Joe Rodgers

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Posted by Joe Rodgers to on 10 Apr 2005. Used by permission.

Just to repeat that I love your unique site, check it often and tell my friends about it. 

As you invite comment, I would just comment on one statement there, where I read that Tex-Mex is the most widespread or popular type of polka music in the world. Although I don't know if there are any statistics on this, I feel pretty sure that German/Alpine -- the European style from which both most American polka and Tex-Mex are offshoots -- is by far the "biggest" polka style on earth. It is popular all over Germany, but especially in the southern half, as well as throughout Austria, Switzerland, little Liechtenstein, the German-speaking province of South Tyrol in Italy and similar areas in Belgium, Holland and eastern France; as well as in Slovenia, which is the home of the world's most popular polka band -- as you can read in many European sources -- the Avseniks and their "Oberkrainer" band. 

The Czech Republic, which borders on Germany and Austria and is known to be the birthplace of polkas, created a style of music on which German polkas were originally based, and the Germans acknowledge this. The "Beer Barrel Polka," probably the most famous polka of all time, came originally from the Czech Republic, and a famous "anthem" of German polka music, "Aus Boehmen Kommt Die Musik," (i.e., "the music comes from bohemia") proclaims that Bohemia, the traditional name of the Czech republic, is the country from which the great music comes. Polka music is the official national music of the Czech Republic, where it fills the air waves day and night (I know this particularly well because I lived in the region when I was young and this music was all you could hear on the airwaves there). 

I consider all of these countries' polka music virtually the same style because they share tunes and exchange bands freely. Many bands from the Czech Republic also sing in German when touring Germany, where they are more popular than most German bands. The terms "bohemian" and "blasmusik" ("brass band music") are used in Europe to connote the type of music which is shared by the German-speaking countries and the Czech Republic, and the term "alpine music," used on your site, is used in Europe to refer to the polka-style music of the entire alpine region, which includes not only the German-speaking countries, but also northern Italy, Croatia and parts of Slovenia, mountainous regions that play the same type of polka music as the German-speaking countries. This music is also often found on the airwaves and on TV and it is transmitted around the world on German satellite TV as well. I watch German TV on Globecast satellite TV and enjoy several hours of such programming every week. Dish Network now has two German TV stations with similar content. Finally, the German/Czech style is also the main polka style in most of the Midwest, West and Texas in the U.S., and is also popular in various areas on the East Coast . . . Oh, yes -- and in Canada, too. The biggest polka-oriented festivals in the world have to be the Oktoberfest and many related festivals in Germany and Austria, which often last for weeks on end and involve dozens of bands and literally millions of visitors.

Absent the exact statistics, I would hazard a guess that Tex-Mex/Norteño, which is a regional style popular only in Northern Mexico and in Mexican-American communities, probably has several million fans, maybe as many as 20 million. I believe it is probably the second-strongest polka style on earth. However, the German/Alpine/Czech style (Yes, they are virtually the same thing, which is why they are often lumped together in the U.S., even by the bands that play them, under the titles "old-time music," Dutchman, Dairyland style, etc.; these bands play German and Czech numbers interchangeably.) has to be popular with at least half the German population (others are rockers, sophisticates, don't like music, or whatever). This style is more or less the equivalent in status and popularity of country-western music in the U.S. -- it "rules" among rural and mountain people -- but it is also more than that because it enjoys the status of the folk music of the land; most town festivals, traditional events, etc., are unthinkable without it. Thus I would guesstimate it's popularity numbers as being about 40-50 million in Germany alone, plus probably about the same totals in the other European countries, which would total something approaching 100 million in Europe, not counting a couple million more in the U.S. and Canada. 

Polkas, incidentally, are also a sort of national music in Lithuania, too, but not really in Poland, where polka music from the neighboring countries never really caught on big time and hardly exists today. The historians write that Polish-Americans, nostalgic for home and for music which would unite them in France, the U.S. and Canada, built up a polka music style of their own, including many Polish songs and soon also German, Czech, Slovenian, American and even Mexican tunes. As I mentioned in a previous Usenet posting, they also borrowed horns from other sources ( either from the other European styles which used them, or from Dixieland jazz, which they heard here), as well as the German-made concertina and accordion. this caused the famous Polish-American anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, to write in the 1940's that Polish-American polka music is " a strange hybrid" that is neither Polish nor American--that Americans assume is Polish, while native Poles consider it American. Everyone familiar with the "Polish" style knows that it is generally rejected by natives of Poland.

