of the people; music brought from the European home land; music people
take pride in; music that brings smiles to faces; music that combines the
heritage of yesterday with the musical ideas from today... what is this
music, you ask? It is POLKA.
polka originated in Bohemia (which is now part of the Czech Republic),
around 1830, by a young peasant girl. It was introduced to the city
of Prague on sheet music in 1837. The following year, several polkas
were written by composers in Prague. From there, a Bohemian band
brought the polka to Vienna. The polka soon became the new craze and
spread throughout Europe. It was immensely popular amongst the upper
class, and they made polka the dance of choice in Paris, St. Petersburg,
and London by the late 1830s and into the early 1840s. By 1844, the
polka was dominant throughout European continent. Within a couple of
years, upper class citizens of the United States also caught onto this
craze. However, the popularity of the song and dance amongst the
lower and middle class citizens in the United States did not rise until
the arrival of large waves of immigrants into the country (in Greene 50).
The Polish, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Norwegians, Finns, and Spanish all
carried their style of polka to the United States of America.
immigrants came to the United States, so did their possessions, their
heritage, and their music. The immigrants often carried a small
instrument with them allowing them to play polkas: fiddle, button box, or
hexagonal concertina -- all which became primary instruments in bands that
played polkas in the United States. It was common for these
travelers to bring out their instruments during the migration to “spice
up” the long journey. The button box and the “concertina player
could replace a small ensemble, producing melodies and harmonies on the
right hand while the left hand provided rhythmic chords and bass notes,
[making them a] prized possession in the immigrant’s pack” (March 3).
Once the travelers settled, their music did not stop. It became
quite common for all the neighbors to gather at a home, roll up the rug,
play music, and dance.
Through the Years
immigrants settled in the United States, they formed communities with
people from the same country. They worked together, partied
together, cried together, and entertained together, keeping strong their
European heritage. In the nineteenth-century the polka, along with
other couple dances, was enjoyed in “cleared-out kitchens during house
parties, on granary floors and grassy summer picnic grounds, atop outdoor
platforms assembled for weddings, and in fraternal halls and the ballrooms
adjacent to family-run taverns” (Leary 1).
the end of the 1800s, most of the formal entertainment was the theatre --
Vaudeville plays were the most common attraction. As this century
came to an end, it became more and more popular for the polka and other
ethnic music, to be played at the end of a Vaudeville performance.
People would find themselves dancing throughout the remainder of the
evening. It was not long before polka music became the main form of
entertainment for the evening. From 1900-1920, ethnic music was on a
rise and soon it became one of the most popular forms of entertainment in
the United States.
are many different factors attributable to the rise of the polka. In
1905, record companies began taking interest in recording the music of
ethnic groups. In 1930, the radio began to give airtime to ethnic
groups. The “new” piano accordion was created in 1920 (before
this time primarily diatonic button boxes were used) and became the “hot
item.” Musicians also began to travel to playing engagements,
rather than playing only for local events.
Great Depression of the 1930s slowed down the advancement of most music;
however, the polka stayed alive and well. It was one thing that
helped people remain upbeat in these hard times. Polka musicians
actually made a decent living during the Depression because they were in
great demand. Their average playing engagement would pay seven to
eight dollars. In 1927, jukeboxes became popular. This helped
polkas stay strong through the Depression, for many jukeboxes played
polkas. People were willing to spend a nickel on the jukebox,
providing music for dancing and in turn raising their spirits.
Victor Greene states, “Many proprietors were eager to transform any
public house, tavern, restaurant, or ice cream parlor into a small dance
hall” (Greene 125). Rural areas, particularly in Minnesota and
Wisconsin, often held dances in homes, barns, or schools (Greene 120).
It was also common to have a dance take place every night of the week
the 1930s, “the American people” were divided as to their preferred
style of dancing music. Some danced only the purely American style
music, such as the Charleston. Others danced all kinds of music,
particularly the polka along with other ethnic dances. However, by
1930, nearly everyone participated in ethnic forms of dance (Greene 116).
