Polka in the United States
Polka in the United States refers to polka—a music and dance style that originated in Europe in the 1830s and came to American society when people immigrated from Eastern Europe. A fast style in 2/4 time, and often associated with the pre–World War II era, polka remains a dynamic "niche" music in America.
- 1 Description
- 2 Polka genres
- 3 Polka organizations
- 4 Polka festivals
- 5 Polka masses
- 6 Polka music as an expression of culture
- 7 The future of polka music and dance
- 8 See also
- 9 References
Several polka genres exist in the United States, each with its own unique characteristics and performers. Though these polka genres vary, all are unified in the expression of ethnicity by performers and participants. Polka enthusiasts gather to enjoy their love of the music and dance and to honor their heritage at polka festivals. Modern media enables these fans to stay connected and share their passion. Though it passed its heyday in the 1950s the polka remains an active music form with distinct genres, leading performers, and active organizations. Where it is popular, the polka is a manifestation of the culture of those who participate in it. It is the state dance of Wisconsin.
Although author Charles Keil admits that "there are as many styles of polka as there are polka localities", he and his wife have divided American polka music into three major genres:
- Slavic, with its subgenres, Polish-American, Czech-American, and Slovenian-American
- Germanic, with its subgenres, German-American
- Southwestern, with its subgenres, Mexican-American and Papago-Pima
The two Slavic genres are found in eastern and midwestern America, the Germanic genres in midwestern and western America, and the Southwestern genres in southwestern America. The different genres are united by the characteristic 2/4 time signature that exists in all polkas as well as by instruments and lyrics that are similar throughout all styles. Polka bands across all genres typically include an accordion or concertina, wind instruments, and drums. The lyrics sung by these bands are united by their discussion of joy, religion, and ethnic culture. Differences stem from variations in instrumentation, tempo, and the popularity of the genre in various places.
The Polish-American style of polka is perhaps the most popular today. Polish Polka bands do not only play polkas, but also play obereks, waltzes, and sometimes tangos. In fact, the "Polish polka" as we know it was never danced in Poland. Rather, different forms of polka existed in Polish folk dancing. This popularity is due in part to the fact that performers in this genre have worked to appeal to a larger audience by adding covers of modern music alongside normal polkas in their albums and performances. For example, the polka band Toledo Polka Motion includes a cover of the Beatles' "I'm a Loser" along with traditional pieces such as "Pod Krakowem" on one of their albums. Polka star Jimmy Sturr has even included recordings with stars such as Willie Nelson to get the country music audience interested in polka. The hotspots for Polish-American polka are mostly in cities near the Great Lakes (especially Chicago) and some East Coast cities.
Polish-American polka can be subdivided into Chicago-style and Eastern-style. The typical Chicago-style polka band includes one or two trumpets, an accordion, a concertina, drums, a bass, and sometimes a clarinet, saxophone, or fiddle. This style is connected to the '50s rock-and-roll era and is sometimes referred to as "push" style because of the intense "bellow-shaking" of the accordion. A secondary style of Chicago-style polka music is referred to as "honky" style; this consists of a trumpet, clarinet (doubling on saxophone), concertina or accordion, upright bass (or bass guitar), & drums. It is performed in a dixieland style, and sung primarily in the Polish language. Most polka artists add a piano on recordings for embellishment. The modern giants of Chicago-style are Lenny Gomulka and the late Eddie Blazonczyk. Both were highly influenced by the style of Li'l Wally Jagiello, a polka performer of an earlier generation. Another influential early pioneer of Chicago-style polkas was Marion Lush who has been called the "Golden Voice" of polkas due to his distinctive vocal stylings. (Lush died in 1993.) Blazonczyk was the leader of a band called the Versatones, who released over 50 albums. (Blazonczyk died in 2012.) Gomulka was a member of the Versatones until 1980 when he formed his own band, the Chicago Push. Some other popular modern Chicago-style polka bands include Crusade, the Polka Family, the Dynatones, and Toledo Polka Motion. In important venue for live performances of polka music was Club 505 at 13505 S Brainard Ave in the Hegewisch neighborhood on the Southeast side of Chicago. A live broadcast from Club 505 from 1959 can be heard on YouTube.
Eastern-style polka is similar to Chicago style but is played at a faster tempo, usually includes a bigger section of horns and reeds, and is connected to big-band era music rather than rock-and-roll. The most popular Eastern-style performer (and probably the most popular polka artist in America today) is Jimmy Sturr, winner of 15 Grammy Awards in the polka category. Other important Eastern-style performers include Frank Wojnarowski, Bernie Witkowski, and the Connecticut Twins.
