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