Strictly speaking, the polka is not a genuine Polish art form. In fact if you visit Poland, you will seldom hear polka music or see people dancing the polka. Nevertheless, the polka has been embraced by various ethnic groups and remains a significant part of Polonia celebrations. The music is very lively and easy to dance to, and the lyrics are usually very funny and not intended to be taken seriously -- except that peskykiszka problem, of course. The polka is just plain fun, so give it a try!
The following article by Roy S. Czernikowski is an excellent summary of the origins of the polka:
One enjoyable side-benefit of creating and operating a website that focuses on traditional Polish music is having the opportunity to learn and meet interesting people who know a great deal about music. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Diane Ruszczyk online, who has generously shared with me a variety of information about Polish music and other important aspects of Polish life and culture. Thanks to Diane, I can share with you this link to Troy Gawlak's website, Where Polkas Come From, which as the title suggests explores the roots of polka music. Thank you to Troy for putting it all together, and special thanks to Diane for her extremely valuable suggerstions. You can read about Diane in the guest book.
And while you're at it, be sure to check out The Honky Express. It just so happens that Troy Gawlak is the concertina player in this talented polka band from Ohio.
Kapela Jany i Maliny z Niebylca
Kapela Jany i Maliny z Niebylca
The Honky Express - Malenka Halenka
Jimmy Sturr - "A living legend!" and a master of Eastern-style polka music
Jimmy Sturr is a polka musician, trumpeter/clarinetist/saxophonist and leader of Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra. His recordings have won 18 out of the 24 Grammy Awards given for Best Polka Album. Sturr's orchestra is on the Top Ten List of the All-Time Grammy Awards, and has acquired more Grammy nominations than anyone in the history of musical polka awards. His band is arguably the most popular polka band in America, and have their own TV show on the RFD-TV network, a network devoted to rural America.
Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra
Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra band members include: Jimmy Sturr, vocals; Steve Swiader, accordion; Dennis Coyman, drums; Eric Parks - trumpet; Frank Urbanovitch, vocals, fiddle; Johnny Karas, vocals, tenor saxophone;Keith Slattery, piano; Kenny Harbus, trumpet; Kevin Krauth, trumpet; Nick DeVito, clarinet and alto saxophone; Greg Dolecki, clarinet and alto saxophone; and Rich Pavasaris on bass guitar.
The Honky Express includes musicians: Jody Maddie on trumpet, clarinet and sax; Charlie Tansek on clarinet and trumpet; Troy Gawlak Gawlak on concertina, Greg Zuder on accordian; Gary Smith on bass; and Don Sukup on drums.
Eddie Blazonczyk's Versatones
Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones 7208 S. Harlem Avenue Bridgeview, Illinois 60455
Phone: (708) 594-5182 Fax: (708) 448-5494
Eddie Blazonczyk Jr. firstname.lastname@example.org (815) 254-7624
In 1963 Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones recorded their first album titled “Polka Parade” on the Bel-Aire record label. Over the past forty years and approximately 160 dates per year, this Grammy award-winning group is known for its modern blend of polka originals, covers and standards that have pleased people in over 6000 appearances, touring the USA, Canada, France, Austria, Mexico, and Poland. They have recorded over 57 albums and received over 125 miscellaneous awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the International Polka Association, the United States Polka Association, the United Polka Boosters and the United Polka Association.
Eddie Blazonczyk was born in Chicago in 1941, the son of immigrants from the rural Tatra Mountain region of southern Poland. His mother directed and sang in a Gorale (Mountaineer), music and dance ensemble in which he participated as a child. His father performed in a Gorale band on the cello. From a very young age, he was destined for a life in music. After a brief stay in Poland, Eddie returned to America where his parents operated the Pulaski Ballroom and the Mountaineer Tavern. Here, Eddie was exposed to some of the most influential polka musicians of the day. Artists such as Lil’ Wally, Steve Adamczyk, Eddie Zima, Marion Lush and America’s Polka King Frank Yankovic entertained here, on Chicago’s Southwest side. As a youngster inspired by his heritage, Eddie played accordion and sang with his childhood friend Chet Kowalkowski at many picnic groves and ballrooms.
