radio. Even Poland’s president, Bolesław Bierut, attended the final concert. In the words of Sobieski:

Before, no one would even think of introducing folk music performed by people from the countryside on stage, let alone a stage in Warsaw, where it’s on par with the symphony orchestra […]. There were some ‘concerts’ of that kind, […] but folk music was performed by professional musicians dressed in traditional clothes made by a tailor from Warsaw. Sometimes, folk music was simply played by professional musicians in concert halls or philharmonics.

He also wrote about pre-war folklore, which he considered artificial and idealised. And the popularity of folklore was about to soar. In 1948, The State Folk Group of Song and Dance ‘Mazowsze’ was created. Its creators were inspired by interwar song and dance ensembles, which adapted folk music for the stage. However, Mazowsze added a socialist message to the whole idea.

It would seem that Polish folk music was bound to flourish under the communist regime. According to Bierut, folklore was the most important element of art. But the authorities were actually interested in a polished, tamed version of folklore, dressed up in an appropriate costume and decorated with an appropriate political message. This type of folklore was to attract the masses. The countryside needed a new repertoire. Songbooks, such as the 1954 Budujemy Nową Wieś: Piosenki na Głos z Akordeonem (editor’s translation: The New Face of the Countryside: Songs for Accordion and Voice) were published. At the same time, peasant culture was considered backward and there were voices in the official discourse saying things like:

Beside the huge richness and diversity of folk songs, we also find many treacherous weeds smuggled in via manors and the Church.

At the time, the leading musicologist of social realism, Zofia Lissa, advocated ‘blurring the lines between the folk and artistic movements’.

The Sobieskis were mortified. Marian was desperate to create a ‘folklore sanctuary where tradition still stands strong, […] no amateur music movements can enter these places at least until the recordings are gathered’.

Flashes Of Light & Dark Out On The Terrain

Of course, local musicians weren’t isolated from culture. Their repertoire and instruments changed. Brass instruments were a remnant of the military bands of World War I. In the Interwar period and during World War II, the accordion gained momentum in the countryside and became one of the most frequently-used instruments by village musicians.

The Sobieskis gathered works that were perceived well by their state sponsors (e.g. songs of rebellion), but they also recorded religious songs and carols, which were less welcome. They were also interested in the folklore of the labour force, of the suburbs. Finally, they gathered newer pieces, such as songs created by partisans or forced labourers in the Reich; songs about introducing electricity to the countryside, co-operative movements and the unification of the Communist Party. Illiteracy was still widespread and there were no radios in villages, so songs were still an important medium of information. In his book The Last Village MusiciansAndrzej Bieńkowski included a story about how one Polish village learned about the Hiroshima bombings from a wandering elderly bard.

The research was proving that musical traditions were still alive and that they were still being passed from generation to generation. In the words of Jacek Jackowski from the Institute of Art at the Polish Academy of Sciences:

Researchers found out that some songs examined by Kolberg in the 19th century didn’t change at all. Kolberg wrote down the graphic notation, but thanks to the recordings, the sounds and performing techniques were brought back to life. It will never be possible to write down these experiences on paper.

When the song of an old man was recorded in the 1950s, it was entirely possible that Oskar Kolberg recorded the same song from the lips of that man’s father or grandfather. These sorts of recordings can end up being intergenerational links, although we will never know for sure, as Kolberg didn’t record personal information.

The oldest performer was 104 years old, while the youngest was 3. Researchers were divided into seven regional crews. The campaign was supported by Polish Radio, which provided production trucks. The first stage of the research was led by students and other young people. They asked around for famous local bands, and searched for grandmas who knew a lot of traditional songs. Jadwiga Sobieska instructed the researchers:

You constantly have to search, ask questions and talk with people. You have to stop by whenever you see a granny by a fence, people on the field or older children.

Then, another group of researchers came and examined the situation, chose the musical pieces and recorded performances. The most exciting part was usually the arrival of the production truck:

People were delighted and curious to see us, they thought we were a circus troupe, cinema, or even a boxing team. When we arrived in a village, children would run towards us, shouting ‘No matter the cost, we’re going!’ (they thought we were a circus show). An hour or so later, we already had our first volunteers ready at the microphone.

They recorded in cottages, at rectories (although some singers refused to perform some pieces in church, such as courtship serenades), in schools, and outside: by the roads or next to grazing cattle.

