Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

Madison Is Not a Polka Town

June 2nd, 2006

A couple months ago I bought Wisconsin Folklore, a book edited by UW professor James Leary. He first came to my attention last year at a lecture he gave at the Overture Center about Alan Lomax and Wisconsin. At about this time, I started listening to the Goose Island Ramblers. This fostered a desire for me to find out more about Wisconsin folk culture, something I was dreadfully ignorant of beyond beer, brats, fishing, dairy farming, and cheese. Regular readers have witnessed my odd foray into this realm and probably get a general sense that I value tradition. Although I’ve only read the odd bit here and there, the book is packed full of tradition and lore. There are articles about the Milwaukee dialect and apple-picking terms; ghost stories and Paul Bunyan legends; magic and the Oneida wake; there’s a profile of a wooden shoe hewer and a look at tobacco farming; and there’s music.

An article by Leary himself caught my eye. It was called “Polka Music in a Polka State”. Leary explains that the polka is a couple dance in 2/4 time and that it originated around 1820 in a Czech village which was situated so that it drew up Polish & German influences. During the 1840s, the polka emigrated to America. (If any reader is not from Wisconsin, then note that the state has a large Polish population and an enormous German one.) The first section of the article continues by explaining how it permeated the state.

Besides families, certain Wisconsin communities have spawned a disproportionate number of polka musicians. While Memphis, Tennessee, has nurtured rock and roll and Nashville has its homegrown country pickers, certain Wisconsin communities have been veritable hothouses for polka virtuosi. The squeezebox has long been king in Milwaukee’s ethnic neighborhoods, while a noted Wisconsin Polish song proclaims “Pulaski is a Polka Town.” The Lake Michigan shore communities between Manitowoc and Kewaunee – settled in the mid-nineteenth century by Czechs and German-Bohemians from the Old World cradle of polka music – have produced an astounding number of polka musicians.

Leary recounts people’s tales of how polka was played at weddings and at parties.

Informal house parties in both rural and urban neighborhoods – vital through the 1940s and occasional today – were training grounds for young musicians and dancers, places to learn old-time songs, tunes, and steps from performers of the immigrant generation. Vera Dvorak Schultz grew up in an Ashland neighborhood where such gatherings flourished:

“During the Depression nobody could afford to hire things done. Eleventh Avenue East was called ‘Bohemian Boulevard’ and everybody would get together and help each other. They would get together on Sunday. The women would fix potato salad, homemade rye bread, dill pickles from the crock. And they’d either lay a sidewalk or dig a basement…and then they’d sit around and sing. In our yard we had two big willow trees and this is where they sat. You could hear ‘em all over the block.”

Old-time weddings too have been traditional musical affairs that required marches, bride dances, and songs of admonition and bawdy celebration. Greg Zurawski recalls Portage County weddings:

“See, the old Polish style weddings – which had even Czech or German bands playing years ago – you had a two day wedding, sometimes a four day wedding. If you wanted to have a wedding that was out on the farm, there was no problem. All you had to do was have your wedding done at the church, then you come out to the farm home, bride’s parents’ home. They put up a big tent for the people to dance, put up a big wooden floor…And normally you started Friday night and sometimes you were lucky if you got done Monday night.”

Wisconsin also boasted a number of radio stations (WAUN of Kewaunee, WTKM of Hartford, and WIBU of Pynette among them) and record labels that specialized in the music such as Milwaukee’s Pfau, Sauk City’s Cuca, Willard’s RY, and Frankville’s HD.

According to Leary, ethnic identity has always played a large role in shaping polka bands. He notes:

Austrians, Belgians, Croatians, Finns, the Irish, Italians, Mexicans, Norwegians, Swedes, and Swiss have all made contributions. Boehmians (Czechs), Germans, Slovenians, and Poles, however, have done the most to shape Wisconsin’s plka music.

