Polka the Folk Dance and Song Music in the Upper Midwest, Germans and Others

The Polka

Although I’ve lived around this kind of music all my life, I’ll have to admit to some of the cultural snobbery of our day, the 1950’s and 1960’s. For some reason it was not cool to like “old time music” as it was called or country music. Rock and Roll was cool and folk music later became cool, although I had been interested in folk music before it became popular. Little did I realize that I was turning my back on the folk music of my own region. Throughout the ‘60’s I was curious why folk dance was so ignored, since the folk heritage is rich with dance tunes. I recall being at a folk concert at a county park in Iowa mostly attended by handicapped people who were bused there. One lady in the audience suggested to the singer that he might learn some dance tunes so he could play dance gigs. The singer sort of scorned the idea. The Mormons, for example, did square dancing when they camped out on their westward journey. One reason that the 1960’s folk revival may have faded out was that it was approached as listening music. Those who wanted to dance turned to rock and roll and the Country music. Possibly because I have never been a real good dancer, it didn’t concern me too much. My daughter’s wedding several years ago was the last dance I attended and I sat out the Polka’s.

Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun

Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run

Zing boom tararrel, ring out a song fo good cheer

Now's the time to roll the barrel, for the gangs all here

From the “Beer barrel Polka, also know as “Roll out the Barrel.” A polka song done by various Polka performers, including Bobby Vinton, Frank Yankovic.

When I was a very young boy in grade school, I would come home from school to listen to my favorite radio shows (nobody had television back then) like Captain Midnight, Sgt. Preston and King. I still think something was missing when television took over. I impatiently listened through programs like Whoopee John and his polka band. A co-worker of mine from El Paso, Texas thought it was weird that polkas were played, although I just found that German polka style is performed in the “polka- belt” of the Dakota’s Nebraska, Kansas Oklahoma, and Texas.

I read that one reason Bob Dylan left Hibbing, Minnesota was because the only music on the radio there was Polka music. Yet, I remember when Pete Seeger was in Minneapolis during the sixties he said that folks should look in their own back yard for folk music. New Ulm, Minnesota, he said is full of folk music. He was talking about Polka and probably about “The Six Fat Dutchmen” who were a popular Polka band in New Ulm, a heavily German community. Maybe we all have a tendency to take the things around us for granted and not see their value. As Joni Mitchell, a folk singer and songwriter, phrased it “you never know what you have until it is gone. “Whatever the case with the Polka all around we don’t think of it as “folk music.” Yet what is folk music but the music of the people or “folk”? Maybe because it is so prominent one becomes unaware of it.

Although I have lived around the Polka all my life, I have never found it as predominant as in Wisconsin, where I retired. A book on Wisconsin informed me that the polka is the folk music of the Upper Midwest—the states and cities close to the Great Lakes.

Polka in America, according to Wikipedia, originated in Bohemia in the 1830’s and came to the United States with the immigrants from Eastern Europe. It is dance music in 2/4 time. It has several genres throughout the country and allows performers and participants to express their ethnicity. It reminds me of when I first tried to understand Jazz, with Chicago Jazz, New Orleans Jazz, modern Jazz, Dixieland, Cool Jazz etc. like Jazz and folk music, the polka has adherents who attend festivals and polka associations.

Polka genres include German-American, Czech-American,, Polish-American and unexpectedly to me Mexican American known as “cojunto” The conjunto sound originated from Czech- and German influence on Mexican-Americans in Texas and northern Mexico. Although they play some polka, their preferred musical form is called “ranchera’, which is similar to the polka. Another unexpected genre is Papago-Pima, sometimes described as “chicken scratch” and belongs to the Indian tribe Tohono O’odham, formerly known as Papago. The tribe was influenced bu the music of Germans who settled in southern Arizona. Now there is a great example of the folk process at work.

One form of polka that I have not quite come to feel comfortable with is the Polka mass, which seem very popular in where I live. I think it is the “Oom-pah” style that is prominent here that seems disturbing to me in a church service. However, that sound I find is not common in all polka performers, so it might be the genre.

Some well-known polka performers:

Six Fat Dutchman who are noted for the “Oom-pah” sound, which originated in from Germany and Czechoslovakia.

