America's Ethnic Music Mantle
By Jay Hardwig
NOVEMBER 2, 1998:
"Polka serves the need for people to have a music that, at least to some degree, just represents an escape from all other things in their life. Pop music doesn't do that anymore. Country music never did it. These are musics that just sort of reflect your misery constantly -- you just wallow in it. Polka is a departure from that. It's like, 'Life is hard, we worked hard this week; this weekend we're gonna go dance the polka.' It's a music people turn to when they need a fix of something good in their life."
It's a gray and lonely day in the fields east of Temple. The land is soaked and sodden, undone by bucketfuls of rain -- the sun nowhere to be seen. There's a solitary cow, curious and remote, stranded on high ground a few feet from a creek that has jumped its banks. The pavement runs joyless through this watery stretch of land, streetside signs announcing the wrong towns: Sparks, Heidenheimer, Splawn. But no Seaton. At a gas station in Rogers, the clerk points noncommittally west.
"Take a left at the stoplight," she says. "We only got one."
October 18, 1998. It's been a bad weekend for finding polka in Central Texas. Five shows scheduled in Austin alone, but all of them rained out, washed down the Colorado River like so many rooftops and tennis shoes. And now, out on a wet stretch of highway that looks less than promising, hope grows dim.
Then a small sign appears, sprouting from the weeds alongside Route 53. "Seaton Cemetery." Before the graveyard, the Seaton Brethren Church; between them, a small gravel road running between two ditches. From the first sight of the peeling, weathered sideboards of the building, of the parking lot filled with late-model trucks, of the old scabrous dog lying forlornly on rotting porch beams, there is a distinct sense of possibility. Stepping from the car (damned if it's not the only import in the lot), the possibility turns to a mild but certain joy as the whomping bassline of an old Czech dance tune fills the air. Tom Sefcik Hall in Seaton, Texas (population 45).
Not too many years ago, such a dogged search for polka would have drawn snickers, and truth told, it still will in some quarters. Despite a spirit of celebration and a legitimate claim to the American ethnic music mantle, polka has long suffered from an acute case of disrespect. Perhaps the low-water mark came in the Eighties and early Nineties, when polka was the national joke and embattled editors of polka newsletters were forced to defend the form against vicious potshots from the likes of the PB Max candy bar, which spoofed polka in a national television spot. Sinatra never had to deal with that.
But the genre that no one took seriously anymore was quite alive, thank you, kicking up an accordion-flavored storm in such regional hot spots as New York, Nebraska, Texas, Michigan, and the Midwest. Before anyone thought to laugh, the rehabilitation of polka was underway, fueled by an infusion of fresh blood into the scene. It's true; in recent years, the polka has shown signs of life, shedding its decidedly unhip image and waltzing its way increasingly into the public consciousness.
There was a time, of course, when polka had no need of waltzing anywhere -- it already sat firmly in the public consciousness, a cherished old-world music played in immigrant communities across the nation. In those communities, the polka was both the dance music of the day and a melodic link to lands left behind.
A product of the Gypsy tradition, the roots of polka are generally traced to the province of Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. Established as a Bohemian round dance, the polka first flowered in the 1830s, popularized by a succession of 19th century classical composers, who were turning increasingly to local folk traditions for inspiration. Lighthearted and lively, the polka quickly spread from its rural roots to the high society of Vienna, Paris, and London, remaining a refined music for refined tastes well into the 20th century.
The polka that immigrants brought with them to America enjoyed both a folk flavor and classical legitimacy, but as the century progressed, its courtly reputation faded and polka fell (rose?) to the more-maligned category of folk music. Still played passionately in ethnic communities, its most significant sidestep into wider currency came with the runaway success of the "Beer Barrel Polka," first popularized by the Andrews Sisters in the 1930s. (A raucous number, no doubt, but with melancholy roots: the song is derived from the classic Czech weeper "Skoda Lasky" -- "The Sorrows of Love.")
