What's new

Is polka really dead?

With an Irish dad who died when I was young, and a Slovak mom who remarried a Polish guy when I was 9, I admit that I was never a fan of Polish music. Every Sunday in the 50s and early 60s, we went to my mom's sister's after church. My aunt was also married to a Polish guy, Us kids would go down to the basement, while polka music was played upstairs.

For decades, I've been listening to Irish punk. It was really weird, when 10 years ago, one of my favorite Irish punk bands from Vancouver put out a CD called Polka Never Dies. It was even weirder to receive this email today from the punk band about polka music. Is polka really so dead, that it takes a paddy-punk band to bring it to our attention? Anyone care to comment.

The email:

Polka music is silly, fun, light-hearted, bouncy, joyous. But the decline of Polka in North America is a very serious deal. Polka is, in fact, political.

There, I said it. And I mean it. And I know a lot more about it than I did when I wrote “Polka Never Dies”(2011) in a fit of charming but entirely uneducated optimism. The facts are clear: the generations that listen to Polka are disappearing. The bands that still play with the energy and power to attract younger audiences are disappearing (with a few noble exceptions, see below). The only place the average person encounters an accordion is as a punch line in a meme or in an old Far Side cartoon. Things are dire, and Polka is slowly dying. How did we get here?

From Community Building to Comedy Mashup

It is impossible to summarize the history of what was once called “Old Time Ethnic” music, but briefly, it rose to popularity in the 1930s-60s after a dominant, boring and irrepressibly racist Anglo-American majority found itself unable to stop tapping its toes to Italian, Polish, Czech, German and other European tunes. Smash hit songs like the Andrews’ Sisters “Beer Barrel Polka” were at the forefront of this development, as older eastern European melodies were given lyrics in English and sold to growing groups of fans.

Very soon, so many young people were playing the accordion that entire 100-piece orchestras were assembled. Exhibit A, Trick Brothers’ Accordion Institute, Toledo, 1940:

Fig 2. Wow. Just wow.
That’s only half the photo. Are you kidding me?

The end of WWII gave a lot of people a deep thirst for revelry and positivity, and they embraced Polka en masse. The accordion was (briefly) cool. And most importantly: Polka played a major role in the explosion of music as community; generations of people met husbands and wives at dance halls, under big tents, in church centers after kegs of beer were snuck in behind the pastor’s back. Many, many people used polka (and related genres) as a way to solidify their local communities and build support networks.

But something was changing; you can see it happening in The Godfather films. Slowly but surely, the communities who created and sustained this music lost their ties to the old world, and started to gain social and political power by Anglicizing their look, their speech, their mannerisms. By about 1980, Slavic and Eastern-euro accents sounded goofy and unintelligent again, just as they’d been for those Anglo racists in 1920. In a related development, the electric guitar completely displaced genuine folk instruments in popular music, destroying an entire generation of potential polka musicians. The cold war turned Eastern Europe into the Land of the Enemy. And so, “Ethnic” music was the stuff of comedy, and television was saturated with the dumb euro: Andy Kaufman’s Latka, Cousin Balki, Yakov Smirnoff, SNL’s Wild and Crazy Czechosolvaks… all of whom made Borat possible.

And so the stage was set for the man who would deal the death-blow to the genre: “Weird” Al Yankovic, a lovely person who loves to polka and absolutely shreds on the accordion, but who unwittingly taught the next two generations that polka is just a mashup comedy style, making millions in the process. Game over.

Fig 3. Game Over


Why We Need Polka Now

As for the contemporary music scene, a sprawling variety of stimulating genres and brilliant creators now tempts the ears… delivered through Airpods via cellphones and streaming services. The average person’s engagement with popular music exclusively involves either:

  1. staring blankly off into space, socially isolated, listening on Airpods, or
  2. attending pop/rock/hiphop/etc concerts where the band is the focus, where celebrity and stardom are the game, and where lights and screens and effects explicitly discourage interactions between audience members.
And now, Randy, the massive ****-cherry on top of the **** sundae: we’ve all been extra isolated by COVID for two years.