As a teen, Eddie spent his High School years in northern Wisconsin and turned his sights to Rock N Roll music and went under the name of Eddie Bell. He recorded for the Mercury record label and toured with such stars as Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Brenda Lee, as well as numerous others. His highlights included the hit single “Hi-Yo Silver” and a performance on the famed American Bandstand show with Dick Clark.
Following High School, Eddie returned to Chicago and was reunited with his childhood friend Chet Kowalkowski. Chet convinced Eddie to join him in a local “up and coming” group. He would sing and place bass for this group called the “Versatones”.
The Versatones career highlights include Eddie Blazonczyk Sr’s National Heritage Fellowship induction, the country’s most prestigious honor in the folk and traditional arts, presented by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998, Eddie Blazonczyk Sr’s election into the I.P.A. Polka Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and in 1986 the Versatones received a Grammy for their
“Another Polka Celebration” album. They have also been nominated for a Grammy 16 times by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science since the polka bracket first spun off from the folk category in 1985. In 1967, a Congressional Committee awarded the title “The Nations #1 Polka Band” to Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones and registered this title with the Library of Congress.
The Versatones classic six piece format and multi-influential roots have developed from a mixture of past Rock & Roll experience, Country & Western, Cajun, and Tex-Mex music. But it’s the progressive sound which the Versatones have achieved with their six pieces which has modernized polka music. This, obviously is a different sound from the post-war Chicago polka style of the 40’s & 50’s.
The Versatones have expanded their following over the years, mostly because of its own arduous efforts of booking their own shows, coordinating promotions and connecting with the mainstream music industry. They have fans clubs throughout the country and are the most sought after polka band in the music industry today. On some of their albums they have combined a country flavor with the traditional polka. As for the recent upswing of interest in the polka, the Versatones credit the willingness of artists to update the sound for standards and original pieces. The Versatones tremendous popularity attracts audiences ranging from 13 years to 80 and it’s split between young and old. You don’t have to be ethnically related to any of the 12 main styles which include Polish, German, Bavarian, Slovenian and Tex-Mex that are played in North America to appreciate the vibrant spirit of polka music and dance.
In 1997, after playing and singing alongside his father the previous 8 years, Eddie Blazonczyk Jr. took over the operations of the Versatones. In 2002, Eddie Blazonczyk Sr. semi-retired from the band due to health reasons. The following year, Eddie Jr. and the Versatones received their 14th Grammy nomination for their recording “My Father’s Shoes”. Today Eddie Jr. and the Versatones proudly carry on a legacy started over 40 years ago on the South Side of Chicago, the evolution and advancement of polka music and their heritage. To see Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones perform “live”, you will truly understand why they have been proclaimed the Nations #1 Polka Band! Sadly Eddie Blazonczyk Sr passed away in 2012.
Chicago-style includes two sub-styles: the 'Chicago honky' (using clarinet and one trumpet) (Honky Express) and 'Chicago push' featuring the accordion, Chemnitzer & Star concertinas, upright bass or bass guitar, drums, and (almost always) two trumpets (Mon Valley Push)
The Accordion and the Polka in Polish-American Ethnic Music
by Roy S. Czernikowski
The Polish Heritage Society of Rochester, in conjunction with the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the Rochester Sister Cities Program, and several other organizations are planning a sequence of events in 2005 that will focus on Polish-American ethnic music and instruments. There will be special emphasis on the polka and the accordion. In preparing for these events, members of the planning committee have been investigating something of the backgrounds of these cornerstones of Polish-American culture.
Dr. Ellen Koskoff, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Eastman School of Music, has edited the massive third volume of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (music of the United States and Canada) and has graciously provided the author with assistance and pointers to other interesting references on the subjects. The objective of this brief article is to provide a little background in preparation for next year’s PHSR activities and to whet the appetite of the reader to learn more about the subjects in that encyclopedia. (It is available in the Brighton Memorial Library. Another reference, Polka Happiness by Charles Keil and Angeliki V. Keil book is available as a used book through Amazon.com.)
