Originating in Bohemia in the 1830s, polka music has been a part of American society since people began immigrating from Eastern Europe. This dance music in 2/4 time is often associated with the pre-World War II era but is still a dynamic form of music in America. There are even several different genres of polka music that exist throughout the country today, each with its own unique characteristics and performers. Though the style of these different genres of polka music may vary, all are unified in the expression of ethnicity that they allow the 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 1950's the polka continues to be a vivacious form of music 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.
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 sub-genres, Polish-American and Slovenian-American
- Germanic, with its sub-genres, German-American and Czech-American
- Southwestern, with its sub-genres, 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 Polish culture. Differences stem from variations in instrumentation, tempo, and the popularity of the genre in various places.
The Polish-American style of polka is the most popular today. Polish Polka bands do not only play polkas, but also play Obereks
, Polish Waltzes
, and sometimes Polish tangos. In fact, the "Polish polka" as we know it was never danced in Poland. Rather, different forms 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 Krakowen" 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 Pennsylvania, cities near the Great Lakes, and some East Coast cities.
Polish-American polka can be subdivided even further 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 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 "bellows-shaking" of the accordion . The modern giants of Chicago style are Eddie Blazonczyk and Lenny Gomulka. Both were highly influenced by the style of Little 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. Blazonczyk is the leader of a band called the Versatones, who have released over 50 albums . 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.
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 the saxophone (or clarinet). 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 and/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. A Slovenian-American performer, Joey Tomsick, has observed that Slovenian polka bands have a "harder time attracting younger crowds. Indeed, there seems to be a consensus among Slovenian polka fans that their Polish counterparts have done a much better job of passing on an interest in the music to their children and grandchildren. 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
with Johnny Carson
. Other important Slovenian-style pioneers include Johnny Pecon, Lou Trebar, Johnny Vadnal (along with brothers Tony, Frankie, and Richie), Kenny Bass, and Eddie Habat. The torchbearers of Slovenian-American or "Cleveland-Style" polka today include Jeff Pecon (Johnny's son), Don Wojtila, Eddie Rodick, Bob Kravos, Joey Tomsick, 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, standards, Latin dances (cha chas
, etc.), line dances
, and rock 'n roll.
German-American bands resist being termed "polka bands" because they perform not only polkas but also waltzes
, and various other ethnic forms of music. They prefer the term "old-time." Their style is also sometimes known as "Dutchman," 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) . 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, and the Jerry Sneider Orchestra .
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" . The primary difference is that 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 have perpetuated 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 continues to play today . Important Czech performers include the Harold Schultz Orchestra, the Greiner Brothers Orchestra, the Czechlanders Orchestra of Nebraska, Ernie Kucera, and Al Grebnik .
Not as obviously related to the polka as the first four genres discussed, Mexican-American polka is referred to as "conjunto
". The conjunto sound originated from Czech and German influence on Mexican-Americans in Texas and northern Mexico. Conjunto bands do play some polkas, but their most popular musical form is the "ranchera
," a form similar to polka. The instrumentation involves an interesting combination of accordion, bajo sexto
(a Mexican twelve-string guitar), bass, and drums . Important modern performers in the genre include Los Hermanos Bernal, Santiago Jiminez, Steve 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, it should be noted that 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. In order 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 Texas Polka News, the Polka News, and the Polish-American News. Polka news is even available online at Polonia Today
Radio stations have been organized to perpetuate the popularity of the polka. One survey conducted in 1989 counted a total of 354 stations that played polka music in 32 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 Polka Music Hall of Fame was established by the IPA in 1968 in order 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, Milwaukee Polish Fest, International Polka Association Convention, Pulaski Polka Days, Wisconsin Dells Polish Fest, Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest, Pillar Polkabration, Polkamotion by the Ocean, Wildwood Polka Spree, and Houghton Lake Polka Festival.
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 Future of Polka Music
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 polka probably will not become a competitor with modern rock and rap, but it will continue to flourish among ethnic groups in its varied genres. The music, culture, and organization involved with the polka will continue to delight a small but steady group of supporters.