Sing when you’re tramping - the art of the Czech wandering song

This song might sound like something out of a Western, but it is every bit as Czech as Dvořák or Smetana. 'Sbohem kapitáne můj' is one of the hundreds of melodies to form part of the Czech tramping songbook. Such songs have, for the last 90 years, been providing the soundtrack to a particularly Czech pastime – tramping. To an untrained eye, tramping consists of weekends spent living rough in the forest, and weekdays meeting with kindred spirits and singing in the pub. But to those initiated, tramping means much more – it's a way of life. At a fortnightly tramping sing-along, the country's self-proclaimed oldest active tramp, Vladimír Horák, let me in on a bit of the secret:

“Tramping is a particularly Czech phenomenon which you can’t find anywhere else on earth. Elsewhere of course people go into nature, there are climbers and horse-riders and so on, but Czech tramps are particular because they have their own special clothing, they have their own slang and they have their own songs. There are special rituals which are linked with different camps. And that is why tramping is special and why we love it.”

Tramps like Vladimír Horák are proud of the fact that they go into nature and spend weekends living wild. There are hundreds and hundreds of Czechs who indulge in this activity throughout the tramping season (which spans spring to autumn), and even some very hardcore tramps who keep on going all year round. But it isn't even necessary to spend time in the wilderness to call yourself a tramp. Tramping songs may sound best around a campfire, but they don't sound all that bad sung in the comfort of a pub. There are tens of different groups of tramps meeting regularly in Prague to sing. This harmonious lot is headed by Sheriff Franta:

“We started these singing evenings eight-and-a-half years ago, in 1999. And it was a great guitarist, Tulák Charlie, who came up with the idea. When we first started, about five or six people would come every fortnight, but then it developed and the pub we were in became too small. So we moved to this place – Alva – where we meet every second Monday. And we are really happy here.”

Tulák Charlie performs a couple of numbers to the dozens of people packed into Alva's back-room on a chilly Monday evening. The songs he's performing are a mixture of his own, and more traditional songs, in many cases by unknown artists. Here's Sheriff Franta:

“These songs were written by people who didn’t even know how to read music. They just wrote them out of a sense of one with nature. And some of these songs have been sung for the last 70, 80 years. And they are still alive. Of course, there are well-known, professional, musicians who come to sing with us as well. But this is just a place for all of us to relax.”

Tramping songs are so popular here that there are even celebrity tramp musicians. Undoubtedly the most famous of them all is Wabi Daněk, who has played Czech stadiums in the past. You’re just listening to his 1970s smash-hit ‘Rosa na kolejích’ (‘Dew on the Tracks’), which is a staple around Czech campfires, and which is regularly played on the country's radio stations to this day. When I met Wabi in his spacious Prague apartment, I asked him what he thought the key to this song's success was:

“If I knew, then I would write hit after hit! But of course, I have a certain idea about why it was so big. Any hit has to stir memories in you, but you can’t think for the life of you what exactly is being evoked. That’s important. Then, it has to stick in your mind from the first listen. And it has to affect you in one way or another. And then there are the things that are totally out of the author's control. It has to be of its time. People have to like it, and then most of all, it has to have a lot of luck.”

Wabi says that when tramping began, just after WWI, his predecessors were influenced especially by the American music of the age. But that was 90 years ago and the genre has changed a lot since. Still, I put it to him that tramping songs could sometimes be mistaken for country. But he insists the two are separate entities, and explains what defines the tramping song:

“The sort of instruments used in tramping music is decided by their weight, I’d say. Because you can’t carry a piano or a harmonium into the forest. So, guitars and mandolins and other light instruments, harmonicas and so on, are the main stays of tramping music. But the main instrument used in tramping music is also the lightest of them all – the human voice.”

Tramping music may have diverged from its essentially American roots, but hints of the New World still remain. For example, Mr Daněk's first name doesn't sound all that Czech...

“I more or less inherited the name from my predecessor and mentor – Jiří Wabi Ryvola. I asked him about where it came from and he was grumpy with me for wanting to know. But I think that it came from a novel by James Curwood, who wrote ‘The Wolf Hunters’ and so on. In one of his books there is a mixed-race boy called Wabigoon, which is shortened to Wabi – so it’s an Indian name. But the brother of Jiří Ryvola, Mikeš – who was also a tramping bard – had another theory. He said it came from the Algonquin dialect, so from the north of the United States, and that the name meant ‘man who comes from afar and brings chaos with him’.”

Veteran tramp Vladimír Horák made a documentary about the subculture for Czech Television. It was actually during recording that he became so involved in the movement. With the times a-changing in an ever more cosmopolitan Prague, I asked him whether he thought his documentary would soon become historic footage:

“I think that tramping won’t die out, but it will change in form. It will be more modern, and the things like the special clothing and the special songs that go with it will be lost. But I think in our modern-day consumerist society, people will want to escape from all this materialism and return to the forests where they can find peace and quiet.”

From the Alva's popularity every other Monday, and Wabi Daněk's continued record sales, it doesn't look like the tradition of tramping songs is dying out any time soon.