An Anthem for Solidarity?

By Andrea Bohlman

I have known this song for a long time. I was singing it when I didn’t even know that singing would be my profession. Long, long before. For me, it was a song of hope, hope for something big, for a victory—I treated it like the song which accompanied the army divisions leaving Portugal in 1974. . . . This song is one of the best songs ever written. I have always sung it, I have always known it, but I could not imagine that somebody would ever ask me to sing and record it.[1]

When the prominent Polish rocker Kazik evoked the mythical transcendence of the “Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski” (“Ballada Janka Wiśniewskiego”) in a 2011 interview, he accorded it a kind of universal significance typically located in anthems prominent in social movements on the “right side” of history. Eternal and great, the song appears mysteriously ephemeral in Kazik’s tale of its personal meaning. In response to Kazik, I want to ground this anthem in history.

It is tempting to study music and social movements comparatively. To queue up a playlist of meaningful anthems that connect political engagement across time and place. Anthems that, across their roaring choruses, bear witness to the centrality of sound and song in effecting political change. Music’s inherent performativity, too, plays a role in the search for transcendent tunes that pervade cultural histories, such as “Ça ira,” the “Internationale,” or “We Shall Overcome.” What Benedict Anderson (2006: 145) calls unisonality–the communitas that emerges from singing with others in spirit and sound—can appear, at first listening, to represent unity and solidarity. Though the comparative study of music and social movements has undeniable potential to provide inspiration for the design of sound and protest and to reveal the transnational networks behind public politics in history, it participates in fixing the relationship between sound and political change, between individual activists and their musical utterances.

This essay is an attempt to know one song well. I resist the temptation to let one song stand for a movement’s ideas, energy, community, and legacy. Instead, the particularities of one song resist Kazik’s conferral of transcendence, revealing the power of the local as it shaped efforts of political change. The cultural history of the “Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski” tells the story of one place and its interface with a particular movement: the Polish opposition to state socialism in the 1970s and 80s, sometimes glossed as the Solidarity (Solidarność) movement, both then and now. While the transnational ambitions of and significance for the series of strikes along the Baltic Coast of Poland in August 1980 are inextricable from its successful formation of the Solidarity Trade Union, the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain, this song reminds us how important local landmarks and histories shape the emergent history created through public popular dissent.

Chłopcy z Grabówka, chłopcy z Chylonii,

Dzisiaj milicja użyła broni.

Dzielnieśmy stali i celnie rzucali:

Janek Wiśniewski padł.

Boys from Grabówek, boys from Chylonia,

The militia used force today.

We bravely stood and hit our targets:

Janek Wiśniewski fell.

–  Krzysztof Dowgiałło, “Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski”

As economic conditions deteriorated across the People’s Republic of Poland, riots broke out in the tri-city region of Gdańsk, Sopot, and Gdynia in December 1970. When the volume of protesters on the streets halted the factories and shipyards that produced and controlled Polish industry and trade, the police responded with violence, killing hundreds of workers. The text of Krzysztof Dowgiałło’s ballad summarizes the details of a specific event on 17 December, 1970: he claims to have written the text immediately after returning from observing an ad hoc funeral procession on the streets of Gdynia.

In the song’s text, he describes what he saw: a young man, having been fatally shot by the militia, carried by protesters through the streets on a door. Not knowing the youth’s name—Zbigniew Godlewski—he supplied the protester a common Polish name in death, cultivating a sense of familiarity just as he does in the first verse with references to local streets (St. John’s), local workers (at the shipyards in Gdynia and Gdańsk), and towns in northern Poland from which protesters had travelled to take part in the organized action.[2]

Photo by: Andrzej Wajda (1981-07-10). "Uzupełniam swój życiorys". Tygodnik Solidarność (2): 11.

Photo by: Andrzej Wajda (1981-07-10). “Uzupełniam swój życiorys”. Tygodnik Solidarność (2): 11.

The chilling image (on the right) of a dead student protester being marched to his grave, captured by a photographer and circulated on pamphlets through the final two decades of the Cold War, and a conclusive final line that repeats across each stanza, “Janek Wiśniewski fell,” dwell in the irreversibility of death, which confirmed the high stakes of dissent for activists in 1970.[3] “Janek Wiśniewski” speaks to the importance of the coast as the home of Polish protest, both in its lyrics and as it appeared in unofficial print culture (“second circulation,” or drugi obieg), even leading off a coastal poetry anthology.[4]

Locational specificity intertwines the song’s history with Solidarity’s August. Though “Janek Wiśniewski’s” text presumably originated in the moment it describes, Mieczysław Cholewa composed the popular musical setting in 1980 and performed the song guitar-in-hand throughout Poland thereafter. Layers of historical distance separated the iconic photographic of Godlewski from the song about him, since Cholewa claims to have written the song in September 1980, after the peaceful negotiations at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk that brought about the celebrated trade union.[5] However, the addition of music to the text transforms the tragic text into a story of triumph: a story about August 1980. As the song circulated through diverse media recounting the events of August 1980, the story of Solidarity become ensnarled in a specifically Polish protest history as the euphoric upturn of the catastrophic events of 1970, rather than a harbinger of the end of state socialism in Poland.

