Czech Harvesters: 40 Years & Still Counting
There is no other characteristic so traditionally Czech as the expression of cultural unity through music that lends itself to fast-paced dance steps, laughter, and happy hearts. The spirit of every true Czech is most often reflected in festive events that represent good times with family, friends, and community. Kolaches, run a close second to the music, with pivo being a close third.
The Czech Harvesters founded in 1978, have been sharing their versions of traditional Czech music for over 40 years. Core founding members, Al Vanek, Jim Zabojnik, and Mike Snapka, along with other present and former members, performed at the 2018 National Polka Festival in Ennis to a full dance floor. This year they have released a CD, Forty Years Down the Road, which showcases their evolution as a band. Forty Years contains songs from their previous albums and live performances with the different members and musical variations of the Czech Harvesters' four-decades-and-counting history.
RICH CZECH MUSICAL BACKGROUNDS
The Harvesters used Ennis favorite, The Johnny Mensik Orchestra as a base style and blended in the sounds of Adolph Hofner, Rudy Kurtz, and The Vrazels to achieve their recognizable signature sound.
Al, Jim, and Mike all draw on rich Czech musical backgrounds. One of Al Vanek’s grandfathers, Ludvik Vanek, played with the Penelope Brass Band and the other, Vince Hutyra, played with the Kohut Orchestra (founded 1908) of West. Al attended dances at the West, Cottonwood, and Tours halls around the West area absorbing the sounds of the Kaluzas, Slim Haisler, the Rejceks, and many more.
By the mid-1960s he was being influenced by the emerging rock-n-roll and country scene, however his roots directed him to join the Petter Polka Band, under the masterful musicianship of the late Jerry Petter (the elder). Performing with this well-respected band tuned Al’s music chops on the guitar, sax, and vocals that would greatly benefit the Czech Harvesters in the future.
Mike Snapka loved performing with his father, Henry, a master button accordion player, who had his own band, the Henry Snapka Family Band. Mike’s grandfather was also a member of the Penelope Brass Band. By the age of seven Mike was singing in Czech, alongside his sisters, Louise and Barbara, all a part of the family band. Mike’s drive was evidenced when he decided to learn the trumpet and paid for the lessons himself. The formal training opened the door to other instruments - the sax, bass, and steel guitar. This versatility lent itself greatly to the success of the Harvesters in carrying on Czech traditions, which he has imparted to his son, Chris, a present Harvester.
Jim Zabojnik, with family roots in Shiner, Ennis, and Dallas, has experienced the subtle differences in Texas polka music and has absorbed them all quite well. His grandfather, James Kostak, who first settled in the Shiner area, would sit in on cornet with an early version of the Patek Orchestra (around 1915) before settling in the Dallas area. In Dallas, he played for the John Kebrle Orchestra and provided musical accompaniment for the many Czech-language theatrical plays that were given at the SPJST lodge. Jim was tutored by his grandfather, and playing from old handwritten arrangements, he learned an older generation’s style of music, which Jim later adapted to the Harvester sound.
A clear memory of Jim’s childhood is when the Joe Patek Orchestra, returning from a Dallas job, stopped by his grandparents’ house to enjoy his grandmother's Czech cooking. Jim played trumpet (which he still has) in the high school marching band, and more influentially, in the school jazz band. There, Jim’s musical horizons were widened, and he picked up different sounds to try on his trumpet. Along the way, Jim became proficient on keyboard, accordion, and guitar. While in high school, he and cousin, Bob Adamcik, would jam with other neighborhood musicians in a garage and sing Czech songs. Bob later played with the Country Boys Polka Band (from Ennis), and in the early 2000s joined the Harvesters bringing his skills on trumpet, sax, guitar, and steel guitar.
The variety of musical experiences these young men brought to the table allowed them to take the music of their mentors to a whole different plane.
By early 1978, most of the founders of the future Czech Harvesters were living in or near Dallas where the day jobs were. Al (bass guitar and sax), Mike (trumpet and sax), and Jim (trumpet and guitar) had been playing with the Czech Mates for several years, when they realized that they wanted to form their own band. Tony Petter, Bobby Duron, and George Mynarcik were recruited; however, George soon left as his job sent him to Houston. George recommended his brother, Tim, to fill his spot, an excellent choice.
The guys decided that since they wanted to perpetuate the Czech sound that musicians before them had cultivated, they decided to call themselves the Czech Harvesters. They also wanted to create their own distinct sound, so Mike started writing what would become signature arrangements. The Harvesters tweaked the well-known Texas Polka by adding Czech vocals to it, and their arrangement of Play Me a Polka is heard every Monday morning on KULP as Clinto starts your week.
The Czech Harvesters wasted no time jumping into the music business. Their first gig, Mike’s 25th birthday, was at the Czech fraternal hall in Dallas in 1978. The next several gigs were at the SPJST lodges in Dallas and Ennis. Within a month, they were playing for a SPJST function on the outside terrace on the 17th floor of a building in Dallas - quite a step up from single-story dance halls. That New Year’s Eve they played a battle dance with The Polka Patriots at the Dallas SPJST lodge. A memorable night in their early days was a dual dance with the Vrazels at the time when The Black Gypsy Waltzwas first released by the Vrazel band. The hall was packed to the rafters with fans.
For several years, the Harvesters focused on playing in the Dallas-Ennis-West area as they developed their sound and adjusted their personal lives. One of their favorites was the Czech Club in Dallas, where a good time was guaranteed. For bookings the 90-mile circle was being utilized (never book a gig, where you return too early in the morning.)
