Discover more from Roll And Go: Dreadnoughts Blog
Polka Might Actually Die
A Manifesto for a Revolution
Polka music is silly, fun, light-hearted, bouncy, joyous. But the decline of Polka in North America is a very serious deal. Polka is, in fact, political.
There, I said it. And I mean it. And I know a lot more about it than I did when I wrote “Polka Never Dies”(2011) in a fit of charming but entirely uneducated optimism. The facts are clear: the generations that listen to Polka are disappearing. The bands that still play with the energy and power to attract younger audiences are disappearing (with a few noble exceptions, see below, and we would be remiss not to mention that Polka lives on in Norteño music). But the only place the average North American person encounters an accordion is as a punch line in a meme or in an old Far Side cartoon. Things are dire, and Polka is slowly dying. How did we get here?
From Community Building to Comedy Mashup
It is impossible to summarize the history of what was once called “Old Time Ethnic” music, but briefly, it rose to popularity in the 1930s-60s after a dominant, boring and irrepressibly racist Anglo-American majority found itself unable to stop tapping its toes to Italian, Polish, Czech, German and other European tunes. Smash hit songs like the Andrews’ Sisters “Beer Barrel Polka” were at the forefront of this development, as older eastern European melodies were given lyrics in English and sold to growing groups of fans.
Very soon, so many young people were playing the accordion that entire 100-piece orchestras were assembled. Exhibit A, Trick Brothers’ Accordion Institute, Toledo, 1940:
That’s only half the photo. Are you kidding me?
The end of WWII gave a lot of people a deep thirst for revelry and positivity, and they embraced Polka en masse. The accordion was (briefly) cool. And most importantly: Polka played a major role in the explosion of music as community; generations of people met husbands and wives at dance halls, under big tents, in church centers after kegs of beer were snuck in behind the pastor’s back. Many, many people used polka (and related genres) as a way to solidify their local communities and build support networks.
But something was changing; you can see it happening in The Godfather films. Slowly but surely, the communities who created and sustained this music lost their ties to the old world, and started to gain social and political power by Anglicizing their look, their speech, their mannerisms. By about 1980, Slavic and Eastern-euro accents sounded goofy and unintelligent again, just as they’d been for those Anglo racists in 1920. In a related development, the electric guitar completely displaced genuine folk instruments in popular music, destroying an entire generation of potential polka musicians. The cold war turned Eastern Europe into the Land of the Enemy. And so, “Ethnic” music was the stuff of comedy, and television was saturated with the dumb euro: Andy Kaufman’s Latka, Cousin Balki, Yakov Smirnoff, SNL’s Wild and Crazy Czechosolvaks… all of whom made Borat possible.
And so the stage was set for the man who would deal the death-blow to the genre: “Weird” Al Yankovic, a lovely person who loves to polka and absolutely shreds on the accordion, but who unwittingly taught the next two generations that polka is just a mashup comedy style, making millions in the process. Game over.
Why We Need Polka Now
As for the contemporary music scene, a sprawling variety of stimulating genres and brilliant creators now tempts the ears… delivered through Airpods via cellphones and streaming services. The average person’s engagement with popular music exclusively involves either:
staring blankly off into space, socially isolated, listening on Airpods, or
attending pop/rock/hiphop/etc concerts where the band is the focus, where celebrity and stardom are the game, and where lights and screens and effects explicitly discourage interactions between audience members.
And now, Randy, the massive shit-cherry on top of the shit sundae: we’ve all been extra isolated by COVID for two years.
See the theme here, folks? So many of us desperately need music-as-community-building back, but popular music itself has completely severed its links to community. The magic still happens, in certain communities and for certain genres, but it is in serious decline and has been for a long time. Music-as-community does not come back just because people start “going to local shows”. Local shows are often just more bands trying to be celebrities and stars, asking us to stare at them instead of getting us to use their music to interact with each other (there are exceptions here, but you get my point). And, perhaps most importantly, most “local shows” aren’t exactly friendly to children or seniors, who absolutely must be included if anything like a “community” is to be built and represented.
There is only one way forward. It is to bring polka back. It is the only genre that can cut through the fog of isolation and the ever-increasing social anxiety brought on by the slow takeover of our lives by various arsehole techno-overlords. It is the only genre cheerful enough to reach all generations and to counteract the relentless negativity and irony that saturates popular culture.
Here at Dreadnoughts Inc. we tried to put our money where our mouths are on this one and were briefly able to bring large community polka dances to Vancouver. We learned 25 classic songs and played them to bouncing groups of kids, punks, seniors, parents, drunks, weirdos, and everyone in between. In many ways it was infinitely more fulfilling and fun than any Dreadnoughts gig, because “Polka Time!” was all about community, positivity, and generational inclusivity.
And you can do this too! We need more people to step up. Teach yourself or your child the accordion. Look around you for community dances and for groups like The Chardon Polka Band, Millennia, Brave Combo, the Alex Meixner Band, Mollie B and the Mike Schneider band that may need your support. Be aware that the dumb-euro stereotype erases and marginalizes many rich cultural traditions. Play Frankie Yankovic and Myron Floren at parties and watch people’s eyes light up, especially after a few drinks. Get these juices flowing again.
Because otherwise, that 2011 optimism will be worth nothing, and in spite of all these good efforts, Polka will continue to fade away. And for real: the world will be just that much sadder and lonelier for it.