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Polish Solidarity Tapes Digitized

Andrea Bohlman, a doctoral candidate in Historical Musicology in the Harvard University Department of Music, works on socialist and post-socialist music cultures, European popular song and hymns, musical media, and music in politics. In this guest post, she describes some of her discoveries in the stacks of the Harvard libraries, and their importance to her research:

Though the bulk of my dissertation research brings me to archives housed in basements of private homes, government organizations, and academic institutions across Poland, generous support from the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, Houghton Library, and the Music Department at Harvard has helped to make some of the most unusual materials available on this side of the Atlantic: a selection of rare cassette tapes. The digitization of these materials, which were collected among members of the Polish opposition in the 1980s, makes radio programs, audiobooks, news montages, and more available to any user at Houghton Library. The creative sound documents recorded on the tapes had previously been inaccessible because of their fragile media. Now we have the opportunity to listen to the sounds of organized dissent and to understand the significance of music for Polish activists.

The Solidarity Collection itself (to which these tapes belong) is unique outside of Poland. It contains a variety of materials assembled from private collections of Polish-American supporters of the independent Solidarity trade union (Solidarnosc), and other dissident organizations from the late 1970s to the end of the Cold War. Members of Polish opposition depended on a variety of means of communication to organize meetings, discuss their demands, critique the ideologies behind the Peoples’ Republic of Poland, and create a culture of dissent. In scores of news bulletins and written documentation of organizational matters, “dissident culture” supported the publication of literature censored by the government and promoted its own agenda through stamps, posters, and other iconographic media.

The Solidarity Collection, because it represents not the record of a single organization, but the collections of individuals invested in the movements’ politics, speaks volumes about the way in which documents printed by the Polish underground presses—Polish samizdat—were actually disseminated and received. The Solidarity Collection offers a snapshot into the diverse means of expression at the heart of the Polish opposition, the local efforts in what came to be a nationally triumphant political party.

My dissertation concerns music and activism in Poland during the 1980s. It was when I was perusing the Solidarity Collection for songbooks that I noticed a reference to 38 cassette tapes. When I inquired about them, a Houghton librarian, Joseph Zajac, was kind enough to take me into the bowels of the stacks, where I got a sense for the richness of the sound materials. I began to talk with Richard F. French librarian Virginia Danielson about listening access, since Houghton has neither the digitization facilities nor the audio technology of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library.

The tapes represent the bulk of the output of two major underground presses. From 1983-1990 these presses used cassettes as a primary means of disseminating political cabaret, political anthems, and audiobooks (such as George Orwell’s 1984), as well as editorial essays read by their activist authors. Cassettes not only recorded the sounds of the opposition, they afforded journalists, workers, and literary figures the opportunity to create a sound object. The digitization of these tapes has made the material more accessible and has transformed the nature of my work with the cassettes: I can return to listen to interviews and audio montages repeatedly. But, most importantly, engagement with their form and content can alter historians’ understanding of music in the Polish opposition by underlining the vitality of sound and music at a crucial moment of Cold War history in Poland.

– Andrea Bohlman

Notes: David Ackerman, Bruce Gordon, and Darron Burke, of the library’s Media Preservation Services, digitized the tapes, which are stored in the University Library’s Digital Repository Service, a state-of-the-art permanent digital storage facility.

The Music Library acknowledges the continued, valuable support from the Andrew W. Van Houten Audio Preservation Fund for our work with rare and unique electroacoustic and ethnomusicological recordings.


  1. Ksenya

    Congratulations on this project! I came across this story while researching dissident archival material in preparation for a conference paper. We have here at my university a collection of Polish uncensored publications and Solidarity material, I took a quick look at the finding aid to the collection and see that we, too, have one box with phonodiscs, and another full of cassettes. Now I am quite curious as to what they may hold.

  2. loebmusic

    Thanks! I suppose it’s something of a cliche to talk about making unexpected discoveries in archives, but that’s part of the fun of the research, too, isn’t it? I hope you find your own treasures once you have a chance to look through the recordings at your university, and best of luck with your conference paper.
    -Kerry Masteller

  3. Sue

    I know of a Solidarnosc cassette tape from Gdansk, recorded in 1981. It is number 2 of 2. It was brought to the US by members of the movement there who emigrated from Poland in the 80s. How can I find out if you have digitized a copy of this one?

    • loebmusic

      Dear Sue, Good question! This collection is housed at Houghton Library, so I’d suggest submitting a question to their Ask A Houghton Librarian service, to ask someone from the Solidarity Bibliographic Center to look into it for you. The collection’s call number is 2009M-97r.
      Kerry Masteller

  4. mike

    Hi ,I have about 70 Polish tapes including two Solidarity . I live in London They are in two cassette cases ,most are pre recorded ,a few obviously taped off a radio.
    Are they worth anything ?

    • loebmusic

      Dear Mike,
      I’m afraid we’re not able to make any estimates about the worth of your tapes. The British Library has a Solidarity Collection, so you may want to contact them to ask whether they’re able to suggest an appraiser. Here’s how to reach their reference teams. You could also contact used recording shops in the London area to see whether they’re able to appraise the tapes or refer you to someone who can.

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