Czech protest singers who captured the spirit of the times

Karel Kryl, photo: archive of Czech Center Munich

As Czechs marked the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the return of freedom to the country, streets and squares resounded with the iconic protest songs linked to the Prague Spring and 1989. Songs reflecting people’s hopes in 1968 and the frustration of Czechs following the crushing of the Prague Spring became underground cult hits, going from hand to hand, recorded on the old cassette recorders and played in the privacy of people’s homes. Among them are Karel Kryl’s famous Bratříčku zavírej vrátka (Keep the Gate Closed, Little Brother)composed in reaction to the Soviet-led invasion, Jaroslav Hutka’s Havlíčku Havle, composed when Vaclav Havel was jailed in 1977, and Marta Kubišová’s iconic 1968 Prayer for Marta – a promise of better times to come.

Karel Kryl

Karel Kryl,  photo: archive of Czech Center Munich
Folk singer Karel Kryl moved to Prague from Kromeříž in 1968 getting a job as an assistant at Czechoslovak Television. At nights he performed satirical folk songs in the city’s clubs. His iconic hit Bratříčku zavírej vrátka (Keep the Gate Closed, Little Brother) was composed spontaneously a day after Soviet tanks rolled into the country. It became the title song of his debut album released in early 1969. The album was promptly banned by the communists, but this could not prevent the songs from getting around and becoming cult hits. Under intense communist police surveillance, Karel Kryl fled from Czechoslovakia in 1969 and for many years spoke to his native country via Radio Free Europe. His second album, Rakovina (meaning "Cancer" in Czech) was released abroad; however, copies were smuggled into the country and circulated. The songs had a powerful impact. They reflected on the frustration and apathy following the 1968 invasion; the self-sacrifice of Jan Palach as well as the brutal suppression of peaceful protests on the first anniversary of the 1968 invasion.

Marta Kubišová

Marta Kubišová,  photo: Czech Television
Marta Kubišová, one of the most popular Czechoslovak singers of the 1960s, became a symbol of resistance against the communist regime and was banned from singing for the next twenty years, taking a manual and then office job to support herself and her daughter. Her iconic ballad Modlitba pro Martu (A Prayer for Marta) – which she first sang on August 23rd, 1968 became a symbol of the Prague Spring and later of the Velvet Revolution. Written by Jindřich Brabec and Petr Rada it was first released as a single and later on her album Songs and Ballads. In 1970 the iconic prayer was banned by the communists. Marta Kubišová only sang it again live to the crowd standing next to Vaclav Havel on a balcony in Wenceslas Square during the heady days of the Velvet Revolution.

Jaroslav Hutka

Jaroslav Hutka
Jaroslav Hutka, a scathing critic of the communist regime, was another protest singer who captured the spirit of the time. He signed Charter 77, and was bullied into exile a year later. All his songs and recordings were banned. As soon as the revolution of November 1989 began, he came back home, and, in one of the most moving moments of those heady days ,he appeared at a massive demonstration on Prague’s Letná Plain on November 25 with his iconic Náměšť to tell the crowd in song that “the most beautiful thing in the whole wide world is freedom”.