Karel Kryl, writer of ‘political love songs’, remembered 15 years after his death

Karel Kryl

Karel Kryl is considered by many to be the greatest Czech folk singer ever to have lived. He was the voice of a generation, with this song - ‘Bratříčku, zavírej vrátka’ - becoming an anthem of protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Kryl, who died 15 years ago this week, continues to enjoy a massive popularity in this country. One of the first people to spot his talent was DJ and music critic Jiří Černý:

“I originally knew Karel Kryl as a budding singer-songwriter. At first I just knew him as a voice coming from northern Moravia. Czech Radio Ostrava sent me recordings of lots and lots of singer-songwriters, and the one I liked the most was Karel Kryl. His voice impressed me, as did his lyrics and his melodies, and because I had a chart programme on Czech Radio in Prague back then, I played his records on my show.”

Jiří Černý was responsible for the release of Kryl’s first album, which came out in 1969:

“Karel’s songs were not very successful in the beginning. On my show, listeners had to vote for the songs they wanted to hear the following week, and his first four songs were voted out straight away. But the fifth one – ‘Bratříčku, zavírej vrátka’ – which came out just after the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia, was voted straight to the top of the hit parade. And on the basis of this success, I suggested to record label Supraphon that they should release a whole album of this previously-unknown singer-songwriter’s music, because he had so many good songs.”

Supraphon refused, and Černý turned to the only other record company in communist Czechoslovakia – Panton, which usually specialized in classical music. For Kryl, however, Panton made an exception. His first album, also called ‘Bratříčku, zavírej vrátka’, came out in 1969, with photos by the world-renowned Josef Koudelka on the cover.

The album was a hit with just about everyone except the Communist authorities. Kryl went into exile in West Germany for the next 20 years. Upon his return, he struck up a friendship with fellow musician Jiří Dědeček, who had been raised on illegal recordings of Kryl’s songs:

“He was a little bit older than me, and so for me in my youth, he was a good example to follow. I even tried when I was 15-16 to write something a la Kryl. And when playing these songs around a fire in nature with friends, I would always say that these were unknown Kryl songs, because I was a little bit ashamed of telling the truth.”

After Karel Kryl’s death in 1994, Jiří Dědeček worked on a project with the Czech National Theatre called ‘Sólo pro tři’, which presented Kryl’s songs alongside those of Vladimir Vysockij and Jacques Brel:

“Kryl was an author of political love songs, because there was this critical view of aspects of Czechoslovak daily life, but as well as this there was this very, very tender and very, very fragile view of human relationships, such as love and friendship and so on. And it is very rare to be able to unite these two points of view in one song.”

Today, Kryl is perhaps best remembered for his song ‘Bratříčku, zavírej vrátka’ – a fable which warns of the damage a wolf can do when the gate to a sheep pen is left open. ‘Bratříčku…’ was famously written in one night in 1968 whilst Warsaw-Pact troops invaded Prague. With a lot of Kryl’s songs being remembered today for their political significance, does Jiří Dědeček think that the romantic side of his writing has been overlooked?

Jiří Dědeček
“For me, he was a very, very great author of these love songs with, let’s say, a political background. But, when he tried to write purely political songs in the mid-1990s he became very weak as an author and as a poet. They were all extremely well-done, but suddenly there was no soul in these works. For me, it was somehow the end of the big poet and the beginning of the small pamphleteer. This is the time we grew apart.”

Kryl spent 20 years in exile in West Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe and performed his songs for Czech émigrés around the world. A prolific songwriter, albums of his latest hits made their way back into Czechoslovakia in a range of different disguises. One collection of Kryl’s songs passed itself off as a compilation of Viennese waltzes, while another masqueraded as ‘Klassiker modern frisiert’ (‘Classics in a modern style’). Kryl himself returned to his homeland in the midst of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, where he continued to write new songs. But for Jiří Dědeček, it was one of Kryl’s earliest works which remained his favourite throughout:

“It was always, since the 1960s-1970s, I don’t know in which year this song was written, ‘Píseň neznámého vojína’ – the song of the unknown soldier. It has a very, very strong text, the poetry in it is very strong, and it has everything; there is love, there is war, there is the political situation, there is the protest against the establishment. This song is, for me, Kryl writing at his peak.”

Jiří Černý firmly believes that 15 years after his death, Kryl remains one of the best folk singers this country has ever known:

“He had an enormous vocabulary, larger than any other singer-songwriter. And his range of themes was enormous as well. He thought up some wonderful metaphors, for example, about the sky, about a woman’s hair, about water. Thousands of poets have made rhymes about these things and he came up with totally original rhymes.

“He had a massive talent for melodies. His melodies are quick and easy to remember, and this is far from the rule with songwriters who are very poetically gifted. Normally, these sort of songwriters say ‘the melody isn’t important, what is important are the lyrics’. No. In Kryl’s case, the melodies were important too.

“When Kryl died, at the funeral service at Saint Markéta’s Church in Prague, the late composer Petr Eben played Kryl’s melodies on the organ, and they sounded like Johann Sebastian Bach there.”

Saint Markéta’s Church in Prague 6 will again hold a service in commemoration of Karel Kryl this Saturday, March 7 at 18:00. And his songs show no sign of disappearing from this country’s pubs and campfires any time soon.