In the late 1960s, every country had at least one: a cute singer/actress, mid-20s, go-go boots, hair piled high, black eyeliner, radiating youthful independence. The main difference with Czechoslovakia's leading prototype, Marta Kubišová, is that her government soon banished her entirely from public life.
Kubišová was the "it" girl of the Prague Spring, that snowballing 1964–1968 cultural and eventually political thaw of communist frigidity, eventually stomped out in August 1968 by the invading Warsaw Pact. Overnight, Kubišová's sorrowful ballad "Modlitba pro Martu" ("A Prayer for Marta") was transformed from sappy tear-jerker to theme song of the resistance.
It took until early 1970 for the recrudescent communist government to totalize its grip on all facets of Czechoslovak life. Kubišová was rung up on false charges of pornography, her band banned from performing, her 1969 release Songy a Balady (Songs and Ballads) yanked from shelves. It would not reappear until after the 1989 Velvet Revolution overthrew communism.
Kubišová did not go gently into that ungood night of totalitarianism. At great personal risk, she became one of the early signatories and official spokespeople of Charter 77, the landmark dissident organization launched in 1977 that dared insist that Czechoslovakia's government live up to its international human rights treaties and the words in its written constitution. Her late-'60s international fame was probably the only thing keeping her from joining the other Charter 77 members in prison.
On November 22, 1989, the fifth day of the Velvet Revolution, nearly 200,000 raucous pro-democracy demonstrators in Prague's Wenceslas Square suddenly hushed to pin-drop silence. There, from an overlooking balcony, they saw Kubišová for the first time in two decades. She sang the national anthem, and then "A Prayer for Marta."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Songy a Balady".