WWII came, it slowed the advancement of polka music, yet the music stayed
quite strong and served as an up-lifter for the American in the United
States. The polka craze in the United States came in 1939, caused by
the release of the Andrew Sister’s version of the “Beer Barrel
Polka.” This polka was not an old folk tune. A Czech
composer wrote the melody in 1927. In the year 1943, one million
copies of the “Beer Barrel Polka” recording were sold. Because
of the popularity of the “Beer Barrel Polka,” polkas in general became
hits amongst people of all nationalities. The bands that recorded
polkas began to sell their recordings, no matter if they, themselves, had
recorded the “Beer Barrel Polka” or not.
person of large influence on polka was known as the Polka King – Frankie
Yankovic. He influenced a large audience and became a favorite to
many. His biggest hits were “Too Fat Polka” (a comic tune) and
“Just Because” which originally was a “hill-billy country-western”
tune that was made into a polka:
Yankovic and [the other top polka artists] leading the charge through the
1950s, polka made a serious run at becoming an established genre in
American pop music. Then Elvis Presley hit and changed the business.
By the 1960s, rock-n-roll had captured the poplar music industry, and
polka had retreated to enclaves in a variety of urban and rural grassroots
fold communities” (March 6).
events affected the popularity of polka music as well, such as
“demographic shift from country to city and the ‘generation gap’”
(Leary 10). However, polka is still alive today and enjoyed by
people of many ages and nationalities, even though the popularity of the
polka is not at the same level it was fifty years ago.
in Styles due to Nationality
European nation adopted the polka and made it theirs by putting a little
“twist” to it. There are various styles related to nationalities:
Polish, German, Czech, Slovak, Finnish, Spanish, and Norwegian. Within
those polka styles are sub-styles. This paper focuses on two basic
Nationalities: Polish and German.
are three styles dominating the music of today’s Polish polka bands: Eastern,
Honky, and Push. Eastern style polka music, started in the 1920s, is the
fastest of the three styles (quarter note = 128-136 beats per minute).
Eastern style polka music is often used more in concert settings, favored by the
urban Polish listeners. Most of the music is arranged for an orchestra of
musicians: a reed section, a brass section, and the rhythm section. Some Eastern
polka bands have singers that are not instrumentalists. Eastern bands
often have a “big band” sound. Dancing to Eastern style polkas is
different than when dancing to the Honky or Push styles.
Honky style was created after the Eastern style. The Honky style consists
of the polka in its traditional form but with a steady tempo (Gora interview),
allowing phrases to be isometric. Honky style became preferred over the
Eastern style by many listeners and dancers because it was easier to dance to
due to its slower tempo (quarter note = 112 BPM). “Li’l Wally”
Jagiello proved to be one of the most popular musicians in the honky style.
He made many appearances on television in the 1950s and 60s. Li’l Wally
believes the slower tempo of the Honky style also allows the average polka
dancer to dance and be apart of the music (Keil, Keil, Blau 57). Li’l
Wally also said in favor of Honky style, “Eastern style [Polish polkas] may be
musicians’ music, but I don’t play for musicians – I play for the public.
They want to hear a song with a simple, real pretty story behind it that they
can dance to…. and real bouncy.” (Keil, Keil, Blau 63) The tempo is
quite a bit slower than Eastern style allowing more time for improvisation.
