Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Origin of a Series

by Drew Martin

I am a bit superstitious: I do not walk under ladders, I will often go out of my way to scoot around a black cat if it threatens to cross my path during a morning run and so as to not end this month with 13 articles, I will include this addendum to yesterday's post about the Danish movie, Prag.

There is a scene in the film where the character Alena, played by Jana Plodková, is singing in a club. The melody is all too familiar but the Czech words seem regional. The song is from Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender. The Czech version, Pár havraních copánků, took on a life of its own when the legendary Czech swooner, Karel Gott, recorded it in 1964. The lyrics were adapted by Zbyněk Vavřín and are completely unrelated...Love Me Tender becomes A Pair of Jet-Black Ponytails and the first line is, A pair of jet-black ponytails and your quiet laughter.

What follows, are words that might as well be from an old Slavic folk song but 1956-Presley is the source. This scene and the "where have I heard that before" moment reminded me of a wonderful Czech documentary I saw in the 1990's, from 1965, called Londýnský Autobus (The London Bus) by Vladimir Sís.
It documents the story of an Englishman, a double-decker London bus driver on holiday, who finds himself in a Czech pub where he joins some merry souls in singing to the melody of Beer Barrel Polka, also known as Roll Out the Barrel. The song became famous around the world in 1939 after reaching # 1 on the Hit Parade when it was sung by Will Glahé with the lyrics by Lew Brown and Wladimir Timm.

During WWII it became a hit in many other countries, each assuming its origin. This sparked many unfortunate bets. Even the Foreign Minister of Germany, Dietrich Genscher, claimed it was German.

In the documentary, the confident Brit wages that if the song is not an English original he will bring his double-decker bus to Prague. He soon learns it is indeed a Czech song and meets Jaromír Vejvoda, who composed it in 1927. Eduard Ingriš, wrote the first arrangement of the piece when Vejvoda asked him to clean it up and Václav Zeman, was the person who wrote text for it in 1934.

It would make sense that the song was Czech; the Polka originated there (not Poland) in the mid 1800s. The title of Zeman's version was Škoda lásky ("Wasted Love" - though directly translates as "The Pity of Love").

The best part of what followed was how much pleasure the Englishman took in losing and how good he was on his word. Back in England, he loaded the double-decker bus with elderly friends, ferried it to France and then drove it through France and Germany and into Bohemia. The documentary shows the busload of revelers en route to Prague and back, singing the whole way.