See the theme here, folks? So many of us desperately need music-as-community-building back, but popular music itself has completely severed its links to community. The magic still happens, in certain communities and for certain genres, but it is in serious decline and has been for a long time. Music-as-community does not come back just because people start “going to local shows”. Local shows are often just more bands trying to be celebrities and stars, asking us to stare at them instead of getting us to use their music to interact with each other (there are exceptions here, but you get my point). And, perhaps most importantly, most “local shows” aren’t exactly friendly to children or seniors, who absolutely must be included if anything like a “community” is to be built and represented.

There is only one way forward. It is to bring polka back. It is the only genre that can cut through the fog of isolation and the ever-increasing social anxiety brought on by the slow takeover of our lives by various arsehole techno-overlords. It is the only genre cheerful enough to reach all generations and to counteract the relentless negativity and irony that saturates popular culture.

Here at Dreadnoughts Inc. we tried to put our money where our mouths are on this one and were briefly able to bring large community polka dances to Vancouver. We learned 25 classic songs and played them to bouncing groups of kids, punks, seniors, parents, drunks, weirdos, and everyone in between. In many ways it was infinitely more fulfilling and fun than any Dreadnoughts gig, because “Polka Time!” was all about community, positivity, and generational inclusivity.

And you can do this too! We need more people to step up. Teach yourself or your child the accordion. Look around you for community dances and for groups like The Chardon Polka Band, Millennia, the Alex Meixner Band, Mollie B and the Mike Schneider band that may need your support. Be aware that the dumb-euro stereotype erases and marginalizes many rich cultural traditions. Play Frankie Yankovic and Myron Floren at parties and watch people’s eyes light up, especially after a few drinks. Get these juices flowing again.

Because otherwise, that 2011 optimism will be worth nothing, and in spite of all these good efforts, Polka will continue to fade away. And for real: the world will be just that much sadder and lonelier for it.
 

garyg

B&B membership has its percs
Back home back then there were polka bands everywhere, polka was a standby at most every wedding I ever attended. Frankie Yankovic was a homie. As a kid during the British Invasion I wasn't real fond of the polka, though I did have a friend with an accordion ..

I'd like to think a polka party might spawn the fall of those "various arsehole techno-overlords" ..

 
I blame the decline of music literacy on the modern education systems focus on test scores above all else. People wonder how we can get back to some cherry picked golden era, it isn't going to be easy. It takes kids raised around music and it takes ears that want to hear it. I suppose the TV shares a good chunk of the blame, I admit that I am out of touch with how much time people spend in front of that thing. Then we get to (anti)social media...
I really think we are at a point where some group of young people have one last chance to find the old timers and learn their ways or we are going to wind up losing our heritage.
Fiddler here, 50% Irish.
 

Chandu

I Waxed The Badger.
One side of the family is German. I have two uncles that both play the concertina. My state, MN has a strong German community around the New Ulm area. The local radio station plays polka over the noon hour and sometimes at other times.

I like polka music in general but I couldn't tell Polish influence from German from something else as it pertains to polka. I know my uncles must be able to because I remember the one lodging a criticism against one countrie's style. The actual words he said escape me.

So as a hobby I photograph small towns and document some of the change going on. I came to realize how important music was in so many communities. From WWI on to probably the late 60's many small towns had community bands. That has for the most part completely disappeared.

In Minnesota there were long cold winters and not much entertainment to be had in these small rural towns. Nearly every family had at least one person that could play an instrument of some sort. Often times, simply to pass the time.

Television, Internet, Social Media and the entertainment options allowed for with those three mentioned media will ensure that some parts of our heritage and culture, often good parts, die, never to return again. Quite the Faustian deal if you ask me.

 
Last edited:
I love to polka, unfortunately it's strongest supporters are comedians. I hear more from the Schmenge Brothers (The Happy Wanderers) than I do any legit polka organization.
 
I sure hope not! I know it's kind of hokey sounding to many of today's ears but it represents a rich immigrant heritage here in the US. I played in a professional polka band while in highschool and have very fond memories of it. Fun times.
 