Siwiec, a musician who has played in eight different style Polish polka bands,
stated, “Honky is the Dixieland style of polka music... free played…
less defined… personal [to the individual musician].” Honky style
allowed the second horn to be freed of strict harmony. Improvisatory
counterpoint became quite apparent in the second horn part. When there is
counterpoint in the second horn, the accordion often plays a steady, strict
harmony a major third above or below the melody line. There are times when
the second horn is playing a strict second part on thirds, and the accordion
plays an improvising counterpoint around the melody line. The term
“Honky” refers to emotional style of playing. Musicians speak of the
style as being loose, exuberant and heartfelt. According to Siwiec
“[Honky is] from the heart. It’s what you feel. Honky usually
denotes simple rhythm, and simple chords. It’s the chords that do all
the decorating.” Each band that plays the honky style gives it their own
special twist. Some former bands that made themselves famous through the
Honky style were Stas Golonka, Eddie Zima, Wanda & Stephanie, Ray Jay &
the Carosels, and as already mentioned, “Li’l Wally.”
style was generated from Honky style in the, along with the influence of
“rhythm and blues” and rock-n-roll. Push style received its name from
the high-energy, “push” or “ride” section of the song that often takes
place near the end. This section has great energy created mostly by the
rhythm section. The drummer uses a steady pattern on “ride” cymbal
(giving this section the “ride” name) and the accordion player gives four
pulses within a beat (one pulse for every 16th note) by shaking the accordion,
or quickly pushing and pulling (thus, the “push” name). Push style
moves away from the traditional style; there is not as much improvisation in the
horns, but there is more in the rhythm section (Lange). Since its
creation, the Push style has become quite popular among most Polish bands;
therefore, Push style is the dominant style of Polish polka music. The
musicians that have helped develop Push style are Marion Lush, Eddie Blazonczyk,
and “Happy Louie” Dusseault. Push style is brassy and cleanly executed
with a more tightly woven ensemble than the traditional Honky style. There
are fewer opportunities for improvising. According to Siwiec, the Push
style polka is played at a slow tempo with heavy amplification, much
syncopation, and clear solos.
style of German polka music that is still alive today is called “Dutchmen.”
Dutchmen style is a mix of German and Czech styles, taking the name of
“Dutchmen” from “Deutsch” (meaning “German” in the German language).
The style began in New Ulm, Minnesota, where many of the settlers were
German-speaking Bohemians; they had combined their German and Czech heritages
before coming to the United States. The first band to claim the
“Dutchmen” name was the famous “Six Fat Dutchmen” from New Ulm, a
popular band in the late 1920s. The other band that gained great,
nation-wide recognition and popularity was the “Whoopee” John Wilfahrt Band.
The Dutchmen style synthesizes the sound of traditional and contemporary
material. One sound that is unique to the Dutchmen style is yodeling.
Some yodels are sung, but more often musicians vocalize “whooping yodels,” a
tradition started by Whoopee John. Second generation, concertina artist
Elmer Scheid introduced the “hoolerie” sound to the Dutchmen bands.
The hoolerie sound consists of a concertina/clarinet combination played in high
registers appropriate to the laendlers of Bavaria and Austria (tape #1).
Scheid also was the first bandleader to lean “toward distinct parts and solos,
especially on… the concertina” (Leary 3). Before Scheid, who began his
band in the 1940s, bands went for a full and blended sound with trumpets and
saxophones dominating throughout a tune. Ever since the influence of
Scheid, the concertina player has been the central figure in most Dutchmen style
bands. In the 1960s another shift came to the Dutchmen style. Rather
than the concertina playing long sustained notes, the concertina added
“runs” and “fills.” Concertina artists, Sylvester Liebl, Jerry
Schuft, and Karl Harwich, provide examples of runs and fills in their playing
of the Different Instruments
bands originally consisted of twelve musicians. By the second generation
of musicians (1940s), the bands had about eight musicians: Chemnitzer concertina
or accordion, four horns (two reeds and two brass), tuba, piano and/or banjo,
and drums. Today, the size and styles of the bands have changed due to the
amplification (through technology) and availability of musicians.
concertina, or accordion, is amplified by either an internal or external
microphone. It is made up of reeds inside a box-like shell or covering.
