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Review essay: Polka Happiness, by Charles Keil, Angeliki Keil, and Dick Blau, and A Passion for Polka:  Old-Time Ethnic Music in America, by Victor Greene

Published in American Music 12:3 (Fall 1994), pp. 322-27
Robert Walser. Reprinted by permission of the author.


A Passion for Polka:  Old-Time Ethnic Music in America.  By Victor Greene.  Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford:  University of California Press, 1992.  ISBN 0-520-07584-6.  Pp. xi, 355.  $28.00. 

 Polka Happiness.  By Charles Keil and Angeliki V. Keil.  Photographs by Dick Blau.  Visual Studies.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1992.  ISBN  0-87722-819-1.  Pp. xii, 221.  $29.95. 


      The polka has been a useful cultural construction for about 150 years.  Its music and dance burst upon the scene in 1844, becoming all the rage in Paris, and soon spread to other fashionable cities.  It had probably been invented a few years earlier, as Charles and Angeliki Keil put it, "as a Czech idea about how Polish women dance" (p. 19).  Any attempt to invoke "authenticity" when dealing with the polka is ruled out by the fact that polkas have never been very popular in Poland (as American fans continue to discover, to their disappointment, when they visit there).  Rather, various groups of people, especially ethnic communities in the United States, have made and remade the polka to suit their needs.  "Polka" is a broad term that encompasses a multitude of crucial variants, and it is best regarded as a syncretic, continually changing genre linked to certain communities, rather like the blues.  It has functioned variously as a marker of identity and a trans-ethnic unifier, as the familiar and the exotic, and even as a threat:  Victor Greene reports that during World War II, rumors of disloyalty troubled the German-Czech polka band of "Whoopee John" Wilfahrt, whose son, Pat, was accused of pounding out troop movements in Morse code on his drums, to be deciphered by dancing Nazi agents. 

      As the authors of these books point out, scholars have long ignored the music of working-class ethnic groups.  Not fitting well into either popular or art music categories, polkas and comparable forms have provoked very little academic work, some of the best of which remains unpublished.  Yet millions of people have placed this music at the center of their lives, and its long, syncretic traditions hint that a fascinating account of modernity may lie engraved in its grooves.  Thus A Passion for Polka and Polka Happiness are very welcome volumes, and both have a great deal to offer.  Readers will be amazed, however, at how little they have in common.  

      In fact, A Passion for Polka bears a misleading title, for the polka is scarcely mentioned in the first half of the book and digressions lead away from it in the second half as well.  The subtitle is a better guide to the book:  Greene is interested in a variety of ethnic musical practices that he subsumes under the term "old-time."  He begins with nineteenth-century band music, tracing its contours by region and ethnicity.  He then treats with considerable care the rise of the ethnic music business, explaining how music retailers, publishers, and record companies first cultivated separate ethnic audiences and then marketed their music across ethnic lines to general audiences. 

      The 1930s are the crucial crossover period for Greene.  During that decade, many ethnic bands adopted the instrumentation of the mainstream dance bands, adding brass, reeds, and drums to their ensembles.  At the same time, the piano accordion had been gaining in popularity in both ethnic and non-ethnic dance bands since the 1920s; 100,000 were sold every year in the United States from the late '30s to the early '50s.  For this period, Greene records the development of a multi-ethnic "international" style that helped ethnic musics gain entrance to a broader popular culture.  At the end of the 1930s, hits by artists such as the Andrews Sisters drew attention to the polka ("Beer Barrell Polka") and other ethnic dance music ("Bei Mir Bist De Shön").  A Passion for Polka concludes with several chapters that celebrate this period of crossover success through further regional studies and sketches of the careers of successful bandleaders such as Lawrence Welk and, especially, Frankie Yankovic, who is honored as the sole subject of the closing chapter. 

      Greene has amassed a tremendous amount of material, much of which will be valuable to other scholars.  His book tells us who played, where and what they played, for which audiences and for how much money.  Greene conducted many valuable interviews of ethnic musicians and their families, he synthesized biographies of musicians and businesspeople from a great range of primary and secondary sources, and he reports on polls and marketing strategies as well.  If his recital of facts occasionally seems a bit indiscriminate, Greene deserves a great deal of credit for tracking down and integrating so much information.  Yet what is missing, too much of the time, is why.  Greene apparently knows little about how music works, and he is unable to describe significant details precisely or to provide explanations of music's attractions that are other than simplistic.  This is manifest not so much in overt mistakes — as when he wrongly compares the oberek to a square dance, or when he falls back on ahistorical psychological explanations of music's effects — but in an inability to accept fully the richness and flexibility of the traditions he documents. 