I hope that this information, which can be found in various scholarly writings on polka music, will be interesting and useful to everyone and will help to dispel the ongoing prejudice among some Polish-American fans that German/Czech/Slovenian polka music is somehow inferior to their own. Actually it is the original style of polka, to which all polka music owes many classics and most of its instrumentation, and it is by far the biggest and most popular polka style on earth, with its descendant, Tex-Mex (a borrowing from the Texas Germans and Czechs) a significant second. On the other hand, unfortunately, the Polish-American polka (and don't get me wrong: I love it, too) is sort of an "illegitimate child" of a marriage between Polish, American and other types of music, not fully embraced, as Malinowski said, by either its mother, Poland, or its father, English-speaking America . . . and this is probably a major reason for its troubles today, as its fan base is aging and dropping rapidly, while it enjoys no reinforcements from the mother country, which considers it to be foreign and substandard, or from most of the American public, which feels the same way about it. Still, I along with many other lovers of the genre, love it and will struggle on the best we can to keep it afloat.

Thanks once again for your wonderful contribution to documenting polka music of all styles. 

Sincerely yours, 
Joe Rodgers
Bridgeport, CT
(teacher and polka musician)


[Note from Nos: Thanks for your contribution. I think that the Polish-American polka's charm is enhanced by its history as a cultural hybrid, just like the Chicago-style hot dog or jazz music. As for the polka suffering from a lack of reinforcement from the mother country -- that's a theory I hadn't considered before.]


After reading Joe's Usenet postings (you can search for "Joe Rodgers" at Google Groups) polka song lyrics, I started writing up my own conclusions about polka lyrics. Here's what I wrote:

What are polka lyrics about?
The writings of Joe Rodgers on Usenet have persuaded me to take a closer look at polka lyrics. While my knowledge is still superficial, here's what I've learned so far. 
  1. Joe points out that the Polish lyrics in most Polish-American polkas come from the folk songs of Poland. Those folk songs cover a wide range of themes such as insect songs ("Mosquito Polka" cf. "The Bluetail Fly"), gruesome tragedies ("Mountaineer's Farewell" and "Green Maple Polka"), and robber ballads ("Four Miles from Warsaw").
  2. American-written polkas present a radical departure from these themes, centering instead on dancing, drinking, and familial and romantic love. The "Down Home Polka," by Dan Gury of the Dynadukes, sings the praises of home and hearth in a way almost unheard of outside of the American polka. 
  3. Polka presents an interesting contrast with country music. Since the days of Jimmie Rodgers, country lyrics have expressed feelings of wanderlust, conflict, loss, and heartache, as well as dealing with the topics of infidelity, crime, imprisonment, and death. Surely no polka would be titled "Take This Job and Shove It."

Here's Joe's critique:

These statements are a bit problematic and it is often hard to generalize, I think, based on the 4-5 songs I put up there [on] so far. To mention a few points: 

  1. Somebody (on argued the other day that many or most Polish polka lyrics were actually written in the U.S.A. I think that's overstated but many were -- the best ones came from Poland, that's for sure. And many more than that person said, but it might be going too far to say that most of the Polish polka lyrics are from Poland. 
  2. The list of categories (insect songs, etc) is basically valid, but there are many other categories than these. I just didn't get into them yet. One fellow suggested exploring soldier/war songs since there are very many of these in the Polish tradition for historical reasons.
  3. When discussing the "insect song" category -- I'm not sure this should be considered a real category. I have just observed that this type of song exists here and there around the world. I can't think of another such song from Poland, although there probably are a few. 
  4. You may well be right that American-written polkas center on dancing, drinking and love: these do focus on a more limited range of subjects than the Polish-language songs from Poland, which cover an entire oral tradition of hundreds of years. The American songs are certainly more limited in scope as well as creativity, but dancing and drinking songs are in fact a huge part of the Polish-language repertoire from Poland, as well. Again, I would have gotten into these eventually for the sake of completeness, either on the newsgroup or writing an essay for you. I admit that these songs are not as interesting to me in content as the ones I have featured (often by request) on the newsgroup. I have a predilection for the old story-songs. I also think that love songs, of what ever type, are featured equally in the Polish-derived and Polish-American repertoires.
  5. Unfortunately I don't know the "Down Home Polka."  It sounds similar to the well-known polka "Those Pennsylvania Hills (are calling me home)" -- which in turn reminds me offhand of a couple of Polish-language numbers Eddie Blazonczyk recorded, which say respectively "I'll never forget the Zakopane (southern Polish) mountains, the country I was born in", etc., and "when we visit our Polish homeland we will see our relatives and the mountains and the valleys." There are quite a few numbers like these in the Polish-language U.S. polka repertoire, reflecting homesickness/nostalgia for the old country, although they are becoming less frequent since fewer polka artists or fans master the Polish language now or have direct ties to Poland.
  6. Regarding your paragraph 3: this, too, is problematic. You are certainly right about the subject matter of country music but many, if not all, of these themes appear in polka music as well. The "Mountaineer's Farewell" song deals dramatically with a case of infidelity. Loss and heartache are pretty frequent subjects, too, while the robber ballads (like "Four Miles" above) and other numbers deal with crime. In this regard i immediately think of the "Jailbird Polka" (Siedze we wiezieniu), which is known and loved by virtually all Polish-style fans, one called "The Prisoner's Song" (Siedze ja we wiezieniu) and, now that I'm thinking about it, quite a few others. Enough to make criminal and prison songs a substantial category. The theme of death is also well represented in the Polish songs. It is actually the featured outcome/climax of virtually all the songs I quoted/translated online, as well as a frequent element in military, drinking songs, the songs of yearning for Poland or for the mountains, etc.