The Slovenian style is generally played at a faster tempo and features different instrumentation. Whereas the Polish style utilizes trumpets and concertinas, the main melody instruments in the Slovenian band are the accordion and tenor saxophone. (often doubling on flute & clarinet during waltzes) A button accordion or "button box" is sometimes used instead of the piano accordion or chromatic accordion and offers a different sound. The Slovenian style also adds a banjo or guitar to bolster the rhythm section (most commonly banjo for polkas and guitar for waltzes). The epicenter of the Slovenian-American style of polka is undoubtedly Cleveland and northeast Ohio, but it is also popular in Pennsylvania and in many other cities in the Great Lakes region. The most influential figure in Slovenian-American polka is Frankie Yankovic, who helped "Americanize" the Slovenian polka and worked for years to popularize it, appearing throughout the country and even performing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Other important Slovenian-style pioneers include Tony Jalovec - The Polka Maestre - Johnny Pecon, Lou Trebar, Johnny Vadnal (along with brothers Tony, Frankie, and Richie),Tony Jalovec-Polka Maestre-Canada, Kenny Bass, and Eddie Habat. The torchbearers of Slovenian-American or "Cleveland-Style" polka today include Jeff Pecon (Johnny's son), Joey Tomsick, Don Wojtila, Eddie Rodick, Bob Kravos and Eric Noltkamper. Like their Polish counterparts, these bands have also expanded their repertoire over the years to include a variety of styles of music including polkas, waltzes, American standards, Latin dances (cha chas, tangos, etc.), line dances, and rock 'n roll.
German-American bands resist being termed "polka bands" because they perform not only polkas but also waltzes, schottisches, laendlers, and various other ethnic forms of music. Some of the Modern day German-American bands have even been known to incorporate Country & Western and/or Rock & Roll into their repertoire. They prefer the term "old-time." Their style is also sometimes known as "Dutchmen," a name derived from a band named The Six Fat Dutchmen. This is a contrast to Polish-American and Slovenian-American bands, which generally do not object to the term "polka band". German-American bands are also comparatively more traditional than the Slavic genres, with less modern American influence in their albums. Because of this, their recordings are much rarer and harder to come by than recordings of Slavic-style performers. The German-American sound is often described with the term "oom-pa-pa" and is characterized by an emphasis on brass (especially the tuba), accompanied by drums and reed instruments (including the accordion or concertina, although for the most part the concertina is usually favored over the accordion in German-American bands). German-American style bands perform primarily in the so-called "polka belt" of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. One important German-American performer is Lawrence Welk, who began his career as a band leader in South Dakota with an ethnic German-style ensemble called Welk's Novelty Orchestra. He later added more popular music to his band's repertoire, which enabled him to spread the polka throughout America by way of his famous television show. Other important modern German-American bands include the Hoolerie Dutchmen, the Jolly Swiss Boys, Happy Hans, and the Jerry Schneider Band.
Czech-American style polka is similar to German-American style in many ways. Its performers call their bands "old-time," use the same brass-heavy instrumentation, and are popular in the same "polka belt." Czech-American bands tend to be even more traditional than German-American bands, playing numerous authentic Czech pieces (polkas, waltzes, and schottisches). Another unique aspect of many Czech bands is their family structure. Some Czech bands perpetuate a family structure through several generations. An example is the Masopust Polka Band, which was started by the Masopust family in the late nineteenth century and still plays today. Important Czech performers include the Harold Schultz Orchestra, the Greiner Brothers Orchestra, the Capital City Czech Choraliers of Nebraska, the Czechlanders Orchestra of Nebraska, Ernie Kucera, and Al Grebnik.
Not as obviously related to the polka as the four genres above, Mexican-American polka is called "conjunto". The conjunto sound originated from the Czech and German influence on Mexican-Americans in Texas and northern Mexico. Conjunto bands play some polkas, but their most popular musical form is the ranchera, a form similar to polka. The instrumentation involves a combination of accordion, bajo sexto (a Mexican twelve-string guitar), bass, and drums. Important modern performers in the genre include Los Hermanos Bernal, Santiago Jimenez, Flaco Jimenez, Esteban Jordan, Valerio Longoria, and Tony De La Rosa among many others.