Frank Yankovic known as America’s Polka King. He grew up in Sloven-Italian section of Collinwood on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. In the battle of the Bulge, Frank nearly froze when he was separated from his unit and his hands were badly frostbitten. Doctors wanted to amputate but he wouldn’t let them do it. The polka world would have lost and important player if he had.

Bobby Vinton who was largely a crooner was also known as the “Polish Prince” and worked in number genres of music, including polka.

Lawrence Welk was a German-American performer who came from South Dakota. He had a career on Television for many years. Best know for his Champaign music.

Liberace who also had a very popular TV show for a long time. He was a showman and piano player. Although he did not specialize in polka, the Beer Barrel Polka was his signature song.

How to dance the Polka

© 2009 Don A. Hoglund

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Comments 13 comments

Vern Borth 7 years ago

In invite readers to visit www.internationalpolka.com for more information.

There are some very good polka (folk) bands out there, including the Polka Family Band from Pennsylvania and, in Wisconsin, Norm Dombrowski and the Happy Notes.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Useful information. I felt that regional music and ethnic music represent some of the real music of the "folk." What is generally called folk music (and country music) was the regional music of the Southern mountain areas. area.

Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

Wow didn't know the Polka was this diverse. Very interesting facts on this music. I will have to look up some of the music of the more popular performers you listed here on You Tube and see what comes up - thanks for bring my attention to this genre(s) of music

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for commenting. I guess if you grow up in the northern Midwest states like Wisconsin and Minnesota the polka is just part of the background. You acquire some of it without awareness.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for commenting. I guess if you grow up in the northern Midwest states like Wisconsin and Minnesota the polka is just part of the background. You acquire some of it without awareness.

Chef Jeff profile image

Chef Jeff 6 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

The late John Candy was also quite good at playing polkas. Also don't forget "She's too fat for me!" sung by Arthur Godfrey (and others!) We used to dance to Polkas when I was a kid. Part of my Czech heritage.


Chef Jeff

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I remember the "Too fat Polka" as we knew it. It used to be that every wedding or party was with Polka music--known as old time. It seems like many ethnic groups like polkas.

Chef Jeff profile image

Chef Jeff 6 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

Well, my Wisconsin cousins were all Polish-Czech-Americans, I am Czech-German-American, and we lived in an area with a lot of corner bars. In the town just north of us, Schaumberg, IL, which we called 4-corners, a lot of German farmers moved there when Hitler came to power, joining German-Americans already living there.

I used to have a 78 of Too Fat Polka and also the Pennsylvania Polka. My grandfather played harmonica and my dad the coronet.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Actually, I'm of Swedish-French Canadian heritage but I grew up near a polish neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My wife is of German background.Unfortunately we are not able to play any musical instruments, although my father used to play accordian.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

I remember the polkas in Wisconsin and like you said, there are those who do it in Texas as well. As to the rest, I found this information really interesting.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for commenting. I grew up with polkas, wedding dances always did them. Northeast Minneapolis where I lived until my sophomore year in high school was pretty much Polish. I would probably be more attuned to them if I were a better dancer but usually my dance partners gave up on me after the first dance--or before.Anyhow, I thought I should give this kind of music its proper respect as a form of folk expression.I learned a lot of things in researching it.

2patricias profile image

2patricias 5 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

Wow! This brings back some memories (this is Pat writing) I was born in Nebraska and left when I was 17. My parents got their first TV in 1959, and there was only one Channel. Some of their broadcast was from CBS, but the rest was local. In my memory, the "Six Fat Dutchmen" were on TV every day - but in reality it was probably once a week.

My parents were never very sociable, but sometimes my Dad sat with the band for Saturday night dances and I was allowed to go with him.

My Dad knew all the words to show tunes and popular songs from the 1940s so sometimes there would be parts of the dance when he would either play the trumpet (or occasionally sing) for those songs. But mostly the band played polka tunes for dancing.

I haven't thought about the Too Fat Polka for years, but now that you mention it I recall that the chorus was "I don't want her, you can have her, she's too fat for me".

Talk about politically incorrect!!!

Thanks for making me smile with this hub.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I'm glad you enjoyed this hub. In my college days when rock and roll was becoming popular and before the breatles Lawrence Welk was very popular with the older folks but our age set made much fun of his music. I figured it was time for recognition of a cultural thins of our region. Thanks for your comment.

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