Czech Culture, History, & Music: The stories behind the music — “Twenty-Two Bohemian Folk-Songs”!
I had a great uncle who loved music, especially songs from ‘the old country’ of Bohemia. I remember, as a youngster, when I asked him why he liked such ‘funny, old music’. He simply smiled, removed his ever-present cigar from his mouth, blew a perfect smoke ring, and then said to me ‘Scotty, behind every song there is a story’.
This memory came storming back to the front of my mind one day while I was conducting some Czech research and I happened to come across a book, published in 1912 titled “Twenty-Two Bohemian Folk-Songs. English and Bohemian Texts”. How could I not be intrigued and how could I not want a copy of that for my bookshelf? So I sent away for the copy.
Guess what? Once I opened my copy I discovered there was not just one story behind this music, but there were three!
Let me explain.
Sure enough the book features twenty-two wonderful Bohemian folk-songs. The music is there, the words, in both Czech and English, are there, but there is much more to it!
The first story I discovered was about the translator and compiler, Reverend Vincent Pisek, D.D. I admit to not having heard of the good Reverend before so I was curious what sort of person would undertake such a task as to translate folk-songs. So I began a bit of research on him. In a nutshell, he was quite a Czech-American! Born in 1859 in Bohemia, Pisek came to the US at the age of 13 and by the time he was 21 he was the head of Jan Hus Bohemian Presbyterian Church, located at 347 East 74th Street. He was known as a ‘free-thinking’ pastor at that time, was highly regarded, and grew this church to substantial proportions. At its peak there were thousands of parishioners and the church was designed in the Bohemian Gothic Revival style by R. H. Robertson and to this day carries the famous Jan Hus quote over the door “Truth Prevails”.
Reverend Pisek also carried out church building activities in the Midwest and was responsible for the creation of more than fifty new churches, published “The Union”, a national Czech newsletter, and at the age of 60 went to minister to the Czech soldiers fighting in Russia during the First World War. By the way, guess what this fellow’s favorite pet was? A tamed wolf, which lived for decades with the Reverend in the church!
The second story I discovered was the fact the book was dedicated to Mrs. Helen Hartley Jenkins, “The Good and generous friend of the Slavonic immigrants”. Again, I wondered what the story might be behind this part of the music.
Mrs. Jenkins, to put it mildly, was quite an active and involved woman on behalf of immigrants and their families. The wife of a very well to do attorney in Morristown, New Jersey and later, New York City, Mrs. Jenkins received medals from the National Public Health Service, National Institute of Social Science, Serbian Red Cross, Order of St. Sabra, National Slavonic Society, and the King of Montenegro. She established the Slavonic Immigrant Home and was part of the founding family of the Hartley House in Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City. She had a passion for nursing, prison reform, and was a member and major benefactor to the Jan Hus Bohemian Presbyterian Church. Upon her passing she established the Hartley Trust Corporation, which continues to make charitable gifts to this day.
The third story was equally as surprising to me. Included between the twenty-two folk songs I found a wonderful array of beautiful, period images from across the Czech lands! In black and white, these are photographs I had never seen before from prior to 1912, when this book was published. There are images of Bilin, Karluv Tyn, Krkonose, Kutna Hora, Pisek, Prague, and Rozmberk. They are wonderful images and a joy to find in a music book!
I have to admit, these ‘stories behind the music’ took over and led me astray from simply enjoying the twenty-two folk songs Reverend Pisek translated!
That is my next adventure into this wonderful book!