Papago-Pima style is more commonly referred to as "chicken scratch" and is associated with the Native American Tohono O'odham tribe (who were once the Papago). This tribe was influenced by the music of the Germans who settled in southern Arizona, the most popular area for this genre. Papago-Pima performers use a saxophone, accordion, guitar, electric bass, and drums in their performances and commonly perform music that follows the form of the schottische (a dance with the same cultural origins as polka). The most important modern performers in this genre are Southern Scratch, the Joaquin Brothers, Papago Raiders, the Molinas, and T.O. Brave.
While Keil's six genres cover the majority of polka performers, other polka bands combine these genres or exist outside of them altogether. Brave Combo is one important modern group that plays a combination of these three genres with a very modern edge. Started in 1979 by Carl Finch, this band is the ultimate in appealing to a wider, younger audience. In addition to accordion, tuba, woodwinds, drum, and trumpet, the instrumentation of the band includes guitar, electric horn, and harmonica. According to Finch, the genre of the band has "no restrictions." They play everything from Polish-style to rancheras to Greek music.
To appeal to younger audiences, the band uses album covers that make the band look like a rock group and edgy album titles such as Kick Ass Polkas. Their music is popular enough in the polka world that their 1999 album, Polkasonic, won a Grammy in the polka category. Brave Combo is an example of the way some polka bands have tried to break free of the restrictions of genre and adapt to modern culture.
From tiny ethnic dance halls to larger-scale national organizations, there is a huge network of people working to keep the polka alive. One Web site lists a total of 49 formal polka clubs nationwide, and there are many other smaller organizations . The largest organizations today include the International Polka Association (IPA), the United States Polka Association, the Polka Lovers Klub of America (Po.L.K. of A.), the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, the Penn-Ohio Polka Pals, and the Wisconsin Polka Boosters. Modern communication has also allowed polka fans to organize through national newsletters such as the Polish-American Journal, and the Post Eagle. Polka news is even available online at Polonia Today. Radio stations have been organized to perpetuate the popularity of the polka. (although nowadays, most polka shows have been limited to airing on independent & time-brokered AM stations, small-market college FM stations, and a handful of Internet only polka stations.) One survey conducted in 1989 counted a total of 354 stations that played polka music in 32 states. (By September 2012, that number had dropped to 221 stations in 27 states.) Another triumph for the polka community came in 1985 when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences formed a polka category so that polka artists could be recognized at the Grammy Awards ceremony.
The International Polka Association
The longest-standing and most influential polka organization by far is the Chicago-based International Polka Association (IPA). Beginning as an "International Polka Convention" in the mid-1960s, the IPA was officially established in 1968 with Leon Kozicki as the "organization builder" and John Hyzny as the "entrepreneur". According to its charter, its goals are "to promote, maintain, and advance public interest in polka entertainment". Today, the IPA still carries out yearly conventions every summer to allow polka fans to gather and to present the annual Polka Music Awards. The IPA established the Polka Music Hall of Fame in 1968 to honor worthy performers. In 1982, a building was established to house the Polka Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Throughout the United States (and especially through the so-called "polka belt"), polka fans gather to participate in polka festivals. Many of these festivals are arranged by organizations such as the IPA and the United States Polka Association. Others, such as Polish-style performer Eddie Blazoncyzk's "Polka Fireworks" festival in Pittsburgh, are run by polka stars or polka fans.
These festivals usually last several days and involve performances, dancing, jam sessions, beer, ethnic food, athletic events, parades, and polka masses. Though many festival attendees belong to an older generation, there are also a substantial number of young participants. Polka music and polka festivals are often described as "happy" and "joyful" by their organizers and participants. In their book Polka Happiness, Charles and Angeliki Keil describe the aspects of these "polka parties" that allow them to bring joy to people of all ages. A wide variety of people are accepted and people are encouraged to dance with many different partners. The musicians dance as well as perform. The live bands perform a variety of more modern music as well as traditional polkas. Participants drink enough to get "silly or happy," but not enough to get drunk.
Other Polka Festivals include, the United States Polka Association Convention, The Annual Minnesota State Polka Festival, Milwaukee Polish Fest, International Polka Association Convention, Pulaski Polka Days, New Glarus Polkafest, Wisconsin Dells Polish Fest, Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest, Oregon's Alpenfest Swiss-Bavarian festival, Polkamotion by the Ocean, Houghton Lake Polka Festival, SloveneFest, and Tony Petkovsek's Thanksgiving Polka Weekend.
