Polka: Slow but Not Out
Polkadate December 2019. Is polka music fading away? Seems like a perennial question that has been asked over decades. The short answer is NO. The music is here to stay, but the polka music scene has, like all things, changed.
Most sources agree that polka originated in 1830 in Bohemia by a young lady who was a housemaid. The dance became popular throughout Europe when the ruling classes made it fashionable. As with most popular fads the short attention span of those who follow fads soon moved on to other dances in order to be “in step with the times”. However, the peasants or working class retained the polka as a symbol of their cultural pride. This is true of most cultures - Cajun, Appalachian, etc.
As the polka crossed the Atlantic in the early 1900s, it was referred to as “Old Time” by the music industry and was generally regarded as a folk dance, along with clogging or square dancing - a style of music that is only performed in small pockets of America and had no impact on mainstream or “pop”ular music. In other words, it wasn’t a money maker for record executives. It might come as a surprise to a few people, but record companies and radio stations don’t exist to bring you music you want to hear, that is unless there is a buck to be made for them (not the artist).
The music industry in the first several decades of the 1900s, had gone through ragtime (Scott Joplin), jazz (Louis Armstrong), folk (Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers), swing and big band (Artie Shaw and Bennie Goodman) and were looking for the next big thing to sell to the public. In 1927 Czech composer, Jaromír Vejvoda, reflecting on his roots, wrote a melody called the Modranská Polka. After having words applied to it, it became the Beer Barrel Polka. The Andrews Sisters had their first hit and were looking for the second hit to boost their career. The happiness of the melody and non-serious lyrics words of the Beer Barrel Polka was just what the American public needed to celebrate recovery from the Great Depression. In 1939, all of America was dancing and singing happy polka music along with the Andrews Sisters and others who jumped on the polka wagon. Happy Music for Happy People.
Frankie Yankovic and his accordion kept the polka banner flying during the 1940s. People of all ages were dancing and listening to him and other bands play their northern style of polka. In Texas, the Bacas, the Pateks, and Adolph Hofner were keeping polka (old time) alive. There were enough of the more senior citizens who related to this sound to keep record and ticket sales at a reasonable level.
However, they were starting to dilute their set lists with more hillbilly (country) songs to compete with the rise of Hank Williams and others to keep record and ticket sales alive so that they may keep the music of the old country alive. The above three and others were good bands and they chose their songs carefully. Cajun songs like Jole Blon and Mathilda satisfied the dancers. Those songs were written by people just like themselves, the working class, not professional Tin Pan Alley songwriters.
As with all “next generations” the youth of America latched on to rockabilly music which split and went in two directions, country music and rock-n-roll. The music industry went all awry. An example: a hip-swinging be-bopper named Elvis Presley had a hit single on country music radio singing a non-traditional version of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe’s song, Blue Moon Over Kentucky. It worked and new genre titles had to be invented to describe the music: rock and country.
All through this musical upheaval Lawrence Welk had been persevering and keeping polka music in front of the people playing his light, inoffensive Champagne Music of mellow polkas and waltzes. Welk was in on the ground floor of a new medium: television. This delighted the older crowds (like my mother), but when Welk tried to keep his music current and perform rock-type music, it seemed too fake and calculated and the younger generation followed their peers, not some “old guys with fake sideburns trying to sing Elvis” (like me).
As with all previous genres of music, this smooth style of music faded into the past, yet it with its polkas, waltzes, and happy music were in the public eye for a longer time than others and still survives with touring orchestras.
At present times, small pockets of German and Czech cultures remain. The descendants of these immigrants have assimilated into modern culture, yet they still take time out to celebrate their roots at various festivals, however these numbers are declining.
In the 1950s, competition from sporting events and television began making inroads into the time spent dancing. Currently, it appears that people are attending large polka festivals once or twice a year instead of weekly or monthly dances, which hurts the dance halls and organizations who rely upon them for funding.
Radio stations still broadcast old-time music with the original dialects and the disc jockeys (THANK YOU!), still talk about the music (and with the listeners!). The rise of the internet has actually helped keep polka music alive by allowing the local radio stations to broadcast their polka shows all over the globe. Mollie B and Ted Lange have a weekly polka show on XM satellite radio on the RFD channel and RFD is still broadcasting reruns of polka dance shows. The music itself is being kept alive and available.
There is a small island of culture north of Fort Worth that is Denton, Texas. While not ethnically associated with any culture, the city fathers focus on music. Every year the Denton music festival attracts 300,000 visitors. Brave Combo, a progressive polka band, has called Denton home for 40 years. They keep the old German, Czech, and other cultures’ music alive while gently incorporating modern rhythms into the songs with professionalism which exposes songs such as the Julida Polka to a younger crowd. A new polka radio show, Heidi’s Happy Polka Hour has sprouted on the local Denton radio station that keeps the happy feet a tappin’ and polkas in the area.
So polka music is still alive and reasonably healthy in various forms and formats. However, the polka music scene is questionable. In northern areas of the U.S. it has to be sought out, and in Texas, dance schedules are available online and in your mailbox via Polkabeat.com. To keep it going, one must Polka On!