BIOGRAPHY: Bob Johnson is a Polish-American with a deep appreciation for Polish music, especially kolędy i pastorałki. As a boy growing up in Buffalo, Bob was an active member of the St. Stanislaus Boys Choir and a piano student at the Villa Maria School of Music. He began playing folk guitar when he was in high school and has since enjoyed playing his favorite Polish Christmas songs on guitar for his family. His soothing fingerpicking style is perfect for the Polish songs he cherished as a boy. Proud of his Polish roots, Bob hopes to pass down his love for Polish music to his five grandchildren, who join him on this album as special guest vocalists.
Bob Johnson is the 2011 recipient of the Am-Pol Eagle Newspaper's Citizen of the Year Award for culture.
REVIEWS AND ENDORESEMENTS:
REVIEW by Mark Kohan, Editor-in-chief of the Polish American Journal
2011 - VOL. 100, NO 11
Ushering in a New Age
I am great fan of Polish Christmas, and a great fan of guitar music, but never thought the two should meet. Being a traditionalist, I like traditional music played on traditional instruments.
At the same, however, I often felt Polonia could expose its music to a larger audience if it was done the right way. Being that most kolędy have an “other world,” almost ethereal air to them, they would natural adapt themselves to the New Age music so popular today.
Rob Johnson, an outstanding musician and Polonophile from Rochester, New York, has — whether he knows it or not — married two very popular yet distant music styles on new CD, “Graj, Panu Graj,” [Polonia Music].
I must admit, it took a few minutes for me to accept the sound. I know there are hundreds of artists in Poland who have released guitar versions of popular Polish Carols, but these are often over-produced, polished, studio productions that rely more on digital wizardry than genuine feel when it comes to execution. Johnson, who is not only an outstanding guitar player, but equally adept at keyboards and accessory instruments, has a real feel for the songs and for his instruments. The result is a new and pleasant sound that will be enjoyed by those who grew up with these songs, as well as those hearing them for the first time.
While the guitar is the main instrument on almost every song, there is a careful balance of instrumentation to keep the CD interesting. Accessory instruments include keyboards, bells, drums, and a handful of synthesized tones that compliment each selection.
“Jezus malusieńki” (my favorite song on the CD) is simple and pure. The harmonies and counterpoints are balanced and tasteful. Johnson’s arrangement of “Bóg się rodzi,” places you in the choir loft in any Polish American parish.
Johnson knows his Polish folk music. He respects the essence of each song, be it a touching ballad to the newborn Jesus, or a happy-go-lucky caroling favorite, such as “Cieszmy się,” which sounds like it would fit on a Christmas edition of the popular Christian cartoon show “Vegetales.” (I hope the show’s producers are reading this).
There are twenty three cuts in all, all instrumental. Other highlights include: “Dnia jednego o północy,” “Do szopy, hej pasterze,” “Dzisiaj w Betlejem,” “Gdy się Chrystus rodzi,” “Jam jest dudka,” “Oj! Maluśki,” “Pójdźmy wszyscy do stajenki,” “Północ już była,” “Przybieżeli do Betlejem,” “Śliczna Panienka,” and “Wśród nocnej ciszy.”
Mark Kohan is editor of the Polish American Journal and a member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. He has produced numerous recordings, including Polish Village Christmas Vols. I and II, and Polish Picnic Favorites.
- " Graj, Panu, Graj!" is a legacy of tradition, culture, and music masterfully played on guitar... a legacy for the next generation... a gift to a grandchild.
- Mary Jane Masiulionis
- You've opened some Christmas memories I'll have forever. One great thing about the Polish culture at Christmas, are the beautiful carols sung from Christmas Eve to Three Kings and everyone seemed to know the verses by heart, however lengthy. Christmases were so much richer back then for a young person. I loved them. Good luck with this project - Bob W.
- Finger-pickin' good! - Diane Ruszczyk
- Bob, I received your CD yesterday. Just awesome! Your work has made this world more beautiful!!! It's my favorite Christmas CD.
- Gloria Griffith
- It's a great CD. I'm ordering on for my son and one for my sister. - JD (Scranton, PA)
- Finally received my copy. Love, love, love it! Thank you, Robert, you did a fantastic job !!! Thank you for your fabulous work on the CD, Robert !!! I'm listening to it again as I type. I find the selections and arrangement to be very tasteful and relaxing. It is something I'll play often in my home over Christmas.
- Maria Dolnycky
- Dear Mr. Johnson,
I want to thank you for responding so quickly to my request for your CD entitled “Graj, Panu, Graj.” The CD will get many hours of playing with the enjoyment of listening to Kolendy and Pastoralki with a “different take”. As an instrumentatl CD, I enjoyed listening how you incorporated various musical instruments into each of the pieces. I found the 4th number “Cieszmy sie” to be very unique in that it reminded me of listening to a calliope. Your “take” on “Lulajze Jezuniu” with the baby cring and its heartbeat was truly different. I never really thought of the Baby Jesus ever crying or knowing that He had a heartbeat each time I heard that lullaby. I never heard Kolendy or Pastoralki played on a guitar, not to mention with a tuba in the background.
I say with certainty that you CD is now fiving me more opportunity to continue practicing my violin specifically on Kolendy. All I have to do now is find other senior citizens in my neighborhood that are able to play the piano of flute and join with me in playing Kolendy and Pastoralki. In the interim, I will continue to work as an elementary school math tutor and also help the music teacher with her students as she teaches them the violin.
ALBUM NOTES: Gleeful Memories of a St. Stanislaus Choirboy
1. Ach ubogi żłobie - (2:23) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) The intro to Ach ubogi żłobie was inspired by Natalia Kukulska's popular recording of the this Christmas favorite and serves as not only an excellent introduction to the first track, but also to the rest of the album.
2. Anioł pasterzom mówił - (2:12) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) Use of the keyboard on this one enabled me
to add chimes intended to represent the twinkling of Christmas tree lights and the sparkle of moonlit snow or sand. It also makes me think of the celestial music one might hear upon approaching the gates of heaven.
3. Bóg się rodzi - (2:34) (Keyboard) Most of the songs on this album remind me of my gleeful days as a St. Stanislaus choirboy. This particular hymn is different however. There is powerful scene in Andrzej Wajda's film, Katyń, that depicts imprisoned Polish soldiers gathered together for what was to be their last wigilia before being massacred by the by the Soviet secret service NKWD in the spring of 1940. After being notified by one his troops that the first star had been spotted, their commanding officer does his best to bolster the grim spirits of his troops by exhorting them to be strong and to endure whatever may lie ahead for the sake of Poland.The image of these desperate men singing this stately polonaise is something that will forever be emblazoned in my mind as a reminder that one must never lose hope, even in the most dire of circumstances.
This is the only carol on the CD that does not include guitar. I decided this carol is so majestic and powerful that only the soune of a full orchestra could do it justice. I used an old piano book that I have had since I took piano lessons at the Villa Maria School of Music when I was in the eighth grade. As I followed the musical score, I played along with a Mazowsze recording to make sure I had the proper tempo. The cover of the book I used is shown in the left margin. The bells heard at the beginning of the piece are of Poland's Gniezno Cathedral.
4. Cieszmy się - (1:51) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard, Percussion) The first three selections on the album are slow in tempo, but this joyous carol really livens things up! You may have noticed the songs on this album are presented in alphabetical order. I did this mainly to make it easier to locate personal favorites, however, although it was not planned, I am pleased with the way the songs are arranged from a musical standpoint. The album starts out with a stately introductory number, followed by two very soft hymns that lead into a broader collection of melodies and styles. Hopefully you will enjoy some of the surprises along the way.
5. Dnia jednego o północy - (2:01) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) This is a beautiful, soulful tune that I feel is best performed on violin. I have heard the melody played in slightly different ways, but the version I like best is the one played by the Kapela goralska Beskid. My rendition is meant to be similar to theirs.
6. Do szopy - (2:36) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) This carol summons lowly shepherds to the stable where they will join noble kings eager to welcome the Messiah.
7. Dzisiaj w Betlejem - (2:24) (Acoustic guitar) This was my favorite Christmas carol when I was a choirboy because I liked the way the soprano and alto parts melded together. If my memory serves me well, everyone in our choir loved singing Dzisiaj w Betlejem and always did so with great gusto. I am curious about one thing, however. In the second verse, we used to praise Joseph for his age ("I Józef stary") and now we focus on his holiness ("I Józef święty). Either way is fine with me, but I wonder why the change in lyrics. Hopefully our recent veneration of youth has nothing to do with it.
8. Gdy się Chrystus rodzi - (3:34) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) When I listen to this song, it reminds me of my dad accompanying me on violin when I was just learning to play the guitar. Those were good times.
9. Hej, w dzień narodzenia - (1:46) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard, Percussion) When the shepherds heard the good news, they hastened to Bethlehem with their bagpipes and other folk instruments. This lively song is one of my favorites.
10. Jam jest dudka - (1:38) (Acoustic guitar) I know two ways of playing this carol. The version on this album is the more common way of performing it, but not the way our choir used to sing it. When I get around to it, I will record the other version and post it on this site.
11. Jezus malusieńki - (2:33) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) This carol describes in great detail the humble manger setting where Jesus was born. In the recording, I included the faint sound of wind to give it a wintry feel.
12. Jezusa narodzonego - (1:56) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) Let us welcome the Infant to our world with this lively carol.
13. Lulajże Jezuniu - (2:52) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard, Vocals by Miles Johnson and Cecilia Mansour) Whenever I ask people which Polish carol they like best, usually they say it is Lulajże Jezuniu is their favorite. My rendition of this beautiful lullaby includes the vocal talents of two of my grandchildren. If Christmas is a celebration of the Nativity, that is the birth of the Infant Jesus, surely babies must be a part of the celebration. As a grandfather, I am fortunate to have a rapidly increasing cadre of infant grandchildren available for my recordings, and I take full advantage of my good fortune on this album. This recording of Lulajże Jezuniu features the gentle cooing of two of my grandchildren recorded shortly after their births. Later, two of my other grandchildren provide laughter for Północ już była. Thanks kids! You really nailed it!
14. Mędrcy świata - (2:12) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) In North America, we are inundated with Christmas music up until December 25, then suddenly the day after Christmas it's all over. Traditionally, Poles continue to enjoy kolendy long after the conclusion of Midnight Mass. This carol is especially appropriate for the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), because it celebrates the journey of the Three Kings to the manger in Bethlehem. I love the harmony in this one.
15. O Gwiazdo Betlejemska - (2:56) (Acoustic guitar, Violin, Keyboard) I used my dad's violin to play the pizzicato part for this carol. Music was important to the Johnson family. My dad's mother was a soloist and music teacher at St. Stanislaus Church and School in Buffalo, his brother Victor was the upstairs organist, and his sister Ursula played the organ in the downstairs chapel. Some of my fondest memories are of my dad accompanying my sister on violin as she played kolendy on our piano. That was sweet music, and it is a priviledge for me to include my dad's violin on this album. The pizzicato plink-plink may seem insignificant to some, but for me it is the best part of the album because it was played on by dad's violin and, together with the performances of my grandchildren on the album, links the future with the past.
16. Oj, Maluśki - (2:14) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) This carol is known as the mountaineers carol, and it is one of my favorites although I don't remember our choir singing it very often. The entire song is rather long; maybe that has something to do with it.
17. Pójdźmy wszyscy do stajenki - (2:14) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) I recorded this carol first probably because I enjoyed playing the introduction so much. This carol, like so many others, beckons us to hasten to the stable to greet the new King.
18. Północ już była - (2:35) Acoustic guitar, Keyboard, Percussion) Vocals are by Tyler Harrington and Lila Mansour. This carol was the most fun to record. I think the activity it describes is very comical, so I included the laughter of children to make that clear.
In his book, "A Polish Christmas Eve: Tradtiions and Recipes, Decorations and Song", Fr. Czesław Krysa relates what this carol is all about:
One of my father’s favorites was the carol “At the Midnight Hour” (Północ już była). He often told the story of how his home parish choir in southeastern Poland (Leżajsk) went into a frenzy when it sang of the angels rousing the shepherds on the first Christmas night. The carol describes blasts of light appearing in the midnight sky. The shepherds are struck by confusion as they try to comprehend what this celestial display means. One falls off a haystack where he was peacefully sleeping, another twists his ankle and lets out a shout. The eldest tries to calm the bedlam and asks the angels what the celestial vision signifies. The angels respond, telling the shepherds to go to Bethlehem and greet the New Born Infant. Quickly they begin searching for gifts. One takes some freshly smoked cheese, another a down pillow, the others turkeys, and even a calf. The last shepherd is asked to bring his pipes along. They all end up departing for Bethlehem in a lively musical cortege. This carol is one of the finest examples of the Polish Baroque carol. It combines a lavish imagination with a zesty and vivacious spirit of celebration. Urged on by my father, we annually sang this carol with the same robust fervor as did his parish choir before World War II. -From "A Polish Christmas Eve: Traditions and Recipes, Decorations and Song" (p.134)
19. Przybieżeli do Betlejem - (2:37) (Acoustic guitar) When recording the carols on this CD, I tried to be very respectful of tradition and did not attempt to alter the melodies in any way. ( I hope I was successful.) I must admit, however, that I took liberties with Przybieżeli do Betlejem. In my mind, I picture two groups of Polish highlanders calling out to one another as they make their way to Bethlehem (which is within walking distance, of course). In my version, there is a pause between the first and second lines of the first and second verses. The pauses account for the distance needed for their voices to be heard across the fields and hills. When the highlanders meet up in the third verse, there is no such pause, just a great deal of excitement in anticipation of the great event they are about to witness. The pause is reinstituted in the fourth verse dénouement as they continue to call out to other distant groups of mountaineers also making their way to Bethlehem. I suspect our choir director would not be pleased by my liberal interpretation, but you have to play what you feel. I hope you like it. Forgive me Sister.