Usually, they began their sessions in the evenings, when people came back home from the fields. Until the late hours, ‘the cottage was filled with supporters.’ Singers and bands fought for the attention of researchers. As all Polish wedding musicians know, drinkers make the best singers. In effect, the researchers constantly had to provide refreshments for the performers.

Unfortunately, musical abilities flourish in a vivacious atmosphere. […] The musicians are usually well-acquainted with the cult of Dionysus and they either play great when inebriated (then our contribution pays off) or they can’t even find the right sounds, which destroys all of our hard work. In such moments, we immediately have to take charge of the situation and interrupt their little concerts (due to things such as technical issues). It’s especially important because the room is usually filled with advisers and supporters, whose ‘co-operation’ boils down to drinking or encouraging others to do so. Most often these situations come to the point where the gathered men compete with each other to perform the most explicit song possible […].

Why go to all this trouble? A lot of the people they encountered weren’t sure:

During our conversations, performers sometimes ask straightforward questions: ‘Why are you even doing it? Is it worth travelling around and collecting such stupid things?’ We have to explain that old songs are beautiful, that we must maintain them, that young people dance American foxtrots, and that we have more beautiful dances, […] finally that the state, the government wants folk songs to be revived again and that’s why we were told to collect these songs, because we know a lot about it, and just like how people in the village have their jobs, this is our job.

Not only did the materials serve researchers, but they were also meant to spark interest in folk music among the general population. As Jacek Jackowski explains:

The goal was to document the music and preserve it for scientific research. What’s more, it became obvious that in a time of dynamic social change, we needed generational continuity in the repertoire. The recordings were to serve collective memory.

And the recordings weren’t the final stage – they also had to gather materials for further research. They had to know who taught the performers to play, whether they were professional musicians or if they just played for fun. They also asked whether they used to work abroad, whether they were in the army, and what their religious beliefs were (all denominations have their own music traditions). Apart from that, the researchers had to know who lived in a particular village and where the inhabitants came from.

The instructions for the researchers published by Jadwiga and Marian Sobieski are equally extraordinary. It is a unique moral code for ethnographers and ethnomusicologists and an expression of profound respect towards the people ‘under examination’. Some good examples are:

  • Avoid official language, don’t shove notepads and pencils in their faces.
  • Talk in an appropriate friendly manner, but avoid being overly friendly.
  • Remember that the pace of life in the country differs from the one in the city and try to adapt.
  • Take off your hat when in front of churches, no matter what you believe in.
  • Remember not to resemble holidaymakers on the beach, cut back on sunbathing, applying creams, etc. Don’t use accessories that we consider normal, but that people from the country view as an extravagant and immoral whim.

The End Of The Folk Wave

The research campaign officially ended in 1954, but recordings were gathered during summer camps for another three years. However, the government cut off the funding and there was no political intention of continuing the project. Social realist composers considered folk music unworthy. They said that: ‘Before 1956 [editor’s note: the year of the Polish October, a political thaw in Poland after the deaths of Stalin and Bolesław Bierut], all composers wrote such pieces. After 1956, nobody does that anymore.’ The Warsaw Autumn music festival was inaugurated and composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki began popularising modern music. Song and dance groups performed at mass events, but the audience had had enough of them. Even people from the countryside were often ashamed of their old music and chose to dance the rumba or the twist instead.

Ludwik Bielawski, a Polish musicologist described the situation of researchers after 1956: ‘The years of enthusiasm towards folklore have irreversibly passed […] Central institutions are not interested in documenting folklore anymore.’ He also cited a letter from Jadwiga Sobieska: ‘I’m also writing on behalf of my husband, who is completely depressed. In short, the situation is tragic.’ Her husband wrote in a letter to Życie Warszawy (Life of Warsaw): ‘we’ve hit the rock bottom of some difficult years.’

The gathered materials continued to be examined over the next few decades. Today, the Institute of Arts at the Polish Academy of Sciences still works on anthologies of the collected songs and publishes them on CD. The recordings constitute an enormous part of the institute’s phonographic collection. Jacek Jackowski, the head of the department, says:

Jadwiga and Marian Sobieski soon realised that the enormous amount of gathered materials could not be immediately revised and published. Today, we are still in the process. The first anthology of the songs recorded in Kujawy was published in 1974, it took that many years to revise these pieces.

In the words of musicologist Piotr Dahlig:

At a time of the most intense centralisation of cultural politics and the imposed deletion of cultural differences, there was created, paradoxically, a testament to the abundance of Polish regional music.