[ people - march 08 ]
Today I received a card which plays the drinking song 'Beer Barrel Polka' when opened. The jangle of banjos and wheal of accordion conjure up images of Yankee soldiers dancing through the streets and taverns of Vienna and Prague after V-E day. They swing frauleins over their shoulders and iconic photographs are taken before everyone collapses in drunken exhaustion after six years of war. The picture is nicely framed with the name of the performing band: Frankie Yankovic and his Yanks.
A note inside describes the music as follows: Avec cette musique, on pourrait être dans une taverne qui est peut-être un bordelle où les hommes boivent en solitaire et les femmes courent le deuxième étage en riant de la séduction facile. With these words the portrait blurs into a Brueghel brought up to date with the ground tears and yellow teeth of victory. The cities are in ruins and the accordions and banjos play out a brief reprieve before all of Europe knuckles down to a post-war depression. Looking further into the history of the song presents a curious concave mirror of that disaster.
Originally composed in 1927 by Jaromir Vejvoda, it was called the Modranska Polka, after the Modrany suburb in Prague where he played it for the first time in a bar owned by his father-in-law. Later he brought the melody which he had "come upon" to Eduard Ingris in the hope that he might tighten it up a little. Ingris did a reasonable job and his hand at this early stage in the song's long life has no doubt contributed to its current good health. Yet Ingris' name has largely been dropped and Vejvoda's is the one that will stay with it forever. Then again Ingris, who died in 1991, had little enough reason to be bitter considering his colourful life.
Born on the 11th of February, 1905, he took to music when he was quite young. At 19 he composed an operetta, The Capricious Mirror, which played for five years in Prague and was seen by enough people to surpass even Broadway records. During his life he composed over a thousand works including musical comedies, an opera, symphonies and 48 operettas.
Ingris was also an adventurer and film maker. After the war he left for South America where he lived in Brazil and Peru. He conducted the National Symphony Orchestra of Peru and in his spare time he managed to sail across the Pacific in a small balsa craft – twice. He directed adventure movies of an autobiographical nature such as From High C's to the High Seas, whose title leads to a suspicion about its quality. His other credits include the direction of Jungle Sabotage starring Pilar Pallette, the wife of John Wayne. He gave Ernest Hemmingway a hand with the film version of The Old Man and the Sea.
But if we know a little about the lives of both Ingris and Vejvoda then it falls to Vasek Zeman to carry the melancholy story of a song that somehow found itself waking up astronauts on the space shuttle 'Discovery' in 1995.
Zeman has disappeared without trace despite being the first person to put words to the Modranksa Polka. In 1934 he wrote the lyrics which transformed the polka into 'Skoda Lasky' or 'Wasted Love'. In the original Czech it could be said to be the antonymic mirror of the song we know in English.
"Wasted love which I gave to you/ I would cry my eyes out today/ my youth ran away as a dream/ only a memory remained / in my heart of all this."
Zeman's lyrics sink far below the carefree Hollywood life of Ingris and Zeman's history has all but drowned in a sea of vodka since he first composed Skoda Lasky. All I know is that his name in Czech means laird or thane or yeoman or squire, which doesn't get us very far.
Not long after Zeman wrote Skoda Lasky it was translated into German under the title 'Rosamunde' and here Hitler played a key role in the dissemination of the tune as the annexation of Czech lands contributed greatly to the popularity of 'Rosamunde' in Germany. The subsequent immigration of thousands of refugees across Europe scattered the notes across the continent like pollen.
By June 1939, it had been translated into English by Lew Brown and Vladamir Timm as 'Beer Barrel Polka (Roll out the Barrel)'. The new song was soon a number one on the Hit Parade. But in the course of the five years since its original composition the meaning of the song had galloped away from Zeman's Wasted Love. Just how the near-fugue metamorphosed into "there's never any room for a worry or a gloom… lots of sweet romancing… everybody feels so tralala… they all go lah-de-ah-de-ay" is a question that might warm even the most cynical heart.
Louis Brownstein, one of the pair that wrote the English lyrics was born in Odessa on the 10th of December, 1893. In 1898 his family moved to the Bronx where he underwent a translation of sorts himself. In the new world he became Lew Brown. This kind of reinvention is at the core of the song, as is the theme of immigration and the desperate need for an anaesthetic of optimism to dim the troubled light of reality.
