Music fan seeks to ‘educate the world’ with his incredible collection of over 5,000 interwar classic hits
With its modest title and archival appearance, StareMelodie.pl is a website which might, at first, appear unremarkable.
Hidden in the depths of search engines and databases, it is the kind of place you would only find if you already knew what you were looking for.
But it harbours a rich and delicious secret.
Established five years ago, StareMelodie has become the pivot of early 20th century Polish musical and cultural research. Boasting an inundation of exquisite lyrics and flamboyant sheet-music covers, and steeped in the velvet tones of Polish yesteryear, it is a labyrinthine directory in shades of brown and gold; its Ariadne’s thread the sumptuous artery of interwar music always echoing beneath its many pages. And it seems to swell like the lungs of a concertina before your very eyes – it is almost constantly updated with the latest photographs, documents, and recordings, becoming an all-inclusive, lavish library of the interwar arts. It currently holds nearly 5000 titles.
Tomek Grdeń, the founder and owner of StareMelodie, is, however, a quiet man; rather reluctant to discuss his achievements in setting up what is quite possibly the widest-ranging collection of Polish interwar musical history. But offer any question on 20th century music, and it is a different story. Grdeń is a virtuoso of interwar culture; an authority on even the most negligible event, artist or musical production of the period. He almost seems more than just a mere collector or historian – in fact, he calls himself ‘Kierownik’, or manager, of the website, a title he assures me he picked only as a joke.
“I should call myself a ‘storeman’”, he explains to TFN, “because I collect recordings, lyrics and notes in my virtual museum. Maybe even a curator. But ‘kierownik’ sounds - I think - funny. It’s not as serious or standard as ‘admin’. The manager – it’s someone important, but only the manager.”
But there is a lot of truth in his choice of title, and not merely in terms of his own expertise. Grdeń exercises a deft control over the lurid confetti of record plates he sifts into order on his website – everything is meticulously assigned to its rightful place, with songs filtered by title, theme and year, alongside links to surviving recordings or documentation. It is exactly what the once-scattered output of interwar Polish musical culture needed.
For a long time after the war, many Poles could only hear the opulent melodies of interwar Polish music with sequestered glimpses in their own homes – and Grdeń himself admits that his introduction to the genre came from his parents.
“My first contact with interwar songs were from my mother’s albums. As a toddler, I knew the greatest hits.”
But this stifling of interwar culture is something Grdeń wants to change. He is a self-taught musician, playing double-bass with a repertoire solely of Polish music from the 1920s and 1930s, to facilitate its popularity on national and international stages. A long time ago, this music was there already.
“As I was performing a retro repertoire, I wanted to find forgotten songs which are attractive for both me and my audience,” he explains. “Initially, StareMelodie was supposed to be a ‘secret’ private site that collected musical ‘excavations’ for personal use.
I gave up on privacy when it turned out that these songs were too important an element of culture. And, after all, I will not sing everything; I will not learn everything. Maybe someone else will succeed.”
His venture is reminiscent of that little-known wartime Polish phonograph enthusiast Mieczysław Wejman, who combed the ruins of the Syrena-Electro recording factory to save fragments of shellac, before illegally stamping carols and patriotic songs as the war rumbled on around him. Wejman also established the first private record label after the war. But there’s a smattering of Mieczysław Fogg in Grdeń too – a veritable champion of songs which could have been lost forever.
But even amid StareMelodie’s sharp art-deco fonts and wealthy chronicles are still a multitude of aching gulfs in Polish interwar musical output. Some songs exist only in the skeleton-form of musical notation, whilst others lack artists and titles. The site even has a ‘Sherlock Holmes Corner’; a repository for the abandoned tunes lost to history.
But Grdeń is quick to stress that his website relies on the work of other collectors, who provide him with all manner of documents to bulk out his library.
“Every week,” he says, “I get a few recordings or notes from enthusiasts of musical antiques. I have permanent and spontaneous ‘suppliers’.
And I am often asked to help people find old recordings and notes – or thanked for reminding them of the music of their childhood and youth.”
One core element of the website is its collection of glamourous images and magazine cuttings depicting the biggest names in interwar musical culture. At the very top of the homepage is a link to the latest photographs added to the gallery – and most are interwar artists who, though in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, have now faded into obscurity. Some are names completely unknown today.
Grdeń is also an active presence in Polish interwar circles of YouTube, uploading snippets of what once was seen as the latest in film and musical recording technology. One fragment of footage he has uploaded shows the spirited interwar crooner Tadeusz Faliszewski singing the refrain of the mesmerising 1929 tango ‘Przyjdź kochanku’ (‘Come, lover’) – with cream pie smeared liberally across his face.
Grdeń agrees that it is the combination of these miscellaneous examples of interwar Polish culture which makes his StareMelodie such a valuable library for all those interested in the period.
“I think the most important thing on the StareMelodie.pl website is the combination of song, monologue, or dialogue lyrics with authentic recordings of artists from the era,” he says.
“For those who are passionate about the orchestral performance, the site gives a picture of Polish orchestration. For plate collectors, the site is a source of knowledge about record publishing houses.
And, of course, sheet music. Sometimes the quality of the recording obscures the lyrics of the song. I try to work out the lyrics and rewrite the text despite the excess noise and glitches.”
With Polish interwar culture finding its way back into the popular mainstream, StareMelodie is vital to sustain the work of artists who – like Grdeń – wish to perform and celebrate this burgeoning beginning of Polish popular culture. Grdeń himself emphasises that interest in interwar culture has been growing rapidly in recent years, especially around the time Poland celebrated its centenary of independence.
“Not so long ago, a TV series about the Polish cabaret star Bodo was introduced, bringing the climate and repertoire of this world of entertainment closer. As you can see, the theme is very inspiring.”
And though he never admitted which songs in particular were his favourites, Grdeń is eager to promote the idea of the period itself as one of multi-faceted complexity and diversity.
“The interwar period covered the first years after regaining freedom,” he notes. “Poland was a colourful country with a wealth of influence and ethnic diversity. This, of course, was expressed in the repertoire of popular music. Patriotic songs, Szmonces, folk music, Lviv wit and cabaret repertoire. It was a very important, though short, period in Polish culture, which still affects contemporary culture. It's worth consolidating, to prevent it from disappearing.”
The beguiling songs and snippets of this time have now found their home on another stage, where they can once again be enjoyed in all of their multifarious hues and flairs. What Grdeń has managed to do is bring together each unique style; each voice or adaptation or approach – onto a platform which any interwar artist would have been proud to see.
As he succinctly puts it:
“Popular culture before the war is not only ‘Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiąta’ (‘I had a date with her at nine’) or ‘Tango Milonga’.”