It’s the final weekend of Wurstfest, the New Braunfels-based annual festival which celebrates German food, beer and, of course, music. The festival began as a single-day event in 1961, an homage to that most delectable meaty treat, the sausage. Ed Grist, the city’s meat inspector, founded the event from those humble roots and it's grown into a wildly popular yearly celebration of German culture. Wurstfest now spans 10 days and hosts thousands of daily visitors from everywhere, including bands from as far as the old country and as near as the festival’s hometown.
“Wurstfest is deep in our hearts. It's a showcase venue for German folk bands and polka bands to play their favorite arrangements for some of the most enthusiastic audiences in the country,” said Valina Polka, a member of Das Ist Lustig, a three-piece traditional German folk band from Houston and longtime Wurstfest participants. “People come year after year from all over the USA to visit Wurstfest and celebrate in the unique atmosphere that only exists here. It's about the closest you can get to the same ‘gemutlichkeit’ feeling you can get at Oktoberfest in Munich, but it's right here in New Braunfels.”
Das Ist Lustig (translation: “That’s Fun”) has played Wurstfest eight of the last 11 years, including a spate of shows earlier this week and a pair tomorrow. Valina is one of the band's vocalists. She yodels, too, and plays the kinds of instruments which should draw the interest of adventurous music lovers - autoharp, tuned Austrian cowbells and Bavarian xylophone. She’s joined by vocalist Ross Polka, who plays accordion, singing saw and the Alphorn (you know it from that Ricola commercial). Drummer Erik Miculka rounds out the trio.
Obviously, Das Ist Lustig was the perfect band to answer our pressing questions about the best polkas to dial up as we make our way to Wurstfest. We asked for their five best, to which Valina replied, “I have to narrow it down to five? Okay, here goes!”
"In Heaven There is No Beer"
“The No. 1 polka to listen to before coming to Wurstfest is ‘In Heaven There Is No Beer.’ It's considered the unofficial ‘national anthem’ of New Braunfels and it's probably the most popular German polka in the world,” Valina informed. “I choose this one first, because the words are easy to learn and sing along and the melody is bubbling over with happiness. It was written in Germany in 1956 for a German film.”
"Beer Barrel Polka"
“The most famous polka in the world is the ‘Beer Barrel Polka.’ This song was written in the Czech Republic as ‘Škoda lásky,’ and is a love song,” Valina said. “The tune has been embraced by beer-loving cultures all around the world - Germany, with their rendition called ‘Rosemunde,’ still a love song, about a lady with pretty red lips. In Dutch, the soldiers sing about the things they ate in the army. In Spanish, it's about ‘El Barrilito De Cerveza.’ We love this one because the song is catchy and tons more fun when you can sing along, so of course, study up on it while driving down I-10 to get to the festival.”
Valina says this one is a popular tune at Wurstfest because a musician closely associated with the song performed it regularly at the festival.
“A famous American song written by Lawrence Welk is the ‘Champagne Polka.’ It doesn't get more bubbly than this!” she said. “For many years, Wurstfest highlighted shows with Myron Floren, the accordion player from The Lawrence Welk Show. Myron made the ‘Champagne Polka’ famous, and people still love the song today. It's a favorite of ours because its happy sound can do nothing but put you in a giggling mood, ready to dance!”
"The Happy Wanderer"
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“’The Happy Wanderer’ is our fourth choice,” said Valina of a song which allows the band to interact with the audience, something it does especially well. “The song was made famous by a children's choir from the north German state of Schaumburg in the 1950s. The choir was invited to sing the song in many places around the world. It remains very popular with audiences everywhere. Our band might sing it or we might invite a few lucky people up to the stage to play it on our Austrian cowbells with us.”
“Last, but certainly not least, is our personal favorite polka, ‘Die Bergvagabunden.’ This fun and fast song with a roaring echo yodel has been a favorite of ours since long before we had our own German folk band,” Valina noted. “We've never seen sheet music for this one, we learned it by ear, so we only know that it is a folk song from Burgenland in Austria.”
Das Ist Lustig performs a pair of hour-long sets at 11:30 a.m. and 2:10 p.m. on Saturday, November 10 at the Steltzenplatz, an open-air, biergarten-style venue at Wurstfest, 178 Landa Park Drive in New Braunfels. For a complete schedule of musical performances, check the event's website.