Not including polkafied hybrids such as Tejano, conjunto, and the Native American "chickenscratch" movement, contemporary American polka music can more or less be divided into four schools: Polish, Slovenian, German, and Czech. The Polish school, in turn, has two competing factions: the slower "push" style -- currently played by such old-hat polkamen as Lenny Gomulka and Eddie Blazonczyk -- is based in Chicago and Buffalo; a smoother, big band style, featuring broad instrumentation and a touch of Polish polish, is favored by Jimmy Sturr and other East Coast bands.
For its part, the uptempo Slovenian polka, based in Cleveland and played most famously by the late Frank Yankovic, features a rhythmic banjo and predominant accordion solos. The German polka thrives at festivals and in German-themed restaurants, often coming hand-in-hand with such timeless Bavarian standbys as bratwurst, lederhosen, and "The Chicken Dance." The Czech-style polka, based in Nebraska, retains a more march-like bearing, relying heavily on brass instrumentation and tends toward a slower, more traditional feel. Texas can claim strong German and Czech polka traditions, with a smaller helping of Polish on the side.
While progressive polka bands such as Denton's Brave Combo are enjoying a touch of the polka renaissance, the traditional polka scene is under siege, facing an uncertain future in the face of ethnic assimilation and aging crowds. This is doubly true in Texas, where traditional polka has not successfully made the move to the younger, urban crowds that are fueling the nascent polka revival. Which isn't to say there's not still some polka being played in small dance halls outside of town to older, rural, working-class crowds -- the kind of folks that are forever outside the tastemaking curve. There most certainly is.
The second floor of Tom Sefcik Hall is a welcoming place. It's a classic Texas dancehall, with a large, polished floor in the middle and tables on the side. On this day, it's strung with Christmas lights and softened by a plastic geranium on each table. A ring of backlit advertisements runs around the roofbeams: If You Like Beer, You'll Love Schlitz; For the Stomach's Sake -- 7UP; Boston's Humble Station -- Cold Beer -- Phone 3-6055.
It's an older crowd, bluehairs and cowboy hats, and they're mostly in their seats, smiling a bit and tapping their fingers to the Praha Brothers, a local Czech dance band. The brothers play a classic Czech waltz, and in short order, there are four couples out on the floor dancing slowly around the room, their slick-soled shoes shuffling expertly across the waxed and burnished floor. Save for a few modern touches -- air conditioning, electric guitars, a small portable television tuned to the Cowboys-Bears game -- the scene is timeless, a familiar page from the country dances that have played out in dance halls all across Texas for a century or more.
Downstairs, proprietor Alice Sulak talks happily about the dance hall that has been her life. Sefcik Hall (pronounced "Shefchick") is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a round of polka, country, and karaoke (yes, karaoke) from two until midnight. According to Sulak, the celebrants are from "everywhere" -- Cameron, Caldwell, Marlin, Waco, Riesel, Killeen, Gatesville, Taylor, Elgin, Austin. She ought to know: She was born and grew up in the house next door, and has been running the hall since 1971.
Built by and named for her father in 1923, Tom Sefcik Hall has withstood inclement Texas weather for 75 years now, hosting Sunday dances and serving cold beer to the locals. As Sulak pulls out some pictures -- of her father, of the hall, of herself, 67, blowing saxophone with the Jerry Maisler Melody Five -- the ceiling begins to creak and groan, sighing with the weight of what must be more than four couples waltzing to the opening number of the Praha Brothers' second set. It sounds like someone driving a herd of cattle on the roof -- rhythmic cattle, but cattle nonetheless -- and it seems entirely possible the whole building will come down. But it won't. The shuffle-foot creaking from above is not a warning of danger but an invitation to dance.
Upstairs, the Prahas have moved on to a classic Czech polka, the horns leading a staccato melody over drums, accordion, and bass. A number of eager dancers carom around the room, keeping things just this side of reckless. One man in particular looks positively gleeful, laughing and clapping his hands as he tilts across the floor to the strains of "Aj Ja Sam (I'm Always Lonely)," an old Czech polka about, well, shoeing a horse and being in love. Tom Jones and Michael Morris lean into microphones and sing in unison:
Aj ja sam, vzdycky sam
The dancers kick up their knees, drawing deep breaths when the song moves into double-time for the last four bars, and the floor creaks above Alice Sulak's head.
