Defending the Polka

What's the difference between an accordion player and a terrorist?

Terrorists have sympathizers.

Yes, that's a joke, but you can forgive the polka community for not laughing right now. On June 4, the Recording Academy (the body behind the Grammy Awards) announced that, effective immediately, it was eliminating Best Polka Recording from the field of more than 100 categories. It chose to do so "to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape," according to a statement reported in The New York Times.

Although polka is older than jazz, blues, rock and rap (much older), Best Polka Recording only dates to 1986. The winner was Weird Al's dad, Cleveland-raised polka kingpin Frankie Yankovic, who released more than 200 polka recordings in his lifetime (he died in 1998).

But over the next two decades, upstate New York native Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra — a group that often inflamed polka traditionalists by liberally incorporating genres like pop, swing and country into its music — claimed the award a staggering 18 times, similar to, say, the Zydeco Dots at our own Houston Press Music Awards. Some believe such domination has had a chilling effect on the category, discouraging artists and record labels from entering. The Times noted that only 20 albums were considered for the five polka nomination slots in 2006.

"[The Academy] doesn't police the categories very well," says Carl Finch, guitarist, keyboardist and accordionist for Denton's Brave Combo, who won the 1999 polka Grammy for Polkasonic and again in 2005 for Let's Kiss. "In some of the categories, it's easy for those to be dominated by certain artists, and that definitely — how do I put this? — it discourages people from entering and kind of kills the incentive."

(Note: Polka recordings remain eligible in the Best Traditional Folk and Best Contemporary Folk categories.)

Polka practitioners are used to being picked on — the genre has been used as a default musical punch line for decades. In its own way, the prevailing stereotype of polka players as a bunch of portly, sausage-chomping, lager-guzzling Teutonic or Slavonic fellows clad in traditional costume, pumping out one oompah-powered march and waltz after the other, is as insidious and inaccurate — if perhaps not quite 100 percent off-base — as the gin-guzzling, white-haired bluesman or spliff-smoking, barefoot-and-dreaded rastafarian.

"The elimination decision reeks of prejudice," says T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert, Webmaster and Illinois Director of the Chicago-based International Polka Association via e-mail. The IPA, Jasinski-Herbert adds, is drafting a letter to the Recording Academy at its general meeting this week. Surely a petition to have polka restored can't be far behind.

"In mainstream music in the last 40 or 50 years, [polka has] been the music that's the butt of the joke," says Finch. "It's the one music everybody turns to if you need a laugh, if you want to not take music seriously."

"I don't know why it became such a hokey thing," puzzles accordionist and singer Mark Halata of Texavia, one of the few working polka bands based in the Houston area. "I think if people came out to polka dances and got up there and grabbed somebody, they would realize how fun it is."

At its core, polka is dance music — a form of dance music that has proved profoundly popular, soluble (it combines especially well with other genres) and durable for almost two centuries now. It's thought to have originated in Bohemia, the western half of the present-day Czech Republic, in the early 1830s before spreading to almost all of Central and Eastern Europe. Today, Finch points out, there are distinctive forms of German, Italian, Polish, Czech, Slovenian, even English (?!) polkas. (Judging by Brave Combo's recent performance at Discovery Green, he can play them all.)

Like many other types of folk dancing — waltz, mazurka, gavotte, tarantella, hora, polonaise — polka was absorbed into the symphonic repertoire fairly quickly. Johann Strauss II, composer of the famous "Blue Danube" waltz, wrote dozens of them. Igor Stravinsky, Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff all penned a few. Much later, Tom Waits gave us a characteristically askew take on the genre with "Cemetery Polka," from 1985's Rain Dogs.

Meanwhile, the large number of Czech and German immigrants to central and east central Texas in the 19th century — Halata, whose grandfather emigrated from one Moravia (east of Bohemia) to the other (south of Schulenburg) in the 1890s, says Czech was the third most-spoken language in Texas until being supplanted by Vietnamese — planted polka's roots deep in Lone Star soil. Groups like Cameron's Vrazels and Adolph Hofner's orchestra were well versed in both polka and Western Swing, and even Bob Wills's Texas Playboys could roll out the barrel on occasion — see this year's ten-disc box set The Tiffany Transcriptions for proof.

Some central Europeans wound up even farther south than Texas, specifically in the area around Monterrey, Mexico, and polka combined with Mexican folk music to form the building blocks of what people on both sides of the border now know as norteño and conjunto. Even today, although polka is not quite as popular in Texas as in the upper Midwest — Finch says there is a full-on polka circuit up there, with bands that tour constantly — it's still not that hard to find. Sengelmann Hall, the Schulenburg dance hall Houstonian Dana Roy Harper restored and reopened earlier this month, hosts Sunday polka matinees, for example. (Texavia plays there next month.)

So how did such a distinguished, widespread and influential music come to be such a joke? Finch points to Lawrence Welk, the North Dakota-born bandleader of German-Ukrainian ancestry whose bubble-strewn television show, full of garishly costumed dancers and sanitized singalongs, ran for 27 years and came to define polka in the popular imagination. Since PBS still shows old episodes once a week (mostly Saturday evenings) and Saturday Night Live spoofed the show in several sketches this past season, Welk's show still embodies polka for an awful lot of people.

"It was music that was made safe for grandparents in a way, but a lot of people don't understand the history of that, either," Finch says. "Lawrence Welk was encouraged to de-ethnicize his music for the sake of commercial appeal. Although I understand why he did it, his efforts to make his music more 'international' and take out specific elements that made it either sound Polish or Dutchman or German or whatever — the homogenization of the music made it, in some people's eyes, kind of wimpy."

Maybe the biggest knock on polka, or at least the simplest way to put it, is that it's just not sexy. That's patently false. It's party music, pure and simple. Partying plus dancing plus drinking leads to...well, you know. Polka was the rock and roll of its time, and now its defenders are ready to take it to the streets. Whether they meant to or not, the Grammys have stirred up a real hornet's nest of angry accordionistas.

"Polka is used to being kicked around, so in a way it doesn't surprise me," says Finch. "But there is quite a groundswell of discontent boiling up about this that could explode. There's a lot of people really upset. The polka community is up in arms right now, and ready to make war with somebody."

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray