Block parties, fire hall weddings, church picnics, Sunday radio shows…what ties these all together in the Coal Region of Northeast Pennsylvania? Why, the polka of course!
It’s a pretty safe bet when we coalcrackers are gathered for ethnic food and festivities or in celebration of an event, somewhere along the way, there will be polka music involved. On weekends, tunes from local radio station polka hours like Tamaqua’s WMGH‘s Magic Polka Machine with Joe Manjack can be heard streaming from homes and open car windows up and down the streets of towns and villages throughout the Anthracite region.
As a child of the late 60’s and early 70’s, I was less than impressed with the genre; my tastes ran more to bands with wildly long hair and make-up covered faces. Polka music was something I “put up with”. I tuned it out at block parties, rolled my eyes at it when played at wedding receptions, and promptly left the room when my Nana watched Lawrence Welk on TV as Myron Floren gleefully squeezed out one polka after another on his trusty accordion.
It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I started to “give in” to polkas. At that time, by luck of scheduling and my choice of cirriculum, I wound up in a business education class with teacher Carl Simcheena. Mr. Simcheena was not only a business ed teacher, at the time, he was front man for one of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s top polka bands, The Polskie Swingmasters. His enthusiasm for the music was infectious and I started to pay more attention to that thing that annoyed me so in the past.
After graduation, I found myself attending several social events accompanied by my best friend, Ed. Now, Ed liked to dance, In particular, he liked to polka. I found myself out in the middle of a dance floor, stepping, turning, and swinging ’round and actually enjoying it — both the dancing and the music.
During what I refer to as “the dark days” — the period of nearly two decades living away from Pennsylvania — I had little opportunity to embrace the polka in person. There were no summer block parties, church picnics, employer Christmas parties or .fire hall weddings there. Polkas and Ed and me dancing our selves silly was just a memory.
It was not until well into my banishment to the “”northwoods” did I truly realize my connection to polka music. Along with pierogi, kielbasa, culm banks, and Yuengling beer, it was “home”. And I longed for a connection to home so deeply.
So, I ordered a CD by The Polskie Swingmasters, pulled out my recipe box filled to the brim with coal region recipes, cranked up the stereo and traveled “home”, if only in my mind.
Happily, I got to travel home for real in July of 2018 and set about sowing a new set of roots in the bituminous coal region of PA; Johnstown. Lo and behold, I have found a second “hometown” where the descendants of immigrants settled that is very much like the Anthracite region.
The area is filled with block parties and church fests throughout the summer, but the one that convinced me I was among “my peeps” was the Annual Polka Fest. Although my amputation keeps me from dancing now, it cannot keep me from feeling the joy that comes from listening to a live polka band and watching dancers navigate across the floor as my friend and I did years ago.
No longer is polka music something I run from but something I hold near and embrace with all my Coalcracker heart.
It is claimed the Polka dance began in Europe in the 1830’s as a Czech stereotype of how Polish women dance. The word “pulka” is derived from the Czech phrase for “half-step,” which refers to the dance pattern of lightly stepping from one foot to the other.
Introduced to Prague ballrooms in 1835, and to Paris ballrooms in 1840, it then swept across France and into London, where it caused a scandal and grew wildly popular. Polka eventually reached the United States by the late 1840’s. Variations of polkas cropped up around the world and blended into various cultures. The Dutch took it to Indonesia in the 1870s. In Paraguay, polka became the national dance.
In the twentieth century, Polish American immigrants adopted the polka as their national dance. Today, polka is one of the few dances that originated during the nineteenth century that is still popular worldwide.
The Rodney Dangerfield of music
Polka music finds itself getting no respect in the American music scene by the general public more often than not. The instrument most often associated as being the “face” of polka, the accordion, is ridiculed and dismissed.
There is no polka to speak of in Poland. Polka music as we know it in the United States began in the 1920’s. American polka music evolved as a hybrid of folk songs and dances brought by European immigrants.
The phonograph and advent of radio created a boom in popular music in the 1920’s. By the 1930’s, polka bands were touring the country. The Andrews Sisters made a hit out of “Beer Barrel Polka” in 1938 and polkas started to become favorite hits in the the late 1940’s thanks to musicians like Cleveland’s Frankie Yankovic (no relationship to Weird Al…)
The working man’s music
Polka took hold in areas with large German, Slovenian and Eastern European populations like the Coal Region, flourishing in cities such as Allentown, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where some of the earliest polka sheet music was printed.
Regional styles emerged, such as the Cleveland, Chicago, Eastern, Slovenian, Polish, Czech and German, featuring various combinations of instruments.
The standard polka song has a 2/4 beat and is structured around four verses and a chorus, which is sung after each verse or after every two verses. Many polka songs are about loss, love and even food like “Who Likes Pierogi? by Stanky and The Pennsylvania Coal Miners Band.
Different varieties of Polish polkas include different combinations of instruments, such as the accordion and the concertina. A standard polka band might include bass, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and drums. The two other kinds of mainstream polka are Czech and German. Newer polka styling such as Texas Polka and even punk polka further blend other instruments and genres with classic polkas.
Even if you aren’t a polka fan, you might be familiar with a version of “The Pennsylvania Polka” from the movie “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray, which is set in Punxsutawney, Pa., (but mostly filmed in Woodstock, IL). The song is heard eight times in the movie, in which Murray’s TV weatherman character continuously relives Groundhog Day.
Although many feel “The Pennsylvania Polka” should be the official state song, it is not. That honor goes to the song “Pennsylvania“, written and composed by Eddie Khoury and Ronnie Bonner and is the official song for all public purposes, so designated November 29, 1990.
Personally, I think “The Beer Barrel Polka” should be up there in the running too, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day…