While there were isolated Czechs in Texas for years beforehand, the first organized group of Czech immigrants arrived on Galveston's shores in 1852, followed shortly by a second and third wave of arrivals. They came, mostly, from Bohemia and Moravia, fleeing the economic hardships and political repression of the Hapsburg Empire; they chose Texas on account of a glowing letter written by Czech settler Arnost Bergmann, who was living in Cat Spring at the time. They settled first around Sealy, then Fayetteville, raising cotton and corn in hard times -- tenant farming when they had to -- and gradually gaining an economic toehold in the region.
Czech immigration increased after 1870, and by 1900, it was possible to speak of a Czech belt from Dallas to Corpus Christi. The immigrants brought with them their love of folk music; many early Texas Czechs carried leatherbound songbooks around in case the opportunity for social singing arose. Saturday and Sunday dances were a mainstay of the community, with the music provided by family bands; the move to Amerika did little to disrupt the meaning of the old Czech proberb "Co Cech, to Muzikant" ("If Czech, then musician").
In the years that followed, more than a few Texas-Czech bands gained regional fame as touring acts. Among them was Fayetteville's Baca Band (pronounced "Batcha"), formed by Frank Baca in 1882. The Baca Band of that time boasted 11 players, mostly on brass, all of them Baca family members. Indeed, all 13 of Frank Baca's children played in the band at one time or another, with his son Joe leading the band after his father's death. Various formations of the Bacas played well into this century; Gil Baca still hosts a dance in Fayetteville twice a month.
After the Bacas, the most prominent early polka band was the Joe Patek Orchestra, a Shiner-based ensemble whose "Shiner Song" was known as "the unofficial Texas-Czech anthem." An Arhoolie record cover shows the uniformly stocky, short-tied Pateks solemnly clutching their brass instruments in a disarmingly authentic, almost beautiful way. A comparable Baca cover reveals a slimmer, more elegant tux and bow-tie look. Whatever the nature of their polka rivalry, the Pateks could clearly outmaneuver the Bacas at the dinner table.
Since the time of the Bacas and Pateks, an estimated 500 Texas-Czech bands have hit Lone Star stages to perform the polkas, waltzes, and schottisches of their history; the most famous bandleaders are Ray Krenek, Alfred Vrazel, Lee Roy Matocha, and the man who married Czech music to Western swing, Adolph Hofner.
Along the way, traditional Czech music evolved into a distinctly Texan sound. Following the lead of Hofner and Vrazel, more and more Texas-Czech bands turned slightly honky-tonk, the country influence showing up in their setlist, songwriting, and instrumentation. The Baca's hammered dulcimer leads have long since left the scene, replaced in some cases by electric guitar; electric basses have increasingly replaced tubas just as saxophones have been added to the old brass and accordion sound. And to this day, Texas is just about the only place you'll find a pedal steel in a polka band.
The changes have pleased some more than others. There are debates about instrumentation, authenticity, and the country influence; among purists; "saxophone band" is a derogatory term for the countrified polka bands that have followed in Alfred Vrazel's reedy path, bleating out two-steps and old Ray Price tunes. Thomas Durnin, host of KOOP's Sunday morning program Czech Melody Time and bass player for Austin's Dancehall Boys [see accompanying piece] doesn't mince words. "When Czech bands do country music it sounds like shit."
If there are tensions within the Texas-Czech tradition, there is also a mild disdain for polkas from other traditions. German polka is dismissed as too regimented, too loopy, or, alternately, too dramatic; as for polka's persistent image problem, the blame is laid squarely at Slovenian feet. Durnin faults the efforts of certain Northern polka bands to make their music more accessible, adapting popular tunes and singing traditional polkas in English.
"What you get is a cheesy kind of Shakey's-playing-the-banjo pizza parlor music," says Durnin. "And that's the public's narrow perception."