Sound is produced when air flows through the reeds causing them to vibrate --
the faster the air, the louder the sound. Faster air is created by a
harder push or pull. Without good amplification, the concertina artist had
to really work on pulling and pushing, generally limiting the musician to big,
full chords to create a higher volume. Now, with high quality
amplification, concertina artist do not have to work on pushing and pulling.
Instead, they can “spice up” the music with runs, stylistic rhythms, and by
playing harmony to the horns, which is done quite
often in Dutchmen style polkas (Hartwich interview) (tape
number of horns in a Dutchmen band has also changed. It is now common to
have two to four horns in the band. In most cases, bands prefer to have
more horns, but no more than four. Often Dutchmen bands will try to have
at least one trumpet and/or trombone player and one clarinet and/or saxophone
player. The trumpets usually have the lead part. It is common for a
band to have a musician who plays reed instruments (saxophone and clarinet) and
brass instruments (trumpet and trombone). The most common saxophone used
in a Dutchmen style band is the tenor; however, the alto saxophone is also used.
bands have a solid rhythm section made up of tuba, trap set, and piano or banjo.
The bass drum is loud and solid playing on the down beats, followed by a crisp
high hat (cymbal) on the off beats to create the steady tempo for the dancers.
The “bass horn or tuba provides a bouncy, ‘rollicking’ bass line” (March
5), creating an “oom-pah” sound, thereby giving the Dutchmen style another
name: “oom-pah.” The piano player, playing an electric keyboard with a
simulated piano sound, generally plays chords: a single bass note for the
downbeat and a chord is in a higher range on the upbeat(s). This not only
helps the dancers by re-emphasizing the beats, but also lays out the chord
structure. The chord helps create a full sound by filling in parts of the
chord that may not be played by the other musicians.
bands, Push and Honky styles, often consist of two, or three, horns, a trap set,
a bass guitar, and two accordions (one accordion may be substituted by a
Chemnitzer concertina player). The horn section is usually comprised of at
least one trumpet on lead (when solos are not being played) and either a
trumpet, tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, or clarinet playing second part and
third part, if there is a third part. Push style often uses two trumpets
and while Honky style will often use a trumpet and a clarinet (Lange).
and Honky style Polish bands have a rhythm section made up of a trap set, bass
guitar, and an accordion/concertina. The trap set keeps a steady beat with
a loud bass drum on beat one and a loud snare on beat two. One accordion
or concertina helps keep the beat and sets the chords for the horns. The
horns set the melody, while the other accordion adds runs to fill in the empty
space in the music; polka musicians call these runs “fills.” When the
vocalist sings, the horns or accordion often play fills. It is very common
to find singing in a Polish polka. This is true for ninety percent of the
songs that are sung. Most of the time, the singing is done in the Polish
language. It was not until the 1970s that the horns began to lead the band
with powerful, dominating rhythm (Siwiec). “In Honky the rhythm section
follows a general pattern that is relatively low key [giving] emphasis on the
concertina, horns, and vocals. It is more solid than Push bands.
They never over-extend themselves in a Honky rhythm section; in contrast, that
happens quite a bit in Push bands” (Lange)
are still some trio Polish bands today, as there were before Eastern, Honky, and
Push styles were created. These bands make use of the concertina, bass,
and trap set. In these bands the concertina or vocalist carries all the
melodies, “embedded in full, slightly dissonant chords” (March 4).
style bands have a different band make-up. They usually have a orchestral
set up, similar to the big band set-up: two to four trumpets, two to four
saxophones, two to four trombones, a piano, a saxophone, one to three fiddles,
bass guitar, trap set, and one to three singers.
