Q&A with Chicago underground artist Adam Wojtanek - also known by '60s stage name "The Polish Hippy"

"The Hippie Movement and 1960s music had an enormous influence on civil rights and human rights issues."

Adam Wojtanek: Peace & Love

Adam Wojtanek is an American songwriter, musician, guitarist, world traveler, geek, Yogi and DIY media producer currently residing in European; also known by a 1960s stage name "The Polish Hippy". Adam Wojtanek is a Chicago underground counter-culture artist and composer. He was greatly influenced by Chicago's folk music and electronic Blues music scenes. Additionally, he was influenced by abstract artists such as Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Kazimir Malevich esp. Malevich's iconic Black Square that had an enormous influence on 20th-century art. Music about real people, places and things by a Chicago underground counter-culture artist.

He was also a supporting member of the Art Institute of Chicago. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Adam relocated to Europe and currently lives on a Baltic island near Berlin and Hamburg. Adam grew up in an area that comprised the former Hyde Park Township of Chicago where many famous Blues and Jazz artists lived and President Barack Obama. He lived near Calumet City where night clubs featured Las Vegas-style showgirl revues, and artists such as Sun Ra, Frank Sinatra, Sophie Tucker, Keith Speaks or Gypsy Rose Lee played in local Speakeasies during the Prohibition. Therefore, the environment he grew up in proved to be ideal for fermentation of many modern artists in those yearly days of modern American music.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the ‘Hippy Movement’ and what does ‘Flower Power’ mean to you?

The hippie movement began in the USA at an important time for me. It was a time of the British music invasion which began in 1964 with The Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was followed by Mod fashions from London, England, men's long hair fashions and new ideas. The hippie movement started shortly after the arrival of The Beatles in the USA and probably wouldn't have been possible without them. The 1960s Peace Movement started simultaneously at about the same time the hippie movement started. Hence, they are inseparable. Antiwar slogans calling for peaceful resolution to problems such as “Flower power” or “Make love not war” were used for the first time at antiwar gatherings by hippies. So, it was natural for me to be identified with the hippie movement and to participate in the 1960s Antiwar Movement. In the beginning I wasn't aware that I was a hippie until someone called me a hippie and gave me my hippie name “Polish Hippie” because I was a Polish American. I was always interested in peace and spiritual development. So, ideas of peace and love were always very dear to me; especially because my Parents survived WWII and told me a lot about the horrors of war. The hippie movement opened new doors of perception for me and taught me how to see the world from a broader perspective.

How do you describe Adam Wojtanek sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

That's a difficult question because I have a wide interest in music, from classical Indian music to Metal music. Perhaps I will begin by saying something about my musical roots. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood where there were several bars that played lots of slow country music that you'd rarely hear on the radio. I often had to listen to that music at night in bed before falling asleep because the bars were busy till late night hours. So, a lot of that music has become a part of me; though I was never aware of it then. Besides that I was influenced by jazz and blues music because I lived in the former Hyde Park Township where many early Chicago music artists lived, and near Calumet City where stars like Frank Sinatra used to perform at the local speakeasies. Chicago was America's jazz, blues and country music hub in those days and there was also a large folk music scene. Many young folk music artists were being forged in Coffee Houses that were operated by various institutions across the town. My first solo show was in such a coffee house in the 1960s. So I consider myself to be a folk music artist that has gone beyond folk music through the decades. Other forms of music such as blues and country were the backbone of American folk music. The music always revolved around the human condition and issues such as peace, equality and human rights. And it was the music progressive minded young Americans and later hippies were listening to and playing before the British Music Invasion. So my basic music philosophy was always to share with the world ideas of peace, love, respect and understanding. 

"I miss the simplicity in music. My hopes for the future are that people will wise up, stop fighting and that peace will prevail. My fears are that we may grow too dependent on technology." (Photo: Adam Wojtanek and his brother George (Jerzy) working on his motorcycle, Rabka Zd. 1969)

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of social and spiritual researches and experiments?

The 1960s were a time when many young Americans started questioning traditional American values. At that time, the country was involved in the Vietnam War and all 18 years old boys had to register for Military service. It was a time of the Cold War and a nuclear threat was in the air. Hence, young people were trapped between a two prong reality where there was great abundance of consumer goods and job opportunities in the country, while on the other hand, there was a war on from which many young man never returned from. So, young people started searching for better alternatives to that American Dream. So, social leaders such as Gandhi from India inspired many of us with their examples of peaceful protest. I've also been influenced by Indian Music and Hindu ideas. Perhaps that may become more apparent in my future works which haven't been recorded yet.  

