When Bob Dylan’s second album hit the shops in 1963 there was a howl of protest from the Secret Police in Czechoslovakia.
Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album was seen as a call for freedom across the world and became one of the anthems adopted by Hippies who were bringing revolution to the streets and music to cafes like Gerdes Folk City.
In fact its most famous song was just an opaque piece of poetry which posed question after question but left everything Blowing in the Wind when it came to answers…
However, it was seen as enigmatic and powerful enough to be latched onto by the Civil Rights Movement and immediately placed Dylan firmly at the top of the list of folk luminaries like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seger and Utah Philips.
In a simple twist of fate though, somebody in Czechoslovakia’s State Office of Censorship gave the go-ahead for the album’s release in what, at the time, was one of the most oppressed countries in the world.
They had obviously missed the point of the nuclear war protest of Hard Rain, the attack on governments and war mongers in Masters of War and the strange Talkin’ World War Three Blues – and, an anathema to any communist state, a song called I Shall be Free.
Supraphon, one of the three major state-owned labels, jumped the gun so-to-speak and rushed the album out. Supraphon had come into being in 1932 and was better known for its offerings of Czech classical music.
Jan Sestak, later to be known as shadowy Railway DJ, says in his fascinating book The Royal Ruler and the Railway DJ, co-authored with top British disc jockey Tony Prince: “It was spell-binding when we heard of the release, I couldn’t believe it, the world’s most dissident and political song-writer had his album released in our oppressed country. Songs about America, the Empire of Evil were in our record shops…”
But the joy didn’t last long as the hard reign of communism caught on to the mistake and the whole of the management at Supraphon’s head quarters disappeared.
Still, Jan, who for many years had been listening to Western music under his pillow in his bedroom, with the Secret Police prowling the streets near his home, by now had his copy.
Jan, who is now in his 70s, but still lives in Brnu, near Prague, translated Dylan’s convoluted lyrics and distributed them to fans of Western music and local bands who played the songs in dark and dingy clubs across the city.
Jan ultimately became friends with Tony Prince, the “Royal Ruler” of pirate radio who he’d listened to for years on a small transistor radio in his room and had become a big fan. They finally met when Tony, from Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the first Western disc jockey to penetrate the Iron Curtain.
Ultimately Jan began DJ-ing and because he had worked for a while of the state’s train network he became known as the Railway DJ.
His life is told in The Royal Ruler & the Railway DJ: The Autobiographies of Tony Prince and Jan Sestak which will be reviewed soon by the consumerwatchfoundation.com