Beginning in the early 1970s, the phenomenon of "polka masses" began appearing. Polka masses are usually held by members of the Roman Catholic Church who consider the polka an important part of their ethnic heritages. The first polka mass was created by Father George Balasko in 1972 and the idea was spread by Father Frank Perkovich throughout the '70s and '80s. Both were polka musicians. In composing a polka mass, a musician either alters the lyrics of polka pieces to become more appropriate for a spiritual setting or creates an entirely new piece of polka-style music to sing with the usual sacred text. Robert Walser argues that the exuberant polka music motivates participants to "worship more vigorously." He also asserts that the polka mass "brings the community into the church" because it involves music and lyrics that the congregations are more familiar with.
Polka music as an expression of culture
Polka music is obviously associated with various ethnic groups throughout America. This is evident in the division of the polka genres into specific ethnic styles. Dr. Ann Hetzel Gunkel describes the polka as a means of protecting ethnic heritage from the invasion of "American mass culture." She even argues that polka music can be perceived as a "radical alternative" to "mainstream culture". A good example of this is the polka mass. It allows entire communities to choose an alternate approach to worship that helps them preserve their ethnic origins. Another example of a resistance to mass culture is the status of polka stars. Popular polka performers are not viewed as sex symbols  or idolized in the same way that pop stars of today are idolized. Instead, the performers work to establish a feeling of community by interacting and dancing with their audience. This expression of ethnicity is especially important as America continues to homogenize through media and the culture of capitalism. Sheltered communities that were once saturated with culture are forced to join modern American culture. Keeping the polka alive allows these communities to establish a tangible aspect of their culture that can be maintained amidst the changes American society faces.
Dr. Gunkel also asserts that the polka serves to resist not only American mass culture in general but also the loss of religion that exists in our society. The ethnic cultures associated with polka music are also associated with the Catholic Church. Lyrics used with polka music often reflect this association—many contain references to God, the virgin Mary, and religion in general. The union of polka music with a religious experience in the polka mass is another example of the way polka music allows its participants to maintain their religion in a society that continues to disregard it. The effort to protect the polka is not merely an effort to perpetuate something that brings many people joy but is also an effort to preserve a threatened culture.
Charles Keil describes the paradox that "polka is a modern urban style that enables traditional cultures to persist". Polka enthusiasts have to mediate between the desire to preserve their culture and the desire to keep the polka alive through future generations. This involves establishing a balance between traditionalism and modernism. An example of this conflict is the language polka music is performed in. Performers have to face the decision of performing and recording in Polish to appease those who prefer a more traditional approach and performing and recording in English to attract a wider, younger audience. English has become more and more popular, but many performers still learn several pieces with Polish lyrics. Another example of performer response to this conflict is the practice of performing and recording covers of popular non-polka music along with traditional polka music. The problem of attracting a broader audience while still preserving cultural heritage is an ongoing challenge in the polka world. The demographic for polka music in the USA currently consists primarily of married males between the ages of 60-85 with a median age of 74.
The future of polka music and dance
Though many would agree with expert Richard March that the efforts of polka artists to reach a broader audience are "doomed," the polka still has a strong base of enthusiastic supporters.
The future employment of polka artists is closely related to the future popularity of the polka dance.
Potential limits to the popularity of the polka dance come from the relationship between footwear and the dance floor. The polka depends of a smooth dance surface, the most preferred dance venues once had sprung hardwood floors with a smooth finish. The most preferred footwear had leather soles, so dances could turn easily, and a rubber heel, so they could stop. Those floors are getting rare. Modern flooring can supply the smoothness. And modern footwear can ease the impact, just as the old floors did.
Most styles of polka depend on low friction soles. Modern plastic soled footwear provides far greater traction that the leather soles common before the 1960s. A higher traction sole, during a turning polka, twists and stresses ankles, knees and hips more. Dancing more than a few polkas in running shoes can cause pain wherever legs are weakest, the knees of this typist. A common solution, for the enthusiast, is buying a pair of leather soled dancing shoes. But expecting beginners to spend about $100 for dance shoes, just to see if they like to polka or waltz, is an unreasonable strategy to hang the future of the polka on. And many dance shoes lack the cushion that the sprung floor used to provide.
A very short term solution is to cover the soles, not the heels, of running shoes with knee high nylon stockings. It looks weird, but one pair of nylons can last through 5 or 6 dances or lessons. The nylon reduces the sole's friction with the floor while the running shoe cushions impact so smooth concrete becomes an acceptable dance surface. Leaving the shoe's heel exposed lets the dancer stop the turns in the same way the older footwear did. Recycling knee highs with runs for this use is perfect.
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