“The instruments native to Eastern Europe and the Balkans have a fascination for most Americans. Russian balalaika ensembles have attracted audiences beyond the ethnic community. The Croation-Serbian tambura has been popularized by the Popovich Brothers’ Yugoslavian Tamburitza Orchestra, founded in 1925. The Greek bouzouki, the balalaika, the tambura – all make distinctive ethnic statements; however, the accordion, of Viennese origin, is the panethnic instrument common to many of the ensembles of Central and Eastern Europe, and in the polka bands it becomes the principal one.” [Kearns 529]
The sound production of an accordion is based upon a free vibrating reed. The history of the free vibrating reed instrument dates back to about 3000 B.C. in China during the reign of the legendary “Yellow Emperor” Huang Ti. Huang is reported to have sent the scholar Ling Lun to the western mountain regions of the domain to find a way to reproduce the song of the phoenix bird. Ling returned with the cheng (or sheng) which was shaped to resemble the phoenix. It consisted of between 13 and 24 bamboo pipes, a small gourd acting as a resonator box and wind chamber, and a mouthpiece. Other free vibrating reed instruments were developed in ancient Egypt and Greece. [Zanchini]
The first accordion in the form currently recognized made its appearance in 1822 when “a German instrument maker named Christian Freidrich Buschmann (1775-1832) put some expanding bellows expanding bellows onto a small portable keyboard, with free vibrating reeds inside the instrument itself. He dubbed it the hand-aeoline, and helped spread its fame in 1828 by leaving Berlin and touring with it.” [Zanchini]
“Of all the dance forms played by European Americans, perhaps the most pervasive is the polka, and it may be the most representative form of ethnic music in America.” [Rahkonen 826]
Little seems to be known about the polka before it became the rage in Paris and London during the spring of 1844. Charles Keil asserts that the polka was probably a Czech idea about how Polish women dance, and taken to Paris by traveling entertainers and dancing teachers. It was not only popular in dance halls with the working people but also rather quickly taken into polite society as a fad. It was further disseminated as an international fashion. However, there seems to be no evidence that the polka was ever popular in Poland. Keil hypothesizes that the Polish aristocracy may have resented the stereotype, and Polish peasants “probably had no time to be amused by any possible resemblance to their own regional dance traditions.” [Keil 19] Janice Kleeman, in her doctoral thesis research, found little evidence of 19th century folk polkas in Poland. “The Poles certainly did not think of it as ‘identity music’ or ‘our national dance’; quite to the contrary, they encountered it only once in a while as an internationally popular dance in cosmopolitan centers.” [Keil 19] Keil further writes that “the general picture of the Polish-American polka’s emergence and crystallization as something made in America.
“The nineteenth-century urban salon polka had three or more purely instrumental sections, assigned to various keys and often with contrasting instrumentation and texture. This style rarely had song texts. The rural style, whether based on a song, krakowiak, or polka melody, usually had only two sections, both instrumental or alternating instrumental and vocal. These two sections were either two different melodies or a single vocal melody rendered instrumentally with considerable melodic elaboration.” [Kearns 895]
There have been two coexisting Central European polka traditions since the 1830s: a rural folk tradition and an urban salon tradition. These two traditions were brought to the United States by immigrants. A similar pair of traditions has continued to exist in the United States: the urban ‘Eastern’ style and a revitalized and reconstructed rural ‘Chicago’ style (Kleeman 1982:33).” [Kearns 892]
“The classic Eastern-style band was a large ensemble with a variety of instruments, playing technically precise, well-rehearsed variations with a continuous shuffling of lead instrumental combinations during performance. By the late 1950s, most Eastern style bands had reduced their size and increased their amplification.” [Kearns 893]
“During the 1950s, a revived rural style in Chicago began to challenge the popularity of the Eastern urban style. Chicago bands played at slower tempos, with fewer sections and fewer key changes and with a greater influence from Polish folk song and krakowiak rhythms. The Chicago style became associated with a more improvisatory, informal quality of the melody, with irregular phrasing and syncopations (Kleeman 1982:96). The instrumentation was simpler and less arranged than that of the Eastern urban bands. The general feeling was of greater enthusiasm and emotionality, with an abandonment of complex arrangements and less reliance on notated music (Keil 1992:46). By the late 1950s, Chicago-style polka was changing the sound polka in the East.” [Kearns 894]
The references cite Polish American music in wedding traditions, the influence of Dixieland, vaudeville, swing, jazz, and Broadway musicals on Polish American music making. They also mention changes in instrumentation over time as amplification and these decidedly American influences impacted the Polish American music scene. The band leaders and musicians of the early to mid 20th century also shaped the popular polka concepts in this country. There is a wealth of interesting information in even the few references listed here.