So in summation, I'm afraid that it is hard to make the case for many of your opinions. Thinking it over, I believe the main reason for this is that folk songs (and folk-oriented or -derived songs, like C&W) all address the full range of universal themes: love, death, dancing , drinking, crime, travel, nostalgia, etc. One thing I think you brought out correctly is that English-language American polkas are more limited in the variety of subjects they address. And this, as I have argued against those who preach the superiority of the English-language genre, is because English-language polkas are really sort of a bastard child, largely cut off from their roots and the sources of their creativity -- the mother country and its language. At the same time, this type of song has not integrated to any significant degree with American folk music, nor has it matured on it own or turned out songwriters of any particular merit. Many English-language polkas are borrowed directly from U.S. sources (mostly C&W); and those that are not borrowed are very trite.

On November 17, 2006, in, Wild Wilson posted a link to a Turbo Angels video (they're a bit like Atomik Harmonik). I commented "I think they've pretty much answered the question of how to successfully market polkas to a general audience." In response, Joe Rodgers wrote the following [used by permission]:

As I recently mentioned in a chat with Mike Surratt, this is Alpine Europe (in this case Slovenia) where polka music rules as the music of the land -- and it mixes easily and naturally with newer styles such as rock. As Mr. Surratt said, and I tend to agree, it is not easy to reproduce such a phenomenon in the U.S., whose roots music is not polka -- far from it -- but rather blues, country, rock, jazz, and so on. Many famous genres, but not polka. Thus, just surrounding a polka vocalist and accordion player with pretty girls, as in this video, probably won't do it in this country. 

The one slight hope, as I wrote to Mr. Surratt, for such success might result from finding some kind of formula like the German Polkaholix have and putting into play here (in English, of course, for the most part, not German or Slovenian). However, even this group's music and lyrics are steeped in old country -- not "new country" -- flavor. So Mr. Surratt and I tended to agree that you just can't reproduce recent European polka success stories in America because polka is essentially a European thing. Hence, the further US polka "innovators" move away from European roots, the less likelihood they have of great national success. 

I still believe, as quite a few others apparently do, that the "polka" (more or less) group with the greatest potential at the moment for achieving some degree of similar success is Freeze Dried; however, the impressive things they have done which reach out to our culture as a whole are not polka music at all, but American roots music. Nonetheless, more power to them. Their achievements seem to confirm my view that ultimately the best chance for keeping polkas alive in the future probably lies in including polkas, to the extent possible, in the repertoire of groups who have a greater appeal based on their popular non-polka repertoire.

From an email of 7/9/2007:

Hi, Nos: I came across this excellent article, which has very accurate insights into (European) Poles' view of the polka, based on the history of the dance in Europe. Their perception of the polka as a low-class urban dance of the first half of the last century is an interesting parallel to the history of the tango, which is well known to have originally been a low-class Buenos Aires street and brothel dance before it rose to "high society" status. True as these observations are, I have never seen them in print before -- much less supported by photographs of urban folklore presentations well known to those familiar with Polish European culture. [Nos says: Maja Trochimczyk also writes about the other Polish folk dances.]