No less a player than Alfred Vrazel called Northern polka "Mickey Mouse" music; Dennis Svatek of the Dancehall Boys is more guarded, saying only that Northern polka "is a different kind of music than we play." Brave Combo's Carl Finch, on the other hand, calls the Mickey Mouse charge "impossible to defend," and will gladly reel off dozens of Northern polka bands who set the highest standards of musicianship and devotion.
And then there's the "oompah" question.
Michael Morris hates the term. He's the Praha Brothers' drummer and host of Czech Melody Hour on KTEM in Temple.
"Polka music should not be oompah," Morris mutters, throwing his hands up in disgust at the mere mention of the O-word. "You listen to any traditional Czech music and it's so bright and crisp that there is absolutely no resemblance to the sound or the terminology 'oompah.' I hate that."
"The tradition was to have a big tuba in the band," adds Praha hornman Billy Havlik, guessing at the derivation of the term. "And a lot of people would just blat through it to make a bass sound."
Point taken. While there may be tubas, there is not much genuine oompah in traditional Czech music. Not much blat. It's a stately, horn-driven music, traditionally played by score with an almost classical precision. A careful, lovely music, and when it's played right, nearly transcendent.
But what if you love the blat? What if you need a little oomph in your oom-pah-pah, at least every now and then? What then? The Czechs aren't talking, but in their eyes you can almost read the words: New Braunfels.
Before New Braunfels, Walburg. Specifically, the Walburg Restaurant in Walburg, Texas, where the lederhosened Walburg Boys hoo-ha their way through three sets of German music just about every Friday and Saturday night, singing, yodeling, and telling corny German jokes to the Spaten-drinking crowd that files into the backyard biergarten. Some are locals, part of the small but vibrant German community that still thrives around Walburg; others are visitors who have come up to the restaurant to do "the German thing."
Tonight, the Walburg Boys are relieved by the Brushy Creek Brass Band, a rootin' tootin' outfit out of Round Rock whose membership at any one gig ranges from 12 to 22. While brass bands are part of the German and Czech traditions in Texas, the Brushy Creek players aren't wedded to any one style, and they tend to stick to familiar tunes. They're doing their best to fit in: Every music stand is outfitted with a cupholder, and wisdom suggests it's not water in them there steins. Bandleader John Wilson admits they've "deutsched" it up a little for the crowd, and after a passable rendition of the polka chestnut "In Heaven There Is No Beer," they hit stride with the basso profundo of the old Wagnerian march, "Under the Double Eagle." At last, some serious blat.
It's the Walburg Boys who are the main attraction here, though, and as the last wheeze of the Brushy Creek band dies down, the Boys are already patched up and ready to play on the opposite side of the hall. While they do pull out some clunkers (please say those aren't the opening chords for "Margaritaville"), the better part of the set is energetic, authentic, and filled with a jovial Brüderlichkeit. It's the kind of music that makes you want to leave your heels and thrust your knees high in the air and shout German salutations, or at the very least go grab a bite of knockwurst from the beershack in back. Boyish and charismatic, lead singer Ronnie Tippelt is working hard for his pay, alternating plaintive German love songs with some yodeling chops that rival, if not best, local hero Don Walser.
They're not all polkas, mind you: at best, polkas are occasional in the Walburg Boys set list, folded in with waltzes, boarischas, ländlers, Rhineländlers, zwiefachers, and foxtrots. Strictly speaking, the Walburg Boys are an Alpine band, and while they may have a bit of oompah, they are not from the old-time Texas tradition. Tippelt is from Munich and guitarist Eddie Schaible from Ludwigsburg; they've been Texans now for not quite 15 years.
Of course, the German presence in Texas goes back a lot farther than that, with German settlement in Texas reaching at least back to 1822. As with the Czechs, German immigration was spurred by an enthusiastic letter home: In this case, it was Friedrich Ernst, whose 1832 letter extolling the virtues of Texas was published throughout Germany. In the years that followed, hundred of Germans came to Texas in search of cheap land, a good climate, and political freedom, settling in such German strongholds as Boerne, Brenham, Fredericksburg, and New Braunfels. By 1874, the German presence was strong enough that the state printed 4,000 copies of the Governor's annual message: 2,000 in English, and 1,000 each in Spanish and German.
