Their music is often the very definition of military folk, but the songs on Rogate Czapki, Rogate Serca (Horned Caps, Horned Hearts) show that Ludola are capable songwriters, able to express deeper ideas than the genre might imply.
The bulk of the songs, written by central member Janek, reflect upon the military history of Poland. However, the emotional focus of the lyrics and artful rendering of the music take the songs beyond the mere expression of national pride to touch on more universally relatable subjects: the spirit of the underdog, the longing of separated lovers, and of course, the cold brutality of war.
The prime example of this is “Nie Wrócę Do Domu” (“I Shall Not Return”), which is dedicated to “Polish soldiers murdered by Bolsheviks in Katyn Massacre 1940.” It is a horrifying story, and has largely been forgotten. The 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland famously precipitated declarations of war from England and its allies. Less well-known is the subsequent invasion, later that September, by the Soviet Union. The Polish military gave little resistance, and the Soviets took hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war. The following spring, under written orders signed by Joseph Stalin, twenty-two-thousand of those prisoners were taken to remote locations, shot, and dumped into mass graves. Stalin is supposed to have said that the death of one is a tragedy, but the death of thousands is just a statistic. Ludola inverts this concept, humanizing the war crime through the thoughts of one man preparing to die:
“Last words, my name and surname
thought of daughter and wife
memory of summer
forgive me, my beloved
but I will not return home.”
The lyrics printed in the packaging of Rogate Czapki, Rogate Serca are translated from the Polish in which they are sung. Even secondhand, though, this slice of inner life brings the reality of institutionalized mass murder into focus. It is not just a ground-level view of one terrible event, but a chance to consider the human experience of the Eastern Front’s wider carnage, or even any of the countless other episodes of totalitarianism run amok that have marred history.
But set as it is to an acoustic guitar progression that switches from florid to urgent, the song does not wallow in despair. Instead, the song is an expression of pride that these soldiers posed enough danger to an empire that they had to be liquidated. Though the Polish people eventually outlasted both the Nazis and the Soviets, the war years must have looked hopeless. The lyrics on Rogate Czapki, Rogate Serca use Poland’s episodes of victimhood and defeat to express a defiant spirit in a way that could inspire anyone who has found themselves the underdog.
While the lyrical themes fall into a space between ethnic pride and basic human irrepressibility, it is the music that helps the album achieve its measure of universality. Musically, Rogate Czapki, Rogate Serca is a far livelier album that Ludola’s previous Przedwiośnie, especially with the participation of female vocalist Zoska and accordionist Jaroslaw. But the arrangements never stray far from the simplicity established by the debut album. Acoustic guitars take up the foreground of every song, and percussion is nowhere to be heard. This allows the songwriting to inhabit a range that moves subtly from truly folkish sing-alongs to more contemporary-sounding compositions.
Oddly enough, the most contemporary-sounding track on this disc is “Wiekowi XXI” (“To the 21st Century”), which uses the words of nineteenth-century Polish poet Adam Asnyk to lament the arrival of the twenty-first Century—a “century with no tomorrow.” Ludola have expressed disapproval of “modernity” in liner notes, and “Wiekowi XXI” seems to be a continuation of that theme, but the song comes closer to pop music than, maybe, anything else in Ludola’s catalog. It might be that Janek intended to offer a spoonful of sugar to go with this expression of dread for the future. It’s a viable tactic, resulting in a song that breaks free of the neofolk genre and still evades the decadence typical of most pop music. The combination of traditionalist sentiment with a modern sound also indicates that Janek and his associates aren’t locked into their genre. Ludola create enjoyable military folk music, but their rare approach to both lyric and composition elevates their work and differentiates them from their peers.
01) Polonez Partyzancki
02) Dalej Bracia, Do Bułata
03) Gdy Umrę…
04) Nie Wrócę Do Domu…
05) Dusza Powstańca
06) Rogate Czapki, Rogate Serca
07) Krakus I Dziewczyna
08) Wiekowi XXI
09) Śnijcie, Bracia
10) Wrócisz Do Mnie