20. Śliczna Panienka - (2:31) (Acoustic guitar) This is a very sweet tune that focuses on the fairest maiden that gave birth to Jesus in such humble conditions.
21. Triumfy Króla Niebieskiego - (1:57) Being a choirboy required considerable dedication. We sang for the 8 o'clock Mass every school day then rehearsed every day for one hour after school. We also sang for the 12 o'clock Mass every Sunday and participated in many special performances. One of our greatest rewards for our efforts was having the almost daily opportunity to watch our gifted organist, the late Mr. Peter J. Gorecki, work his magic on the church pipe organ. I always took delight when he would occasionally make a thundering sound with the bass keys for emotive effect. (When Mr. Gorecki played "The Star-Spangled Banner" on our choir room piano, for example, you really could hear those bombs bursting in air -- no imagination required.) Whenever I get heavy handed on the bass strings, I think of Mr. Gorecki.
22. W Żłobie leży - (2:36) (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) This carol is another with two separate melodies. I chose to play it the way our choir usually sang it. If I every do another Christmas album, I will be sure the second time around to play the other version.
23. Wśród nocnej ciszy - (4:36) - (Acoustic guitar, Keyboard) This is my favorite carol because it reminds my of my mother and a special feeling I had one Christmas Eve after Midnight Mass. Every year, our choir would perform upstairs in the main church for about twenty minutes before Midnight Mass. A few minutes before the stroke of twelve, our choir director would then lead us through the sacristy down a narrow circular staircase to the downstairs chapel where we were to sing for those who preferred a more intimate service. We were usually a bit sleepy by then but happy to sing for what was always a very appreciative group of parishioners. Mass would go on until about 1:00 AM, at which time we would walk across the street to the convent to remove our robes and return our hymnals before heading back home.
I remember one very snowy Christmas Eve when I was in the fourth grade being told to meet my mother at the side entrance of the church so she could walk me home. I went to what I thought was the designated spot and waited for her as instructed. Little by little, all my friends passed me by on their way home until I was the only one left waiting out on the street. I could have stepped inside the church, but I preferred to stand outside in the snow where for a few moments everything was unusually quiet and still. It was one off those snowfalls that seemed to muffle any sound that might dare disturb the warm feeling I had after mass. Maybe I was already in heaven, I thought; it was that peaceful. Eventually I peeked inside church, but my mom was not yet in sight. I decided she must be waiting for me in the front of the church, so I went back outside and walked around to the front where I found her in the vestibule talking to one of the other mothers. My mom seemed relieved that I finally showed up and that I was safe. Apparently, I was supposed to meet her in front of the church and not around the side. Sorry about that mom.
The instrumentation used in this song, especially the guitar part, represents the gentle, swirling snowfall that entertained me that silent night when all was right with the world and the glowing, peaceful feeling I had upon finding my mom. The sound of trumpets may seem inappropriate to some for a song that in English is called "In the Night's Stillness", but to me the trumpeters are the angels heralding the good news of Christmas. The pan flute at the end of the carol portrays my mom and I walking home together after Midnight Mass, and in my opinion serves is a fitting conclusion to the album.
“Graj, Panu Graj! 23 Instrumental Kolędy i Pastorałki Treasures” is the result of my desire to share with my children and grandchildren the Polish Christmas carols I enjoyed singing as a boy. In addition to my gleeful memories as a St. Stanislaus (Buffalo, N.Y.) choirboy during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, I also have fond memories of my father, an accomplished amateur violinist, together with my pianist sister, playing kolendy as part of our family’s wigilia ritual. How I wish I had a recording of those performances! Unfortunately, I do not.
As a folk guitarist who has continued to play these musical gems over the years, I finally decided to make a recording of my own as a keepsake for my children and for their children. To give my grandchildren a vested interest in the music, I invited them to provide the voices of Baby Jesus for the lullaby, “Lulajże Jezuniu”, and laughter for “Północ już była”; and, in an effort to link the future to the past, the pizzicato part of “O Gwiazdo Betlejemska” is played on my father’s old violin. It should also be noted that the grandchildren who provided the voices for the Infant Jesus were just a few days old when I recorded them, and I feel their voices add a special tenderness and realism to the album.