And now, back to Eddie Blazonczyk & the Versatones! Here they are performing at the
It is generally accepted that the polka had its origins in Europe as a Bohemian or Czech folk dance. The polka was originally a Czech peasant dance, developed in Eastern Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia). Bohemian historians believe that the polka was invented by a peasant girl (Anna Slezak, in Labska Tynice in 1834) one Sunday for her amusement. It was composed to a folk song "Strycek Nimra Koupil Simla (Uncle Nimra brought a white horse)." Anna called the step "Madera" because of its quickness and liveliness.
The dance was first introduced into the ballrooms of Prague in 1835. The name of the dance (pulka) is Czech for "half-step", referring to the rapid shift from one foot to the other.
The Origins of Polka Music - Part 2
Jestem Sobie Chlopak Mlody - Frank Wojnarowski
Li'l Wally - Chicago Is A Polka Town (original 1951)
Stas Golonka & The Chicago Masters
Polka Fireworks, July, 2010
Stas Golonka and The Chicago Masters
Lenny Gomulka & The Chicago Push
Tango's Ballroom, Wausau, WI
Walter Ostanek and His Band
Beer Barrel Polka
Polka Cruise: The Movie
Conjunto J free GIG 4 Polka
The Polkaholics - Polka Polka Polka!
2010 Festival of Polka Bands - Freeze Dried
Jimmy Sturr Orchestra's stirring kickoff to the 2011 Dyngus Day celebration at the Fr. Justin Knights of Columbus Hall in Cheektowaga, New York
Polka dancers perform in pairs or couples, either in the face-to-face waltz position or while standing side by side, with the man’s arm around the woman’s waist and her hand on his shoulder. One characteristic of dancing the polka is the half-step, or hop, that precedes the first step. Some dancers omit the hop entirely, while other simply reduce it to a quick rise and fall of the weighted foot before beginning the first step.
The basic polka step is done in four counts. Begin with standing with your weight on your right foot. Give the preliminary hop on the right foot, then step forward on your left foot. Close the right foot to the left, taking weight off the right foot, and step again on the left foot. Then hold for a beat, keeping weight on the left foot. Repeat this series of steps again, except using the opposite foot—using the left foot for the hop and the right foot as the one that steps forward, for instance. At this point, you can move backwards, forwards, left and right. Polka dancers move across the floor in all directions while dancing, and not in any strict line or formation.
Polka is fun!
In 1840, Raab, a dancing teach of Prague, danced the polka at the Odéon Theatre in Paris where it was a tremendous success. Parisian dancing teachers seized on the new dance and refined it for their salons and ballrooms. According to Cellarius, a famous French dancing master of the mid-nineteenth century: "What young man is there, although formerly most opposed to dancing, whom the polka has not snatched from his apathy to acquire, willy-nilly, a talent suddenly become indispensable? "Polkamania resulted. Dance academies were swamped and in desperation recruited ballet girls from the Paris Opéra as dancing partners to help teach the polka. This naturally attracted many young men who were interested in things other than dancing, and manners and morals in the dance pavilions deteriorated. Dancing developed a bad name and many parents forbade their daughters dancing with any but close friends of the family.