      In his discussions of recorded ethnic music, Greene confirms the ongoing creativity of ethnic communities by showing that mass mediation and commercialization have, at various times, actually revived and stimulated ethnic cultures instead of dispersing them into a homogenous popular culture.  This is important, but oddly, Greene seems to think that he has discovered something completely new.  Yet this same complex interaction of local traditions and global mass mediation has already been analyzed by quite a few other scholars, including Lawrence W. Levine in Black Culture and Black Consciousness:  Afro-American Thought From Slavery to Freedom (New York : Oxford University Press, 1977), Bruno Nettl in The Western Impact on World Music:  Change, Adaptation, and Survival (New York:  Schirmer Books, 1985), and George Lipsitz in Time Passages:  Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1990), all of which are surely required reading for anyone interested in this topic.  Greene has, in fact, not kept up well with recent work; his understanding of ethnicity is influenced by few books published since the 1950s, and he completely ignores important recent studies such as Mary Waters's Ethnic Options:  Choosing Identities in America (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1990), which might have enabled him to deal with the changing meanings of ethnicity for musicians and audiences over the last few decades. 

      Greene's view of ethnicity is quite a romantic one, and although he acknowledges that ethnic musicians have always developed their music in dialogue with other kinds, he seems unable to cope with what they have done over the last three or four decades.  The difficulty is that his book is governed by a narrative that both orders and limits it:  the story of "the triumph of ethnic-crossover music in the mainstream of American popular culture" (p. 140).  This story breaks off in the 1950s, with scarcely any explanation; Greene simply appears to be reluctant to deal with what he sees as a period of decline.  Yet he mentions briefly the explosion of polka festival attendance in the 1960s, the renewal of energy brought by L'il Wally Jageillo's honky style, the increase during the 1980s in the number of radio stations playing ethnic music, and the establishment in 1986 of a Grammy category for the polka.  Still, none of this vital activity finds a place in his triumphant narrative, or in his book. 

      Charles and Angeliki Keil, on the other hand, are most interested in exactly this period, during which they did extensive ethnographic research of several distinct but interconnected polka scenes.  Their book was driven by the desire to account for the richness of the polka culture they came to experience first-hand, and their narrative thus lacks the pessimistic arch shape of Greene's.  They too see signs of decline in recent years (not decades), but like polka fans themselves, they know that post-War transformations of ethnic identity have not simply destroyed ethnic cultures.  Based on their study of Polish-American music in Buffalo and Chicago, and Slovenian-American music in Milwaukee, the Keils' book has a narrower focus than Greene's, but it is in many ways far richer.  Polka Happiness documents a living tradition, and it reports on twenty years of following the music to dance halls, conventions, fan club meetings, and record collections; twenty years of talking with musicians, DJs, promoters, and fans of all ages.  (Unfortunately, it may be difficult to find; this is not the first important book from Temple University Press to deserve much better marketing than it has received.) 

      The Keils' obvious enthusiasm for "polka happiness" should not be dismissed as unscholarly.  On the contrary, it is only because they understand so well why people value polka music that they can produce such a clear, convincing, and nuanced account.  They believe that polka musicians and fans collectively create situations where "individual freedom of expression and maximum sociability reinforce each other," where the present is celebrated within a history of generations (p. 3).  I am less willing than they to see this as a fulfillment of our essential "human nature," but when they stick to explanations of the social and historical utility of such utopian communal spaces, the Keils produce exemplary cultural analysis. 

      The first two chapters of Polka Happiness, written by Charles Keil, trace the history of the Polish-American polka from its invention in the 1920s through the transition from Eastern to Chicago style in the 1950s and later.  Keil describes the emergence of the Polish style out of other kinds of music, and he explains the ongoing influence of jazz, most evident in the important early work of Ed Krolikowski, who was known as "the Polish Paul Whiteman."  Unlike Greene, Keil does not try to contain the mixtures of ethnic and non-ethnic styles, musicians, and audiences that took place in the 1930s within a narrative of industry manipulation or ethnic triumph.  Rather, he is able to deal with the specific details that define musical styles and to account for the attractiveness of such fusions as signs of the dual or dialectical nature of ethnic identity. 

      A long interview with L'il Wally Jagiello helps Keil to explain the most important shift in Polish polka style.  If the Eastern style had much in common with big band swing, the Chicago style owed more to the r&b and rock and roll of the 1950s, Keil argues; musicians of this generation abandoned elaborate arrangements and invented a new oral tradition.  The new ethnic musicians were not dependent on written music and could often play more than one instrument, a development that contradicts familiar narratives of the simple decline of oral cultures in the twentieth century.  Polish-American musicians revived Polish lyrics, pronouncing them more precisely than their parents had, but often not knowing what the words meant.  (Indeed, when I performed with Polish polka bands in the 1970s, I sang some Polish lyrics myself, without much sense of what they said; the literal meaning of the lyrics seemed much less important that the celebration of community and history implied by our use of the language.)  Keil also includes excellent and specific comments on the music — how it works, what constitute its norms, and how performed variations signify — as when he describes how the 2-against-3 cross rhythms of the oberek really get people stomping across the dance floor.  (As John Chernoff has said of African polyrhythms, the dancing body reconciles conflicting impulses through its own motions.) 

