What is a Grumpy Pole, you ask? Gather ‘round, children.
A Grumpy Pole is a person from Poland who is commenting on, or being asked to help organize, or participating in a polka-themed event in Canada or the USA... but who takes a very strange attitude towards the representation of their culture in these events. For example: Dyngus Day, which in Buffalo and Cleveland is a big street party with polka bands and beer everywhere and lots of folks dressed in Polish Red and White.
This just happened, actually; I couldn’t go to either Buffalo or Cleveland and I was sad.
Or, another example: the big polka dances my band “Polka Time!” used to put on in Vancouver, where I’d try to do some outreach into Euro-Canadian communities for advertising. The Czech, German, and Ukrainian contacts I made were super helpful and supportive. The head of the “Polish in Vancouver” community, however, replied to my email with two sentences, which I copy-and-paste here:
Polkas aren’t Polish. You clearly don’t know what Polish culture is, and I hope you can visit Poland one day so you can see how offensive this is to us.
That’s a Grumpy Pole. I just blocked him, but it would probably have been better to send him photos of the 28-ish gigs I’ve played in Poland or the 8,000 pierogis I’ve consumed there, but whatever.
But lo and behold, this morning I woke up to a bunch of angry comments on a social media feed, one focused on last week’s Dyngus Day in Cleveland:
I haven’t heard a single Polish song. You advertise it as authentic Polish music and there was absolutely nothing authentic about it. Just a bunch of American music. And by the way Polka is not Polish. It’s Czech Folk. Very disappointed with the music.
And a reply:
I agree. I moved here from Poland 3 years ago. I don’t know is it just me being new or what but it’s definitely not Polish. I don’t understand why it is advertised as Polish everywhere and everyone is ok with it.
I've been here for 6 years and also don't understand the Polka thing. I think people here think it's a popular Polish dance because "Polka" sounds similar to "Poland". However, all those people calling themselves Polish here, have never even been to Poland, and don't speak the language, so they have no idea about what life in Poland really looks like.
So I can confidently say that the Grumpy Pole is a real phenomenon, and that unlike many other Euro-American and Euro-Canadian immigrants, they seem to think it’s a good idea to snark at Polka-themed and Polish-American events in Canada and the USA.
And let’s just reflect, for one second, on the absolute, tar-brained absurdity here. You, Grumpy Pole, have come eight thousand miles across the fucking Atlantic ocean, to CLEVELAND, OHIO. CLEVELAND. OHIO. Where large waves of Polish immigrants have indeed arrived, but 95% of whom came almost entirely during the period of 1850-1940. The fact that anything at all is left of that traditional culture is a miracle, and yet you expect some kind of near-replica of Poland-in-the-2020s. You see a sign… IN CLEVELAND, OHIO… that says “Polish Event”, and you somehow miss that this can only mean Polish-American.
There is so much to say here, but first off; let’s be absolutely clear, there is only one set of people that has any right at all to wish that its traditional ways of life would be neatly preserved in the area of Cleveland, Ohio, and they are the descendents of the the Lenape, Erie and Wyandot tribes who once lived in the area. And it’s worth remembering that even those peoples were warring, migrating and culturally clashing before European colonials arrived (the myth of the static, harmonious, never-changing indigenous culture betrays the same ignorance about human culture that infects the Grumpy Pole).
And while this should also be obvious, this is the United States, a place where 13% of the population can never even wish that its “traditional” ways of life were preserved, because the cultural links to Africa were severed so brutally and horrifically by slavery that there is ongoing debate in those communities about whether Africa even is their “homeland”. Forgive me for going all SJW on you here, but to even be able to entertain this “wish” for cultural continuity, in the USA, is a massive, massive privilege.
And so we come to those communities, like the Polish-American community that rallies around Dyngus Day every year, who are fortunate enough to try to maintain some sense of continuity with their (increasingly) distant cultural past. Yes, they do this by basically jumping up and down randomly to American Polka bands, and some of those bands will even do Polka versions of American classics like “Lean on Me”. Just like Irish-American pub bands will do “Cecilia” and Italian-American musicians regularly bust out Louis Prima’s “Angelina”, a song written by Yanks and sung by a guy who was born in New Orleans. This is how a culture works in our world; it is always shifting, blending, moving and transforming itself in contact with other cultures. If it is lucky enough to not be forcibly extinguished by cruelty and greed.
So to continue a theme here: if Polka and polka-adjacent culture is going to survive, the one thing it does not need is the Grumpy Pole, or the Grumpy Anyone. It does not need this obsession with cultural purity. What it needs is, well, this…
…I’m going next year. Who’s coming with me?
Polka never dies! It just keeps growing. Brawo! Polska Ameryka!
Hit me up next year. I'm in Erie, PA area...right in the middle of both! We have a smaller festival here as well.