Armies always require up-beat tunes to keep soldiers marching. And Brown who was born by the Black Sea played a small part in keeping the black dog away from sore and blistered soldiers. Eisenhower got a little ahead of himself when he said that the song helped to win the war. But this is a good turning point down the cul-de-sac of another useful war-time song.
'Beer Barrel Polka' is similar in many ways to Felix Powell's 'Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag', the biggest hit of the First World War. Powell was the leader of the White Knights, a musical group that entertained British forces. He often played to soldiers the night before they went over the top. The next day he and his band would be driven away to safety while the slaughter got underway.
Troops marched for 20 or more miles a day singing 'Pack up your troubles'. But while the men were dying and he was driven form one trench to another, the money poured into his back account in London. His wife wrote him letters delighting in the luxuries that the royalties of his song were bringing his family. This troubled him greatly and the journeys around the battlefields and villages of Belgium, inevitably taken in the twilight, began to haunt him until a permanent depression settled behind his eyes.
Everywhere he went he heard his own saccharine tune. The troops were singing it, the radios played it, the villagers whistled it and the coins kept pouring into his bank account. He walked in a constant gloom. He imagined that the fog over his barracks was the green miasma of chlorine gas. The spirits of the dead soldiers teamed about his sleeping brain, chattering, grinning, gnashing their teeth, singing – "Pack up your troubles…" He was losing his mind. At the end of the war he crossed into Germany and found a village square near Koln where the locals were singing his song in German. His vision clouded with white tinsel and the voices of German, English and Belgian civilians roared in his ears until his hands began to shake and he collapsed on the ground.
'Pack up your troubles' is as mindlessly joyous as 'Beer Barrel Polka'. Zeman's Skoda Lasky would never have been a hit with the soldiers: the roses bloom/ who is responsible for it? Nobody helps you today anymore/ they bloom, fade, leaflets fall from it/ like your tears on the cold grass." The Czech lines are easily forgotten. They disappear like the ghosts of the soldiers who found themselves face down in water logged trenches with rats nibbling their brains.
Far from the war, its worth considering that the sprightly English version is still played during the seventh innings stretch at Milwaukee Brewers baseball games where there's not a trace of a tear. For my part I was sure that the English lines ran as follows: zing boom Tarrara, sing out a song of her tears.
Here I could see the lady by the name of Tarrara in a tavern of Prague; that tavern I read about in the singing letter. The girls laughing on the second floor and the soldiers drinking by creaking wooden vats of warm beer below.
But line is "sing out a song of good cheer" and the song reaffirms that fine Darwinian instinct of optimism that will never be hunted to extinction in popular culture. As a soldier flicks a coin into the well, it spins many times before hitting the water. Heads for victory, tails for defeat. Contrary to Eisenhower's beliefs these are his chances of living: 50:50.
Returning to Zeman, I can find nothing about him. But perhaps that is the point. Zeman is Felix Powell's guardian angel. The two stay up all night singing the forgotten Skoda Laski in some refugee slum on the edge of heaven.
Along the dusty roads of the 30 or so countries where the song has been translated we can find people who swear that the tune originated in their city. It's best to nod and listen politely to their stories before hitching a ride back to the Modrany suburb of Prague where you can have a pint of overpriced beer at the Skoda Lasky tavern. Here the song remains Vejvoda's. After a few drinks we might consider, in a confused way, how his name gets tangled up in the tune. "Vej" in Danish means a route or a way. In Hungarian it means a son-in-law. "Voda" is water and as we order just a small one, we consider how vodka means "a little water."
In this way I come around to the idea of vodka tears. I like to think that there are two sets of eyes needed for its distillation – the eyes of the widows and the eyes of those whose loved ones returned – the heads and tails of the war.
At this stage I'm boring the stranger beside me to death and must rapidly change tack if he's ever going to buy me a round. Casting a diagonal eye over the shelves and the mirrors behind the bottles I can make out an elongated form of the word "Tipperary" distorted through a range of liquid lens. That's as good a sign post as any and soon enough we're off down the cul-de-sac of another war-time song. As a new glass of little water chases the old water down the river, words start to sound like pebbles in my mouth, and I'm trying to convince myself that the anonymous old man beside me is Zeman himself.