‘Roll Out the Barrel’ composer Jaromír Vejvoda

Photo: Supraphon

This week’s Sunday Music Show is dedicated to a Czech composer and band member Jaromír Vejvoda whose work is probably a lot better known than he was in spite of his prolific output.

Photo: Supraphon
Beer barrel polka by Jaromír Vejvoda is better known in Britain as the song ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ which was sung by Allied troops in the Second World War. It was sung by all the greats of the time such as Britain’s Vera Lynn and the US Andrews Sisters. In Germany, however, the tune was put to words under the title ‘Rosamunde, Rosamunda’ and was sung by the soldiers on the other side of the lines.

One story is that the tune was made popular in Britain by Czechoslovak airmen in the Royal Air Force. In fact, Vejvoda penned the catchy tune as early as 1927 and it was played without lyrics as Modřanska Polka with Czech words added seven years later with the title Škoda Lasky, or Wasted Love.

In fact the German version of the tune had already become a hit by 1936 and three years later the tune followed suit in the United States after some modifications and became even more so during World War II. At the end of the war in 1945, Allied general and Commander in Chief Dwight D Eisenhower is said to have met the Czech composer in Prague and told him that ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ was a song which helped to win the war.

Anyway, we are probably getting a bit ahead of ourselves in the plot. Jaromír Vejvoda was born in 1902 into a musical family in Zbraslav, a small town on the southern edge of Prague which has guarded its character in spite of being officially swallowed up by the capital.

It is hardly surprising he became a musician. His father was a musician as were his four brothers. Jaromír was learning to play the violin at six and by 15 he was playing in his father’s band. He took charge of the brass band in 1925 after his return from military service and most of the around 80 popular compositions penned by him were later played by the band.

The Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia was not kind to Jaromír Vejvoda and his band. After 22 years of existence, the band was broken up and its former leader was directed to work as a warehouseman in a factory. The bank was later reformed under the direction of the Zbraslav town council as the Zbraslavanska band with Jaromír Vejvoda as an occasional guest conductor. This is the polka composed by Vejvoda in 1957 in honour of the town and its band.

Memorial plaque in Zbraslav,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
He continued to compose songs throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and into the 1980’s. In fact, Jaromír Vejvoda’s personal fame increased as time went on. In 1981 he was, for example, awarded a Radio Luxembourg prize for being the composer of the one of the world’s top 20 popular songs. A US stamp commemorating ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ was printed in 1987, a year before Jaromír Vejvoda’s death in his beloved Zbraslav.

A plaque in the small town’s main square commemorates the house where Jaromír Vejvoda lived for most of his life. It is now a pub and restaurant, called Škoda Lašky, which almost twins as an informal museum featuring the composer and his works. An international music festival has been held in Zbraslav since 1996 to horror its famous son.