The polka was introduced in England by the middle of the nineteenth century. However, it did not achieve the popularity it had achieved on the Continent. By this time, it had also reached the United States. Thomas Balch, in his book Philadelphia Assemblies, reports that Breiter’s band composed a new polka for the occasion of the 1849 Assembly. It was evident the waltz and polka were gradually replacing the contredanse and cotillion.
The popularity of the polka led to the introduction of several other dances from central Europe. The simplest was the galop or galoppade which was introduced into England and France in 1829. Dance position was the same as for the waltz or polka, with couples doing a series of fast chassés about the room with occasional turns. Music was in 2/4 time, often merely a fast polka. The galop was particularly popular as the final dance of the evening.
The polonaise, named for its country of origin, was a stately processional march in slow ¾ time, often used for the opening of a fancy dress ball. However, it never achieved great popularity as a ballroom dance. The Bohemian redowa consisted of three successive movements: a "pursuit" step, an ordinary waltz step, and a valse à deux temps step. It was danced to a slow waltz. The Polish mazurka, a fairly complicated dance to waltz music, included hops, sliding steps, and kicking the heels together. The schottische was a German folk dance that consisted of a series of chassés and hops done to 2/4 and 4/4 music. There were also combination dances such as the polka-redowa and polka-mazurka.
After the initial enthusiasm, the polka gradually declined inpopularity and reached a low point with the introduction of ragtime, jazz, and the newer dances of the early twentieth century. After the second world war, however, Polish immigrants to the United States adopted the polka as their "national" dance. It is also extremely popular with many other Americans who have succumbed to the new polka craze popularized by Lawrence Welk and other post-war bands.
For years to come, the polka will remain popular, with its variance in style from robust to smooth short, glide steps and ever happy music. One of the most popular versions of the polka is the "heel and toe and away we go" due to its ease to execute.
Polka is a popular dance in the country and western sector, and both polka and schottische are competitive Country and Western dances.
Polka Style Varieties
When playing, dancing or discussing the polka, it is useful to have a basic awareness of its various styles. Here is brief rundown of the different styles popular today:
Eastern Style Polka - Eastern style has its roots in the music of the big band era. These bands often included fifteen to twenty musicians, singers, and dancers. Nontable Eastern Style representatives included: Gene Wisniewski, Happy Louie, Connecticut Twins, Bernie (White) Witkowski, Frank Wojnarowski, Walt Solek, Jimmy Sturr, and the New Yorkers.
Progressive Polka Style - Progressive combines the polka beat with modern instrumentation and is represented by such bands as "The Polkaholics", "Freezedried", and "Those Idiots".
Cajun Style Polka - Cajun uses accordion, guitar, fiddle, washboards, and the Cajun French dialect spoken in Louisiana.
German Style Polka - They don't always include a tuba, but the band shown below does:
Tex-Mex Style Polka - Tex-Mex has a distinctly southwestern flavor often featuring horns, a fiddle, and one or more guitars:
Slovenian Style Polka - Also known as "Cleveland Style", Slovenian style is usually played with two accordions, drums, bass guitar, and sometimes a sax and banjo. It was popularized by Frankie Yankovic and also Walt Ostanek of Ontario, Canada.
Push Style Polka - Push, which especially appeals to the younger crowd, features a slightly faster tempo with a steady drumbeat. Here'sLenny Gomulka and The Chicago Push. Have a listen:
Honky Style Polka - Honky style is an offshoot of Chicago style polka music with an even slower tempo. Typically, it includes concertina, clarinet, trumpet, drums, and bass guitar. Stas Golonka is strictly associated with this style.