Take for example one musical remix of Cholewa’s recording of the ballad by members of Solidarity in Gdańsk, also presented in 1981 to North American audiences on an album of documentary material released by Folkways.[6] Among the cassette recordings at their disposal in the documentation the Trade Union kept for itself was a recording from the clash between the Polish militia and student protesters in Gdynia in 1970. Against the backdrop of sirens and screaming crowds, the musician’s amateur performance aesthetic–a man with a guitar–comes across as reflective and calm, clearly locating the struggle in the past.

In his 1981 film Man of Iron, award-winning Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers a fictionalized account of an ensemble involved in both protests that further contributed to the mythologization of 1970 in the process of the celebration of 1980. A cover of the film accompanies the closing credits. This time, the performers are professional musicians, renowned singer-songwriter Jacek Kaczmarski and his trio. Two guitars hammer out simple minor-mode chords in a manner that recalls a military march. The squareness of the meter sets the tone for the curt and almost declamatory recitation of a simple narrative verse by the actress Krystyna Janda, whose gritty performances of tragically heroic women in films by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Wajda made her persona synonymous with the empowerment of women in contemporary Poland. Her martial rendering, coupled with the song’s simplicity, supports a hearing of Janda’s performance as a strained outcry, ultimately culminating in a wail in her performance of the final stanza. The final line of each verse interrupts the previous lines’ parallel decasyllabic structure with a stabbing and percussive shout that Janek Wiśniewski has fallen (padł).

“The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski” speaks to local audiences with national ambition; it is not only its language barrier that keeps it from joining the ranks of heralded anthems of the postwar. Absent are the sweeping and utopian ideals at the base of social movement culture on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But in the epigraph with which I began, Kazik was more than willing to ascribe the song that transferable power. In the same interview, the singer explained his own musical preferences, “I didn’t like [Cholewa’s] commonly known version, but the version s[u]ng by Janda.” His own cover—used to accompany a film trailer—presents the guitar ballad as a rock anthem, echoing the aggression of Janda’s performance in ethos and rhythmic declaration. Interpreting this Solidarity “anthem,” musicians elicit the gritty struggle ascribed to the Polish opposition rather than reviving a song that was instrumental at the scene of dissent. For the “Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski,” performance is instrumental to the songs’ ability to mobilize tradition (Eyerman and Jamison 1998).


[1] Quoted in Olga Bieniek, Czarny Czwartek: Janek Wiśniewski padł. Album o filmie [Black Thursday: Janek Wiśniewski Fell. Making of the Movie], edited by Ewa K. Jaskulska (Gdynia: Nordfilm, 2011), 201.

[2] The reference to St. John Street (Ulica Świętojańska) recalls one of the communications between the Police intercepted by activists at the scene in 1970, a sound bite frequently mobilized by members of the opposition to reveal the intent to harm by agents of the law.

[3]The “Road to Freedom” exhibit at the Solidarity Museum in Gdańsk sells reproductions of a child’s sketch of the photograph in its gift shop. In 1980, the photograph was reproduced with the song’s text on a pamphlet of verses circulated in Gdańsk (“Przestańcie stale nas przepraszać…: Wiersze Sierpień 1980” [“Stop Apologizing to Us Constantly…: Poetry August ’80”] (Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo im. konstytucji 3. maja, 1980)).

[4] Grudzień—Sierpień: Piosenki i wiersze Wybrzeża [December-August: Songs and Poems of the Coast] (Warsaw, 1980, Zespół BL i H).

[5]Many accounts recount the song’s popularity at the scene of protest in Gdańsk, but I have not found archival evidence to substantiate these claims. Cholewa later owned up to his work as an officer for the Secret Police (SB) in the 1990s in a published interview.

[6] Folkways Records (FSS 37251). Italian trade unions circulated a very similar cassette (Opposition Archive, KARTA Organization, AO IV/206.2).

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Music, and Movements, Essay Dialogues

One response to “An Anthem for Solidarity?

  1. Pingback: Culture, Resistance and the Contradictions of Capitalism |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s