Like the Czechs, the Germans brought a love of music with them, congregating often to sing the folk and classical music of their homeland. By the late 19th century, polka dances were regular events in German halls across Texas. Prominent bands included Herr Louie of San Antonio, the Rhine Winkler Orchestra of Schulenberg, and later, New Braunfels' Hightoppers. Once vibrant, the rural German dance scene has all but died in the last 20 years; the polka bands that once played for locals now play largely for tourists at fairs, festivals, and German-themed restaurants such as New Braunfels' Bavarian Village.
Built around the historic Johannes Mueller House, Bavarian Village provides the complete German package: German beer, Spätzle on demand, and polka bands every Saturday night. From a long slim table in the obligatory biergarten, it's easy to see the appeal of the headlining Cloverleaf Orchestra. At 46 and counting, the Cloverleafs are New Braunfels' most venerable polka band, obliging their audiences with old-time polkas, including a few that have been played in the city since 1845.
Is it oompah? Sure, says Village owner Roy Haag, you can call it that.
"The reason [the Czechs] don't like it is because when you say oompah people think of a German band. But I don't know where that phrase came from, because the Germans don't know what it means. They say, 'Vat is oom-pah?'"
Haag himself is something of an expert: Not only does he own Bavarian Village, he has an M.A. in music from Southwest Texas University, co-hosts a German radio show on New Braunfels' KGNB, and is arranger and bandleader for three local polka bands: the Litt'l Fisherman Orchestra, the Bohemian Dutchmen, and the Bavarian Village Family Band. And while Haag's bands see steady gigs -- New Braunfels is home to 13 working polka bands that play all over the state -- they've noticed a steady shift in the types of audiences they play for. More and more, they're playing for visitors.
"A lot of people want to be German for a day," claims Haag. "And they'll come [to Bavarian Village] once a year and have a blast, but they'd never think of doing it back home, and going to a dance there."
Haag estimates that his crowds are about one-quarter local, three-quarters tourist.
"The only reason that we keep music alive here is because of the tourists. If we had to rely on a local walk-in crowd, we'd shut the doors tomorrow. Your regular Saturday night dance crowd is just no longer there."
The busiest time for German bands is Oktoberfest, when every other town and every third watering hole host their own version of the fall festival. On some weekends, all 13 of New Braunfels' polka bands are playing somewhere in-state; the Walburg Boys, for their part, are already booked full for October 2000.
While the bands are certainly happy for the work, the theme-park aspect of the scene bothers some of the players.
"Most of us are dance bands," explains Haag. "We play music to dance to. We're not a show band. We don't twirl a baton and spit fire while we're playing music. And this is what a lot of people want when they go to a restaurant or go to a tent, and they see someone up there juggling balls or playing "The Clarinet Polka" with his toes on a xylophone. Most of us don't do that. People don't want dance anymore, they want show."
They want show, and they also want "The Chicken Dance." The hand-quackin', butt-thumpin' group dance number is a staple at German polka shows, an expected element of every nightful of pre-packaged German culture. According to Haag, audiences complain if you don't give 'em enough poultry.
"We've been here 30 minutes, and you haven't played 'The Chicken Dance' yet," says Haag, imitating a dissatisified customer. He also tells the story of a festival in San Antonio where the ground rules for German bands were as follows: 1) They had to play for four continuous hours, and 2) they had to play "The Chicken Dance" once every 15 minutes.
"At [New Braunfels' own] Wurstfest," he smiles, "we pretty much restrict it to once an hour."
Haag says he considers "The Chicken Dance" a necessary evil. While he likes to see people have a good time, and appreciates the attention that the song has brought to German polka, he acknowledges that many musicians roll their eyes when it comes up on the setlist.