There are many wonderful polka videos online, but just a few actually highlight not only the best playing, singing and performances in the field, but also ( thanks to exceptional filming) the public euphria (that rare phenomenon we know as "polka happiness") created by the performances. As a big fan of polka videos in general, both for their entertainment value and as the best means of showing the world what this music is about, I believe that the following three videos meet these criteria better than any others I have seen , and that these performances and those who filmed them thus deserve special credit for showing the world the best polka music has to offer (Others will no doubt have other opinions---and "finds"-- It would be great to hear about these, too) - -I'm listing these ( with a couple of comments) in no particular order --They're all "winners," I feel in different ways:
(1) Connecticut's award winning, and phenomenally talented, Polka Country Musicians: The video of their dynamic medley "Boys from Chicago/Polka Joy" (I watch the USPA 2010 version, filmed by Tribeisone, the most, but each one features possibly the best concertina playing + vocal performance in the field by the incredibly talented Wally Dombrowski --- He excels on every band instrument and plays them interchangeably --- as well as phenomenal showmanship by the entire group . This is indeed rare: most groups are lucky if they have even one "showman".) What's more, this video shows a totally enraptured crowd , in each instance, totally transported on a wave of (Yes, the term fits completely: This song might well make a good anthem for the entire field) "Polka Joy."
(2) John Góra/Górale with Jan Cyman: Góralska Polka = the best Polish vocalizing in the field by John, with great harmony and playing by guest Jan and the entire band, especially RICK MALKIEWICZ, whose ecstatic, joyful playing and demeanor convey the essential meaning of this famous song (that the Polish mountains are close to heaven),
like no other---and then there is the crowd and the dancers---Every moment is magic. (Beautifully filmed by "Worlddancing".)
(3) "Bandleader's Polka" by EB Versatones: Eddie's great singing and band are legendary: This particular video is special though, because (as writers on YouTube comment) the cameramen (Polkaeditor + Ed V.) capture the huge dancing public and crowd participation in a way few if any others have done: The camera sweeps over waves and waves of dancers in the huge packed arena, as well as the packed crowd in front of the band to show the world the spectacle of a huge , inspired polka dancing crowd in the best of times, a scene that most in the world certainly never saw before and even most of us may never see again.
There are performances that have received more "views" than some of these (especially the most recent ones), and some that feature equally proficient playing --- but I don't recall seeing any that show singers, musicians, spectators and dancers in such perfect harmony and joy: Each of these segments is a lasting tribute to the very best that this field has to offer the world. To borrow a term made familiar to us by a recent writer, God bless everyone involved in creating these lasting tributes to polka music, which will in all likelihood pass on the message of what "Polka Joy", at its best, was all about long after we are gone from the scene. -- Once again, if anyone has comparable favorites to recommend, by all means share them: These wonders deserve highlighting --- and every possible form of praise.
- Stan Szczsponik
John Gora with Jan Cyman
at St. Pete. FL "Polka Medley"
Polka Country Musicians - Boys from Chicago & Oh Boy It's Polka Joy Medley - USPA 2010
"Bandleader's Polka" by EB Versatones
CLICK HERE to view photos and videos of Adirondack PolkaFest USA 2012
So who says dancing the polka isn't fun?
"I was exceedingly delighted with the waltz, and also with the polka. These differ in name, but there the difference ceases--the dances are precisely the same. You have only to spin around with frightful velocity and steer clear of the furniture. This has a charming and bewildering effect. You catch glimpses of a confused and whirling multitude of people, and above them a row of distracted fiddlers extending entirely around the room. The waltz and the polka are very exhilarating--to use a mild term--amazingly exhilarating." - Mark Twain in "Roughing It"
Chicago Style Polka - Chicago was a slower style with fewer musicians, usually five or six, featuring the accordion, concertina, clarinet, trumpet and bass. Li'l Wally Jagiello and Edie Zima pioneered this popular style of polka music. One of the leading bands today is Eddie Blazonczyk and the Versatones.
LEFT: Joe Novak and Bob Kravos explain and demonstrate Polish and Slovenian (Cleveland Style) Polkas and two different kinds of accordions (button diatonic and piano) at the Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid, Ohio.