The Ballad and Orchestra of St. Nicholas

Ballada o Św. Mikołaju is beautiful song about the sad fate of the Lemkos (a Carpathian ethnic sub-group), who were forcibly resettled from their ancestral homeland in 1944-46 to the Soviet Union, and in 1947 under Operation Vistula to western and northern Poland.

Remnants of their homes, churches, and cemeteries still remain in south-east Poland, as can be seen in this video.

Ballada o Sw. Mikołaju

W rozstrzelanej chacie
Rozpaliłem ogień,
Z rozwalonych pieców
Pieśni wyniosłem węgle.
Naciagnałem na drzazgi gontów
Błękitną płachtę nieba
Będę malować od nowa wioskę w dolinie.
Święty Mikołaju, opowiedz jak tu było,
jakie pieśni śpiewano
Gdzie się pasły konie.
A on nie chce gadać ze mną po polsku
Z wypalonych źrenic tylko deszcze płyną.
Hej ślepcze
Nauczę swoje dziecko po łemkowsku
Będziecie razem żebrać w malowanych wioskach.
Święty Mikołaju, opowiedz jak tu było,
jakie pieśni śpiewano
Gdzie się pasły konie.

The Ballad of St. Nicholas

I lit a fire in a ruined hut
From the broken-down stove
I took the embers of songs.
I stretched the blue canvas of the sky
On the splinters of the shingles
I will paint anew the village in the valley.
St. Nicholas, tell us how it used to be,
What songs they sang
Where the horses grazed.
And he doesn’t want to talk to me in Polish
Only rains pour from the burnt-out pupils.
Hey blind man,
I will teach my child Lemkian
We will beg together in painted villages.
St. Nicholas, tell us how it used to be,
What songs they sang
Where the horses grazed.

The music and words (original is in Polish) of the song are by Andrzej Wierzbicki. The English translation is from the website of Orkiestra Sw. Mikołaja.

The first version of this song that I heard was the rendition by the Polish folk band Orkiestra Sw. Mikołaja. The ballad was the inspiration for their name, because, as they write on their website, “through the songs of Lemko Ruthenians once living in eastern Polish Carpathians, we discovered that music from old villages can be fashionable and intriguing for a modern listener. Since then we have focused our activities on everything associated with folklore, especially whatever has been condemned to be forgotten, and yet can inspire and enrich contemporary culture.”

“Trekking [in the Beskid Niski and the Bieszszady Mountains] is like travelling in space and time. Their maps are full of places, where there’s nothing but a name. However, if the reader takes the pain to find any of such places in the terrain, they will notice outlines of former fields, highroads, orchards that went wild and collapsed cellars.

“They will find themselves in a village that no longer exists. Ethnographers do have the knowledge about who lived in that place in the past, but they are not able to explain how it is possible to be in a village which ceased to exist half a century ago. In order to explain it somehow the man of the future orchestra and their listeners gathered by the bonfire and sang Lemkos and Boykos songs, of which the melodies and not fully understandable lyrics would make up for the whole ethnographic knowledge.”

In their many years of existence, the band has performed and recorded many Lemko songs (along with Boyko, Hutsul, Ukrainian, and Polish ones), especially those which are lesser known, and has helped saved them and the rich Galician Carpathian culture from oblivion. Although the band interprets these songs in their own style, they still manage to preserve the authenticity and convey the emotions and genuine spirit found in these ancient texts and melodies.

Here is an example of one of their Lemko songs (one of my favorites):

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