My grandfather played an accordion (and he was far from nerdy). It will always be a special instrument for me. He played it while he had Alzheimer's, which was an incredibly special occasion (He was ready to go to fists when I tried to hug my grandmother before my wife and I were married, so watching him with our son was wonderful). I have also enjoyed polka music as it is just fun music.
 
I play polkas, jigs, reels, hornpipes, schottisches, waltzes! My avatar is my actual instrument, official name bichromatic accordion, or melodeon as we call them in the UK.

I have run an English ceilidh band for about 20 years. Just getting going again now after two years enforced rest with lockdowns!

Gareth
 
I play polkas, jigs, reels, hornpipes, schottisches, waltzes! My avatar is my actual instrument, official name bichromatic accordion, or melodeon as we call them in the UK.

As prevalent as the accordion is in eastern European music, it and the like are actually invasive species that have done considerable damage. With the introduction, largely since the nineteenth century, of such fixed scale instruments – accordions, button-boxes, harmoniums etc. - regional ethnic tuning systems (temperaments) which are a vital part ethnic folk musics have gone extinct. Some may see it as more of an evolution, and a good thing – after all they’re portable and relatively easy to learn which helps the dissemination and the appeal of folk music. Music historians however have a more jaundiced view. The fixed tonal system of equal temperament introduces an inflexible approximation as the tonal framework thus eliminating the myriad subtle tonal colors that a flexible tuning system allows for and capitalizes on. Imagine trees everywhere being the exact same green, and in the fall turning to the exact same color, absolutely no variation. Interesting topic.

Sorry for the digression. I was a musicologist in a previous life and some old habits die hard.
 

Chandu

I Waxed The Badger.
As prevalent as the accordion is in eastern European music, it and the like are actually invasive species that have done considerable damage. With the introduction, largely since the nineteenth century, of such fixed scale instruments – accordions, button-boxes, harmoniums etc. - regional ethnic tuning systems (temperaments) which are a vital part ethnic folk musics have gone extinct. Some may see it as more of an evolution, and a good thing – after all they’re portable and relatively easy to learn which helps the dissemination and the appeal of folk music. Music historians however have a more jaundiced view. The fixed tonal system of equal temperament introduces an inflexible approximation as the tonal framework thus eliminating the myriad subtle tonal colors that a flexible tuning system allows for and capitalizes on. Imagine trees everywhere being the exact same green, and in the fall turning to the exact same color, absolutely no variation. Interesting topic.

Sorry for the digression. I was a musicologist in a previous life and some old habits die hard.
This is interesting to me. So essentially fixed scale instruments are similar to digital in a way? A fixed range of values 0-255 or similar.
 
This is interesting to me. So essentially fixed scale instruments are similar to digital in a way? A fixed range of values 0-255 or similar.
Well, it's all in how you divide the octave: how many and how far apart. A digital keyboard, like almost all keyboard instruments, will divide it into 12 equally spaced tones (the 13th being the octave itself). Some high-end keyboards can be tuned to different temperaments. Non digital/electronic keyboard instruments, using tensioned wires or even "reeds" (usually metal) can go out of tune, necessitating retuning, usually (since at least the mid 18th century) to the equal temperament of 12 equally spaced tones. There were many temperaments in use and in theory before about the middle to end of the 18th century. Each, usually favored or worked best in one or two keys, beyond that the music would sound out of tune, and there could be instances of downright dissonance. Equal temperament worked reasonably well across all 12 keys, making them all sound equally bad. It's really not that bad, but modern listeners are accustomed to it.
 
1645554321830.png
1645554466867.png
 
I miss my mom's mishmash of Slovak, Polish, Hungarian food and desserts, that I grew up with. Sadly, that tradition was never passed on, at least in our family.

If you live in New Jersey, like Polka and Polish food, and Polish tradition and culture, then you should make it a point to visit here every year:


It is right across the river, in Doylestown, PA, at the National Polish-American RC Shrine (The National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa – Nonprofit Organization · Religious Organization · Catholic Church - https://czestochowa.us). They have live Polka bands, and tour busses come in from all over the Mid-Atlantic region for it.

The National Shrine is open year-round.
 
Top Bottom