Why did you think that the ‘Hippy Movement’ and the 60s music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Real music comes from the heart. Unlike music created by educated musicians that adhere to a rigid musical structure and form, 1960s music placed a higher value on improvisation and playing music from the heart. Perhaps that's why many find it more interesting. I think that modern electronic music is deprived of that human factor. And nowadays, popular music is often produced by teams of highly specialized professionals for artists skilled in the craft of music with the aid of machines that improve on human imperfections. Thus, eliminating a natural flow of energy from the music, which by nature doesn't always keep a steady beat or rhythm. Yet, there is a lot of very good music around today. Sometimes, even electronic music can be interesting.  Many types of modern music draw upon 1960s and 1970s music. Just like much of the 1960s music came from folk music, the 1960s music has given rise to techno music, psychedelic music, Rap music, metal music, reggae, etc..

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?    (Photo: Adam with his first guitar, 1966)

That is a very difficult question because I've known many people and have been influenced by many more. If I were to choose one or two that would be unfair to the rest. So, if I had to mention someone who had the greatest influence on me it would have to be my Mom. She was my best Guru. My Mom's Dad; my Grandfather was a professional musician. He played violin in a German orchestra. He also played on a large pipe organ in a local church. My Mom also turned me on to The Beatles when they performed for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show. That was a show that changed my life forever. I would have never seen them live on that show if not for my Mom. And most of all, I wouldn't have learned to play the guitar if I hadn't receive money for my first guitar from her. But she often told me not to make a career in music and to find a steady job. But I didn't listen to her. 

Are there any memories from gigs, busking time and your travels which you’d like to share with us?

I would have to say that the most memorable one was my first stage performances in school. It made the greatest impression on me because it was the first time I performed on a stage before an audience. It was a school play in an auditorium, in which I played two different roles. One was of a sailor, and the other one was of a Spanish type character. Both roles were created for me because I was still learning English at that time because my family just relocated to the USA. Hence, the roles of a sailor and a Spaniard because both of those are associated with the sea. The other best remembered performance was my first one in a Chicago coffee house where I played a few of my songs and joked with the audience. I started writing my own music as soon as I learned to play guitar. Though I didn't know it then, Chicago was the source for musical inspiration in those days. So, I was in the right place for that. There was lots of different types of music around. A lot of it was coming from small transistor radio speakers that became extremely popular with young people all over the town. Especially exciting was Soul and Motown music which was played everywhere especially around South Chicago. Music could be heard on the streets, coming out of local clubs and bars on a hot summer day and just about anywhere. Chicago was the hub for music. It was also the source of inspiration for many British artists, who came to the Windy City to make recordings and to get inspired by local artists and new ideas. We know that today from various autobiographies and media sources. But it was a well-kept secret in those days. Many of us didn't know that we were brushing shoulders with famous artists on the streets of Chicago. But my favorite venues where those where beatniks and bohemian types met, and where abstract ideas thrived. Coffee houses were such sanctuaries for many creative young people. Those were the places where art, music and poetry were shared over a cup of warm coffee. A typical coffee house was often located in a cellar and consisted mainly of a stage on one side of the room, small tables with chairs, and some free standing chairs in the back of the room for those who wanted to sit alone. Tables often had candle sticks mounted on empty wine bottles and coffee was often the only item on the menu. Coffee houses had an intimate feel at home type of atmosphere. The audience was young and open to new ideas. And the sound of applause always was a bit too loud as it echoed off the walls. So, audiences in some coffee houses just snapped their finders instead of clapping hands. Aside from the memories of extremely high levels of stage fright that I experience before every show, my most memorable moments are from those early 1960s coffee house performances.  

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the simplicity in music. My hopes for the future are that people will wise up, stop fighting and that peace will prevail. My fears are that we may grow too dependent on technology.

(Photo: Adam Wojtanek Chicago, c. 1966)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I don't like the rat race in the music world. I've done whatever I could to avoid it. I've been fortunate to remain independent. That has given me more time to do the things I want to do. Other then that, I don't know what other things I would want to change in the music world. I'm sure things will change because we live in a transient world where change is natural.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the Hippy and Summer of Love era?

What I enjoyed most about the hippie and Summer of Love era? The hippie era had its up sides and down sides. Though many of us were pessimistic about the future, today only good memories remain. Yes, I enjoyed the music, the gatherings, parties, concerts, meeting likeminded people, the exchange of ideas and learning new things that we weren't aware of before about ecology, Yoga, abstract forms of art and music, alternative ways of life and many more things.  

What is the impact of Hippy Movement’ and the 60s music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?  

The Hippie Movement and 1960s music had an enormous influence on civil rights and human rights issues. That is a well known historical fact and a vast subject on which many books, University thesis were written and many documentary films made. I wouldn't know how to explain that without reaching for those resources because many of us were not aware of the changes we were making. Many 1960s ideas that were shared by hippies and carried by the music are now a part of the mainstream. The Hippie Movement was a minority youth movement. Only 2% of American youth participated in. So, it was a great achievement for such a small group of folks, and I'm proud to have participated in it.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day? 

If I had a choice, I'd like to spend a day in the future so I could see how things have worked out for the world and to learn a few new things.  

Adam Wojtanek - Official website

Photo: Adam Wojtanek and Ryan Roxie (Slash, Alice Cooper) in Warsaw, Poland 2009

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