All the best, Joe R

Adapted from a Usenet post to, Jan. 29, 2008

Recent posts voicing alarm and fear of immigrants from neighboring countries prompted me to respond with a polka-oriented defense of our Mexican neighbors, noting the huge role they and their descendants play in today's polka music. This set me to thinking about noting the fine polka creativity of the U.S.'s great northern neighbor, Canada. This brief post can only skim the surface of this subject but at least it will be a start 

Tonight's mention on of the retirement from music of Mr. Eddie Humeniuk, attended by other Canadian polka musicians, reminded me to write this post. I'm sure that I'm far from alone when I say that I have loved this gentleman's music ever since I first heard him playing drums with Eddie Guca and the Polish Canadians in Wildwood, NJ, in the 1960's. I was then (and still am) a lifelong admirer of L'il Wally, Happy Louie and Marion Lush, but I was still awed by this group -- particularly because of Eddie's driving beat. A few years later I was possibly even more amazed by the Canadian Fiddlesticks, who I believe are one of the greatest Polish-style groups of all times -- again, Eddie's playing was an essential factor here, as was the work of the wonderful Malkiewicz brothers. The Fiddlesticks' work, and that of most Canadian polka groups, is marked by greater ethnic authenticity and purer Polish singing than that of many U.S. groups (Canadian polka groups often have closer ties to the old country than their American counterparts) and a variety of different traditional old-country numbers not played in the U.S. The post on Eddie H. states that he created the "country fiddle " sound later used beautifully by Eddie Blazonczyk -- this is an interesting insight, and I suppose it is true for the Polish polka field, though I would note that Polish roots music consistently uses violins and that they are also a dominant instrument of the very widespread Ukrainian-Canadian polka style (see below).

No discussion of Canadian polka music can omit John Góra and the Górale, of course. John is probably the best Polish vocalist in the field today, and his group's wonderful work in both the traditional and innovative rock/country/Cajun-derived areas is oustanding. Another wonderful old-country Polish-style group was that of Walter Bembenek, whose LP's (which I bought in NYC years ago) featured excellent material in both Polish and Ukrainian styles which I never heard elsewhere.

Canada has also produced masters of the various other European-derived polka styles, such as award-winner Walt Ostanek (Slovenian/German styles) and Karel Binovec, whose Bohemian/Czech-style band was about as good and authentic as such a band could be. Czech Polka Videos of Nebraska (producer Joe Cerveny) made several videos of the Binovec band when they performed here and they are gems of my collection. 

A final fact which may not be known to many is that Ukrainian-style polka music has always been huge in Canada, particular in the prairie provinces, as Ukrainians settled many of these areas and the Ukrainian ethnic group is one of the very largest in the country following the English and French. The fine Ukrainian groups are too numerous to mention but I will just refer to one, whose recordings (which I first found in the Ukrainian neighborhood on the lower East side of NYC, and later in Canada, too) have never ceased to thrill me: Burya, led by Ron Cahute. The word "burya" means "storm" ("burza" in Polish) and that is the feeling that this group's polkas and hopaks evokes in me -- that of a storm blowing over the Ukrainian steppes or the Canadian prairies. Without even including a trumpet (perhaps because this instrument was not an authentic part of traditional Ukrainian music), Burya is incredibly dynamic, in good part because of the excellent driving lead vocals and powerhouse accordion playing of leader Cahute, as well as a fantastic selection of wild, beautiful authentic Ukrainian songs. Happily, no one need take my word for this: a fine selection of Burya's music is on YouTube -- check it out. My particular recommendations for starters are a medley of two numbers of which the second is "Oy chorna," a 3-number medley beginning with "Hopak" and "Luche Bulo" . . . but they're all good.

Finally, a listing of this type shouldn't conclude without noting the great contributions to polka music in the U.S. by musicians of Canadian background. To my knowledge, most of these are from New England and are of French-Canadian (Quebec) background. The list is impressive and includes the great Happy Louie Dusseault (whose father was Canadian while his mother was from the Krakow area of Poland -- he has knowledge of both Polish and French and included such songs as "Alouette" in his repertoire); Eddie Poudrier, former leader of Heavy Chicago; Richie Bernier, accordion virtuoso, whose driving style has backed many leading New England bands; as well as Andy Galarneau, a fine trumpet player who, together with Richie, now plays with the Maestro's Men; Lennie Maynard (Canadian/Estonian), the fine accordian/concertina player with Heavy Chicago and other groups; Larry Gareau, who has also played with several groups and whose great trumpet playing helped to make a success of the Happy Harmony Boys albums; John Daigle, drummer with several good groups, who is, incidentally, probably a distant relative of the Louisiana Daigles, a leading family in the Cajun music world; and last, but far from least on this list, Mitch Biskup, who, to my knowledge, is of pure Polish descent, but who hails from Montreal, Canada. Mitch is fluent in French as well as Polish, and his adaptations of French-Canadian songs (Strawberries and Raspberries, Flea-Fly) were an important part of the New Brass repertoire. And there are doubtless more. 

All told, Canadians and Canadian-Americans have made an enormous and distinguished contribution to polka music, and thus it's clear that Canada is, in terms of polka music, our great, good neighbor to the north.