In 1991, the Harvesters played Julius Tupa’s First Annual Texas Polka Music Association Music Awards festival in Temple. After several years, the Harvesters were heading down Highway 95 to Elgin to share their music. Getting in on the ground floor, the Harvesters helped grow the Ennis polka festivals and Westfest’s Labor Day event into the major festivals they are now.
In 1994, it was time to really hit the road and the Harvesters headed up US 77 to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota for a polka festival. The Corn Palace is a unique venue, with giant murals made of corn kernels gracing the walls of the huge structure. A flock of Texians joined them on the trip (maybe in case they missed Texas); among them were Jimmy and Lucy Brosch.
One of their favorite road trip destinations was Yukon, Oklahoma. The little Czech settlement just west of Oklahoma City boasted two venues, the aptly named Czech Hall and Ernie’s Ballroom. These Texas boys had left their sunny home in shirtsleeves and jeans; by the time they reached Oklahoma City it was snowing. This was pre-Walmart and Dollar General days, and they about froze unloading the trailer on the north side of the hall. Being the good hosts that they were, the locals loaned some jackets, not without a few joking comments on Texians. Just down the road was a private club, Ernie’s Ballroom where they played many times in more temperate weather, mixing it up with northern bands, such as Marv Herzog (Ted Lange played second accordion in the band), Karl and the Country Dutchmen, and The Polkanuts.
The Harvesters also played at the Starlite Ballroom in Wahoo, Kansas and at Prague (Praha) Oklahoma festivals. Another interesting out-of-town gig was playing deep behind the Pine Curtain in East Texas at a celebration for Father Petter, brother to Tony. Tyler, Texas was not known as a polka hotspot or even any type dancing in public.
One of the more unique types of dances were the “harvest” dances. Managers at Seaton and Dallas halls would suspend apples, bananas, carrots, and fruits from the ceiling by string symbolizing the fruits of the field. However, no-one was allowed to pick the fruit. A “deputy” would be on patrol to catch people trying to swipe the fruit. The hall manager also constructed a jail cell in the hall. If the deputy caught someone grabbing the overhead fruit, they would be “arrested” and put in jail. The guilty party would have to pay a quarter or so to be bailed out. The money would generally go to the hall for expenses.
The Harvesters have also been heading the opposite direction down US 77, to see some of their fans from up north, who were spending the winters along the Rio Grande at San Benito RV park.
THE HARVESTERS TODAY
The years, miles, and musical direction have taken their toll on the Harvesters, as that is the nature of a musician’s life, and several members have chosen to spend more time with their families. This has resulted in the addition of new styles and fresh energy from the new members.
Over the years, quite a few musicians can claim to enable their musical careers to flourish while in the Harvesters. David Slovak, now fully integrated into Czech & Then Some, grew up in the Ennis area completely surrounded by Czech music. If he wasn’t listening to records by the Rudy Kurtz and Vrazel bands he was hanging around with Frank Vrla III, Richard Holub, and Anthony Macalik.
Their parents were close friends, took them to dances together, and they all played accordions for fun. Frank’s dad fixed up an old trailer for a music room where they could jam together as they unknowingly cultivated their talent. In a small town, it was something to do as a kid. This informal “schooling” enabled them to become future members of the Harvesters at various times. For several years, John Schumacher, also currently with Czech & Then Some, lent his rock-steady bass lines to the Harvesters keeping them on track for many years. Eric Trojacek and his nephew, Chris Trojacek, have contributed their talents to the Harvesters as have Dennis Schmelar and Chris Divan.
Jerry Petter’s (the elder) musical knowledge was passed down to his son, Tony, who played guitars, accordion, and sang for the Harvesters for many years. Tony’s son, Jerry, joined the band as a young man and played for over six years with the Harvesters.
In the 1990s, fiddler Ron Kasowski joined the band and brightened up the country and Cajun aspect of the Harvesters. Ron brought a taste of Polish music to the Harvesters' mixture and livened the crowd with his fiddling. The Harvesters early on added a steel guitar to fill the country song requests, beginning with Mike Snapka, then Joan Cox and Alan Sparkman. Bob Adamcik is currentley the Harvesters' steel play.
The Czech Harvesters are still going strong and encouraging young musicians to perform and polish their skills. The Texas Country Reporter television show will soon be airing an episode of the Harvesters, and the latest Harvester happenings can be found on Facebook, search for The Czech Harvesters. The current lineup of the Harvesters consists of Charlie Patak, Bob Adamcik, Jim Zabojnik, Mike Snapka, his son, Chris, and Ray Vanek (Al’s son.) Their latest CD, Forty Miles Down the Road, is available at polkbeat.com, and bookings for your dancing pleasure can be made by contacting Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Top of the page: Czech In the 90's cassette featured Richard Holub, Tony Petter, Mike Snapka, Jim Zabojnik, Al Vanek, David Slovak. First album, A Gathering of Favorites, featured Al Vanek, Michael Snapka, Bobby Duron, Tim Mynarcik, Jim Zabonjnik, and Tony Petter. More Favorites was the band's second album with a collection of old-time Czech polkas and waltzes, a new release (Snapka Waltz) and a touch of country and modern. Photo above: Left, from top - Jim Zabojnik, David Slovak, Mike Snapka. Right, from top - Tony Petter, Richard Holub, Al Vanek.