"The only good thing about 'The Chicken Dance,'" he says, "is that we made the Western bands play it, because the Western bands made us play 'The Cotton-Eyed Joe.'"
What does the future hold? It's hard to say, but the polka landscape is clearly changing. While the German-for-a-day scene may be considered reasonably healthy -- Wurstfest can draw 100,000 visitors a year, Ohio's Zinzinnati Fest set a world record by inspiring 48,000 people to Chicken Dance at once, and the Bavarian Village can draw enough outside interest to host a dance every Saturday night -- the outlook isn't quite as good for Texas-Czech polka, which has had scant luck developing an audience outside of traditional Czech communities.
On any given weekend, there are half a dozen polka dances within shouting distance of Austin, staged at the fraternal halls that dot the towns that still support Czech music: Taylor, Elgin, Fayetteville, Halletsville, Temple, Waco, and Seaton. In each case, however, crowds are shrinking. As recently as the Sixties, says Dancehall Boys bandleader John Ondrusek, Lavaca County alone supported 12 Czech polka bands; by comparison, the Star Hall in Seaton is now losing money on many of its polka dances, their fan base too small to support most bands' guaranteed fees. It's not a sign of a healthy scene. Plus, the crowds are aging.
"Most of the people we have coming out to dances now are 60, 70 years old," says David Bedrich, also of the Dancehall Boys. "Some of them are in their eighties. The young people are not very interested. We see this all the time, at every dance we play."
The aging fan base is one reason why country music is increasingly dominating the Texas-Czech playlists.
"It seems like the age group of people who strictly listen to polka music are older, and they cannot polka and waltz all night," says Praha Brother Michael Morris.
"They love the Czech music," adds Annie Sulak, "but they like to dance to slower music."
While the countrification of Texas-Czech polka may get a few more of the locals out to the dance halls, it's doing little to attract the younger, more urban element that is seen as the key to polka's survival.
"The innovations that [Polish bandleader] Little Wally made had everything to do with this music getting into the city, and getting into neighborhoods in the city, away from a rural attitude," says Brave Combo's Carl Finch. "And a lot of the stuff in Texas really hasn't made that leap. It's still a pretty rural music, the Czech and German stuff here. Which is cool in itself, but I think it's a dead end."
Traditional polka's best hope may well lie with German festival music and the maligned northern scene, but the real polka momentum is on the nontraditional side -- the genre-bending, region-mending, transnational polka played by such musical insurgents as Brave Combo, whose popularity is surging even as traditional polka audiences decline.
"Compared to a lot of stuff that's going on, it's pretty fresh-sounding," says Finch about his band's music. "It doesn't sound like anything you hear on the radio, unless you listen to a lot of Tejano or conjunto music."
When Brave Combo first hit the polka circuit in 1979, they took a less-than-reverent approach to the form, appreciating the music but not always its rules. Instead, they mixed styles and juiced things up a bit to produce a dynamic fusion they called "nuclear polka," a term that music critics bit into like a three-barb lure. Many albums and several Grammy nominations later, Brave Combo has built a loyal fan base nationwide, a mostly young, mostly hip audience that has turned on to their brand of potluck polka. Along the way, they hope they've kindled a renewed appreciation for traditional polka in all its forms.
"When we first started," recalls Finch, "from a pop point of view, [polka] was a relatively maligned musical form. We wanted to take on that challenge -- to show people that it can indeed be the hippest music around. That was a specific goal in the beginning.
"It's a much easier battle for us now than it used to be. There are growing polka audiences out there in all corners of the United States and the world. ... We're calling it Polka 2000 already. We're jumping on the 2000 bandwagon."
Polka 2000. An appealing thought, and hopeful. May it be bright and brassy and filled to the roofbeams with Aj Ja Sam, Gemütlichkeit, and oom-pah-pah. Until that happens, though, there's still Seaton, Texas, on a soggy Sunday afternoon in plain ol' 1998. A fading star, perhaps, but a nice slice of Texas heritage, and certainly worth a look, a tap, and then a shuffle across the floor. If you can find it.
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