of the Polka
polka most often has three parts, varying between at least two different keys
(the most common keys are tonic and dominant). Both Dutchmen and Polish
styles have similar form to the pieces. In each, the song is introduced by
the horn (section A). Then the concertina/accordion takes the melody
(section B). If there are words, which is often the case in the Polish
Polka, the singer takes the lead at this time instead of the
concertina/accordion (section B). When this section is finished, the horns
often play the beginning melody (section A) or the melody that was sung by the
singer or played by the concertina (section B). This is usually followed
by a modulation into a new key, playing a new section (section C) or possibly
playing the same part (section A or B). Dutchmen style songs often end
polkas will play around with the sections a bit more, sharing the melody with
solo accordion/concertina, solo horn, or the complete horn section. In
both styles the song usually ends with the full band playing at a forte dynamic
level and a high level of energy. Dutchmen style bands often “jazz up”
the piece the last time through the section (tape #3). Polish style bands
will often go into the “push” section. Two horns play a major third
apart, while an optional third horn plays a counter-melody. One accordion
is filling in with runs, while the other is shaking, giving four pulses to the
quarter note. The drummer uses his ride cymbal and has lots of fills.
The bass player often uses a slide going into the push section or at the very
end, or both (tape #4).
melodic shape of the line differs between Polish and Dutchmen style.
Polish style polkas emphasize rhythmically-oriented scales and arpeggiated
motives. The Dutchmen style emphasizes lyricism. This is obvious in
the two well-known tunes: the “Clarinet Polka” (Polish) and the “Red Bird
Polka” (Dutchmen). (tape #5 & 6)
form of a polka will often follow the key structure of “I – V – I –
IV” (meaning, the polka will start in one key, modulate to a key a major fifth
above the first key, return to the first key, then modulate to a key a major
fourth above the first key). Most bands today have extended that form and
have created modulations for different effects. One fine example is the
award-winning Wisconsin band, “Ray Dorschner and the Rainbow Valley
Dutchmen." Near the end of a song, it will build the suspense and
power with modulations, often up one half-step or a whole-step. These
effects get the crowd cheering and cause excitement in the whole ballroom.
key and the chord structure of polkas, especially those that were composed
before 1960, are quite predictable. Carl Finch of “Brave Combo” has
made a strong connection between the chord progressions of polkas and hymns.
“The tonality of [polkas] makes sense to me; the sense of where the chords
will go and a chord progression, and the sense of how the melody works in a most
stable way when you don’t [improvise] with it a whole lot. You let it
follow a believable predictable flow. That I see a real connection in.”
Present day bands that have change the ability to predict what comes next make
polkas very exciting.
4 is missing]
musicians that play polkas age from three to ninety. Most often
musicians will play in bands of their ethnic group. The musicians
take pride in what they do. Polish polka musician, Ed Sawyer, stated
“We like all kinds of music, but we specialize in polkas and we’re
proud of it. We want to carry the torch on.”
and watching the older, more experienced players has proven to be the best
training for younger musicians. They listen to the radio’s polka
shows, live bands, and recordings. New musicians find themselves
listening to recordings over and over again. They learn the style
and the “licks” of all the previous musicians they admire. From
all the different styles and techniques they have listened to, they create
their own stylistic musical ideas. Listening is central to the
learning of technique, style, and also repertoire. Musicians are
often called upon to substitute for a regular member of another polka band
when that regular member must miss an engagement. The substitute’s
knowledge of the standard repertoire is crucial, both to the musician’s
personal reputation and employment through polka bands.
Future of the Polka
and fans of polka desperately hold onto the traditions that have been
established through polka music. Bands are striving to keep up the
traditional ideas and sound, but keep bringing in new ideas, hoping to
attract new listeners. One prime example is a band from Texas,
Combo won the 2000 Grammy for the best polka recording of the year.
This band plays a variety of music, but polka is one of their specialties.
They have brought in many “rock-n-roll” aspects to the music.
For example it is common to see the leader, Carl Finch, run around stage
with his guitar, “headbanging” as he plays. The sound of the
horns playing the melody is mixed with a "heavy-metal" guitar
sound. The band itself appears to be a stereotypical rock band.
