Of the sixty compositions the Czech composer Jaromir Vejvoda left us, none have garnered a more enduring international popularity than his “Beer Barrel Polka”. Known the world over as one of the most popular drinking songs of all time, the “Modřanská Polka” (written in 1927 and titled after the Prague suburb of Modřany where it was debuted) began its life without lyrics. Vejvoda composed the piece after seven years bartending in a pub owned by his uncle, and its immediate success allowed the composer to focus on his music-making full-time. Its first arranger was Eduard Ingriš, whose assistance to Vejvoda was instrumental in refining the polka’s melody.
The Modřanská Polka was an unstoppable hit, with bandleaders across Czechoslovakia enthusiastically encouraging Vejvoda to publish it. After years of playing the song with his own band, Vejvoda published his Modřanská Polka in 1934 under a different title. The polka had been set to lyrics that same year by Polish lyricist Václav Zeman, and a title change was needed to reflect the new version’s pervading theme of unrequited affections: “Škoda lásky”, or “Wasted Love”. When the rights to Vejvoida’s composition were acquired by publishing house Shapiro Bernstein a few years before the Second World War broke out, it was listed under this title.
During the early days of World War II, the melody of Škoda lásky was favored by soldiers on both fronts, regardless of their respective allegiances. In the German language, the polka was retitled yet again (this time as “Rosamunde”) and was recorded by accordionist Will Glahé to great acclaim. It was this version, also distributed by Shapiro Bernstein, which reached the ears of American lyricists Lew Brown and Wladimir Timm. The two were inspired to appropriate Rosamunde into an English drinking song for rousing the Allied troops, even though no incarnation of Vejvoda’s polka makes any reference to drinking beer. While the polka’s opening had originally pined “Škoda lásky, kterou jsem tobě dala” (“A waste of love, the love I’ve given you”), the appropriated American version now trumpeted the now-infamous lyric “Roll out the barrel…”. Why focus on unrequited love when there is beer to drink? It is with this revelation in mind that Brown and Timm set to shaping the version of Vejvoda’s classic that is most widely recognized in pubs and bars today: “The Beer Barrel Polka”.
This version was recorded by some of the biggest names in American music at the time: The Andrews Sisters, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Benny Goodman, Bobby Vinton, Billie Holiday, and Joe Patek. As the war raged on, Allied Troops would take the opportunity between combat to listen to these versions over the Armed Forces Radio broadcasts. The English-speaking soldiers rejoiced at finally having a “complete” version of the polka that they could sing and drink to. Even the stoic General Dwight D. Eisenhower could not help confessing his love for the polka’s newest form. So iconic was this piece of music that each country in which it became a hit argued that one of their citizens had composed it. Only after the war did Vejvoda receive international recognition for his musical work, one that had brought cheer (and beer) to young men fighting on both sides of a global conflict.
The majority of Vejvoda’s compositions are still regularly celebrated and performed in Czechoslovakia, but he never wrote another piece of music that captured the world’s heart quite like the Beer Barrel Polka. A true phenomenon, the song became an anthem of celebration the world over. From a decadent version by caped entertainer Liberace, to the entrance music of pro wrestler Crusher Lisowski, the Beer Barrel Polka has received treatments in twenty languages and is the unofficial theme song for Germany’s annual Oktoberfest celebration. Not unlike that infamous barrel of beer that keeps getting rolled out, Jaromir Vejvoda’s beloved polka rolled away only to roll back again…aged to perfection.
We play the Beer Barrel Polka as part of our Night at Oktoberfest concert.