Stephen Terrell

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Here's a review written by Stephen W. Terrell back in 2002. For what Steve's doing now, be sure to visit his blog:


Polka is a music that is both hopelessly corny -- but also irresistibly fun beer-drinking, sausage-eating dance music.

Although your typical American “Bohemian” isn’t likely to be a polka fan, the music sprang forth from Bohemia in the 1830s. This new type of dance music quickly spread throughout Europe. By the end of the century immigrants from Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other nations brought their various variations to the U.S.

On these shores, polka not only became a favorite in those ethnic enclaves. It also spread to other cultures, most notably the Mexican Americans in Texas, whose musicians quickly made polka a required part of any dance band’s repertoire and even the Tohono O'odham Indian tribe in southern Arizona, who formed accordion/saxophone/electric guitar-driven “Waila” or “Chicken Scratch” bands. 

Two recent compilation CDs, American Polka: Old Tunes and New Sounds (Trikont Records, and Deeper Polka: More Dance Music From The Midwest (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) do a fine job of presenting a huge variety of polka styles.

Of the two, the American Polka collection (which is a German import)  features the most expansive polka vision, with decades-old tracks of Polish, German and Mexican polkas along side with rock ‘n’ roll polka madness.

I like the basic premise of this compilation. It’s respectful of the American polka tradition, but not overly reverent.

It’s got selections from justified and ancient American polka masters like Frankie Yankovic, Li’l Wally and Whoppee John Wilfahrt; polka rockers like Brave Combo, The Polkaholics, Polkacide (described in the liner notes as “the Motorhead of Polka”) and even Los Lobos (“Anselma”); and even avant-garde polka from Elliott Sharpe.

There are traditional favorites like “Beer Barrel Polka” (performed by Yankovic), rocked-out versions of traditional faves like  “The Happy Wanderer” (“Val-de-ri--Val-de-ra, Val-de-ri--Val-de ha ha ha ha ha ...” ) by the Polkaholics; as well as strange adaptations like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” (Brave Combo).

It’s full of novelty songs such as “You Can’t Teach the Japanese to Polka” by The Happy Schnapps Combo (they are great, intelligent hard-working  people, but they just don’t have that polka “riddum” this Wisconsin group argues).

And there’s the delightfully obscene entendre-laden “Wiener Dog Polka” by San Francisco’s Polkacide. It’s a sharp contrast to the mild, cornball humor of the following track “Tra-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay” by Walt Solek & His Orchestra.

While American Polka has a wider variety, Deeper Polka is, well, deeper. This is the type of polka you’d most likely hear at a  Czech wedding in eastern Nebraska or at a dance for Slovenian-Americans in Cleveland.

Probably the only song a non-Polka fanatic is likely to recognize on this one is “In Heaven There is No Beer,” sung in three languages (English, German and Norwegian) by The Goose Island Ramblers, who in the ‘60s and ‘70s played what they called “Norwegian Polkabilly.”  The Wisconsin-based Ramblers featured a prominent fiddle, and, on one of their songs on this album, Swiss-style yodeling.

Deeper Polka concentrates on seven acts hardly known outside of their respective hometowns. These musicians represent a wide array of European polka styles -- from nations you might not have realized had polka.

And by the way, even though there’s a band called Brian and the Mississippi Valley Dutchmen, The Netherlands is not one of these countries. The “Dutchman” style is actually a misnomer for “Deutschman” or German. However, Brian Brueggen’s group (which is from Wisconsin, not Mississippi) also plays some Czech tunes here.

There’s Stas Golonka, the singing meatcutter from Chicago who used to play in Li’l Wally’s band; Jerry Grecvich of Pittsburgh, who plays a Croatian style of polka featuring a mandolin-stringed instrument called the tamburitza ; The Mark Vyhlidal Band of Nebraska who plays tuba-grounded Czech or “Bohemian” music.

There’s Cleveland’s Nancy Hlad, an accordionist and modern disciple of Frankie Yankovic’s Slovenian-style; and the string-based Finnish style of Al Renko & Owen Tikkanen of Minneapolis
Though the languages are different and the instrumentation varied, the unifying factor in all these various styles is the polka attitude. Whether it’s, Polish “honky” style, Norwegian polkabilly, or polka versions of Hendrix songs, this is music to make you smile when you dance.

Also Recommended:

Tanz by Dave Tarras & The Musiker Brothers and Abe Schwartz The Klezmer King. Like polka, klezmer is a lively ethnic dance music style brought to this great nation of ours by European immigrants – klezmer being imported by Eastern European Jews.

These two recent archive releases from Sony Legacy are klezmer milestones. Tanz, was recorded in 1955 but this remastered recording sounds fresh enough to have been done last week. With Tarras and Sam Musiker (who used to play with Gene Krupa’s) leading the band with wild clarinets, this almost sounds like circus music that could save the world.

There’s some overlap between these two records. Tarras was in Schwartz’s band in the mid ‘20s. The sound quality of the Schwartz compilation isn’t nearly as impressive — but what do you want for stuff recorded between 1917 and 1935? Schwartz (1881-1963) was a violinist and bandleader who emigrated to the U.S. from Rumania. Recording with several groups represented here — the Abe Schwartz Orchestra, the Oriental Orchestra, and Boibriker Kappelle — and backing several vocalists, including his daughter Sylvia, Schwartz laid the foundation for klez as we know it today.

Copyright (c) by Stephen W. Terrell, reprinted by permission