      Angeliki Keil contributes the next two chapters, which analyze the activities of the International Polka Association, especially at the Milwaukee festival of 1976.  Both Keils are good at writing the history of the present, showing how past events shaped and continue to shape the cultural networks of the present.  Angeliki Keil's chapters describe the pragmatic concern for the health of polka music that led to the organization of the IPA, a concern that presupposes no narrow or exclusive sense of ethnic identity.  On the contrary, fans promoted a pan-ethnic (European) identity, choosing and constructing their ethnicity in ways that Mary Waters has demonstrated are becoming ever more common.  For example, Jerry and Bonnie Brevig have been among the most active of polka boosters, yet they (like me, during my polka band years) might be considered Polish-American "by persuasion" rather than by birth.  The long interview with Larry Trojak of the Dyna-Tones in chapter six further illustrates the ethnic self-fashioning of a later generation. 

      Keil explains the value of "polka happiness" by contrasting its "life-restoring sociability" with the capacity of modern science and market forces to atomize communities and naturalize individualism.  She describes the features of the polka's "ritual space":  distinctive garb, bodily movements and gestures, organization of time, friendliness, subjugation of profit to the social success of the event.  She argues that the "childlike" love lyrics of many polkas speak to the multi-generational audience that is typical of many polka dances, because the tensions of adult life "require the healing magic of polka playtime" (p. 104).  The playfulness disguises the serious business of maintaining a coherent but dynamic community, as when the stage patter of bandleader Eddie Blazonczek "charts a network of friends, fans, and professionals with whom his audience can identify, each name adding its specific image to a shared picture of the polka world" (p. 119). 

      The last two chapters of Polka Happiness step back from the national frame to examine two local traditions in greater detail:  Slovenian-American music in Milwaukee and Polish-American music in Buffalo.  In both chapters, Charles Keil makes excellent use of lengthy interviews with musicians, and his ability to analyze music with specificity and insight adds a dimension to polka scholarship that is absent from Greene's book.  From interlocked trumpet parts to wailing clarinets to the pronunciation of lyrics, Keil is able to account for the affective and historical force of musical details within an interpretive framework grounded by ethnography.  His discussion of the rehearsal techniques of the Dyna-Tones has previously been published, but it fits nicely here as well, revealing much about the music by analyzing its compositional process.  Angeliki Keil turns in some nice comments on the music, too, writing of "wet-tuned" accordions in a way that evokes broader issues of ethnic identity:  "almost tempered chords, but not quite.  It takes a lot to be that close to temperedness and not give in" (p. 115). 

      At one point, Charles Keil proposes that the history of ethnic music be seen in terms of a dialectic of control and looseness (pp. 139-40).  The polished and precise Slovenian style of Frankie Yankovic became popular as people lost control of their lives under capitalism, he argues.  This style was confronted by, and eventually merged with its antithesis, the honky wind instrument-oriented Chicago Polish style of L'il Wally, to form the Marion Lush/Eddie Blazonczek synthesis of "passion and perfectionism."  Such large-scale mapping can be useful, I would argue, because it highlights major stylistic changes and locates them within ongoing traditions of change.  But the emergence of the Chicago style remains unaccounted for, since the Keils are too quick to cram social and musical changes into the ahistorical mold of Dionysian/Apollonian dialectics.  I wish they had said more about why such shifts achieved legitimacy with particular audiences at particular historical moments, for they tend to excel at such explanations.

      Each book's photographs support its view of polka culture.  Dating from 1880 to the mid-1950s, most of the twenty-five pages of photographs in A Passion for Polka reflect the technological constraints and representational conventions that required rigid postures, static groupings, and blank expressions.  Thus they contribute to the sense one gets from Greene's text that ethnic music is distant, pure, a thing of the past.  Dick Blau's recent photos, on the other hand, scattered throughout the Keil's book, are nearly all dynamic and joyous, full of smiles and dancing, powerful evidence for the thesis of "polka happiness."  Blau's photographs put the viewer in the thick of polka parties that are recent, lively, and ongoing. 

      Where Victor Greene can find little to say about ethnic music in the 1970s, the Keils and Blau see that decade as a heyday, a golden age, traces of which linger into the present.  The Keils will be (and already have been) criticized for romanticizing polka culture.  Yet such charges are made by those who assume that working-class culture is simplistic or corny, those who have never actually experienced "polka happiness."  As someone who has, I found their book both moving and illuminating; its greatest strength is that it both evokes and analyzes the complex pleasures of polka culture.  Victor Greene seems confident that his book helps direct attention to a variety of musical traditions that have been important to many people, and from which a great deal can be learned, and he is right.  Charles and Angeliki Keil have loftier hopes:  "Eventually, the polka will be seen as a marker of a rich and complex ethnic experience, and 'the polka party' will take its rightful place alongside 'the jam session' as one of humanity's crowning achievements" (p. 16). 


Robert Walser

[Please cite as: "Review Essay:  Polka Happiness, by Charles Keil, Angeliki Keil, and Dick Blau, and A Passion for Polka:  Old-Time Ethnic Music in America, by Victor Greene," American Music 12:3 (Fall 1994), pp. 322-27.]