All the musicians wear their own style of clothes on stage; for example
Jeffrey Barnes, the woodwind player, commonly wears Harley Davidson
apparel on stage, with many chains around his neck. This band has
playing and touring together for over twenty years. Brave Combo
continues to study all styles of polka music – every nationality, old
and new, fast and slow. The music arrangements written for the band
are obviously influenced by other bands within the polka field; however,
the arrangements have their own twist with a large amount of counterpoint
and modulations (tape #8). According to Barnes, one of Bravo
Combo’s musical missions is “to jangle people’s conception about
what is ‘hip’ and what isn’t” (qtd in Sowd). Finch stated
his reasons for getting into polka music in a recent interview:
reason I got into polkas was the result of trying to … change myself,
and … my perception of things. [I realized] embracing polka music
was to take on the most maligned form of music and try to find if in fact
there was something that was so beautiful about it, because it was so
deeply buried under all this prejudice. And it just came back at me
like a flood. It was weird. When I got focused on that, things
just suddenly started happening – so fast I couldn’t stay on top of
future of polka music is threatened by the lack of interest and lack of
open mindedness in the non-polka circuit. Polka is often given a
preconceived notion that it is square and only for the “old folks.”
As mentioned earlier, people need to go and experience “the golf of the
music industry.” Mike Brown, owner of “BizTech,” a web page
design company in Toledo, went to his first polka festival in July of 2000
at Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania. His comments were “Wow!
I never knew what I was missing. I am hooked! I cannot wait to
go again!” Barnes of Brave combo stated “polka is the music that
banishes care, and there is no [chance of] being remorse when a good polka
band is playing” (qtd in Sowd). To see a sour face at a polka
dance is rare.
hopes to keep up the “polka spirit,” many newspapers and magazines are
working to promote polkas (39 magazines and newspapers was the last
recorded number, 1990 statistic of The Polka News). One of the
largest papers is the nationally distributed, The Polka News, printed in
Michigan. This paper covers polka music nationwide, inclusive of all
styles. The Polka News, averaging twenty pages in length, contains
advertisements about upcoming dances and fests, polka jam sessions, newly
released recordings, information on where to find and purchase old vintage
recordings, columns by journalists from around the country, news about the
bands, and information on instrument manufacturers. The Polka News
also includes items about recent marriages, births, band and family
reunions, and obituaries -- reflecting the sense of one, big family.
are additional ways in which the polka industry is promoted. There
are many clubs and associations: Po.L.K. of A. (Polka Lovers Klub of
America), International Polka Association (based out of Chicago),
Penn-Ohio Polka Pals, Unites States Polka Association, Polk Music Clubs
United. These organizations help support polka music through
funding, events, and awarding musicians, promoters, and dancers for their
outstanding contributions to the advancement of polka music. Not
everyone believes this is helping encourage polka music. Some people
believe this singles out and makes polka music look like a “club only”
style of music.
the newspapers, the associations, and the dance halls already mentioned,
there are newsletters, mail order recording outlets, accordion/concertina
makers and dealers, and polka radio and television shows. Many radio
stations will feature a polka show daily or weekly. Some stations
devote nearly all their programming time to polka, like WTKM in Hartford,
Wisconsin. Some shows will feature only one or two styles of polka
music, while other shows will promote all styles, as “Chuck Statsny’s
Top Ten.” During Statsny’s nation-wide program, he holds
interviews with bandleaders and popular musicians in the field.
Statsny plays new and old recordings and, play the nation’s Top Ten
Polkas of the week, which are voted on by radio DJs, polka fans, and
today, polka is thought of as the music of the people. It has been
the music of the hard-working, blue-collar folk for years. It is
these people that love, listen, sing, and play the music. By
no means does that make the music any less valuable. If anything,
the polka became more valuable. Polka music creates a special
feeling and atmosphere for those who listen to it. It is their
heritage, their enjoyment, their culture, and their life.