He proceeds to give brief accounts of the styles by these four ethnic groups. The ethnic/stylistic distinctions made in the article were illustrated very nicely by a video I took out of the library called Polka From Cuca. Celebrating the polka having been made the official state dance in 1994, polka legends gathered in Sauk City to play and there were camera present to capture the moment. Syl Groeschl got the dancers going with his German style of polka while Alvin Styczynski showed the Polish side. Verne & Steve Meisner represented the Slovenian style. Martha Bernet & Bbetty Vetterli of Monroe demonstrated their unique blend of polka and Swiss yodeling. To round things out, the Goose Island Ramblers (who recorded for Cuca) played their patented mix of just about every kind of Wisconsin folk music, including the polka. Interspersed between music segments were interviews of the band leaders as well as Professor Leary, who was the emcee, giving short introductions to the bands and their styles.

I found all of this quite interesting as I am a music lover. And, having been born & raised in Chicago, which has an exceptionally large Polish population, and having a Polish grandmother, about whose ability to dance the polka I’d heard stories, the tales and the music struck a personal chord with me. One thing I noticed, however, was that Madison was never mentioned outside of the Goose Island Ramblers having had a regular gig here during the 1960s & 70s at a couple taverns. This prompted me to do a little investigating as to the status of the polka here in Madison.

The most recent stats I could find indicated that the two largest ethnic groups in Wisconsin are German and Polish. This is hardly surprising. I then tried to find information on the Internet specific to Madison and came up with two sites. (here and here) According to them, people of German and/or Polish ancestry make up somewhere between 33% – 40% of the city’s population. Then add in 1% of folks with Czech ancestry and you can see that a large percentage of the city’s population is ethnically tied to the polka.

The first place to look for polka in Madison is at the Essen Haus, a German restaurant and drinking hall. During the week, either Brian Erickson or Bob Junceau provide the music while regional polka bands play on Saturdays and Sundays. Unfortunately, the more I looked, it seemed like the Essen Haus was the first and last place to look for polka in this town. While fans of blues and bluegrass have multiple venues from which to choose for regular performances, as near as I can tell, polka aficionados have but one. Looking through various music rags, I cannot find a single place in town outside of the Essen Haus that features polka music whether it be on a regular or irregular basis. Rick’s Café is one such rag and it has a band register of regional groups. The May issue has not a single band that has the word “polka” next to it in the genre column. Perusing the Wisconsin Polka Music webpage reveals no band
s from the Madison area; no dances nor festivals here; no Madison radio stations that play polka; and no organizations dedicated to the music. The lone Madison entry is for the Essen Haus in the Halls & Ballrooms section.

In all honesty, I didn’t find any of this surprising. The only place I’ve ever seen a polka musician in this town has been at the Essen Haus. And the general attitude of my fellow Madisonians towards polka is embodied by a comment in a recent issue of Isthmus, our weekly paper. In the 31 March issue, Eric F. Lipton relates the work of various UW researchers as they study the effect that music has upon us. He relates the work of Jenny Saffran who says, “What’s important is that kids learn to enjoy music because it’s good in and of itself.” Lipton ends the article with derision by writing: “Except, of course, for polka.” (He also makes a less disparaging comment about polka earlier in the article.) My experience has generally been that folks in Madison find polka to be a novelty, at best, or, like Lipton, a joke, at worst. (I would also opine that this attitude prevails here in Madison for any kind of folk music that is not associated with the British Isles or the American South. Madison has a Norwegian population of 8%-12% yet the band register mentioned above has only one Norwegian folks musician – Inna Larsen. But this is another topic for another day.)

In addition to the live aspect of polka here in Madison, I surveyed some of the music stores to find out how much polka music they carried. Over the course of a month or so, I stopped in at various stores which sold primarily new CDs and checked out their polka sections. N.B. – I did not survey used CD stores nor every music store in town. Still, I think I got a good enough sample to say that the results are a good representation of Madison as a whole, at least for the spring of 2006. Here are the results:

Mad City Music
None. There were no new CDs of polka nor could I find any used. Dave Zero did say, however, that they do often times have a title or two by an artist whose name I cannot recall.


Best Buy (East)

Border’s (East)
I initially found 3 albums. All were low-priced, generic “Songs for Oktoberfest” compilations. I then did a search on their computer on the keyword “polka” and got about 1,000 results. Going through the first 333, I found that none were in-stock. I then asked the clerk and he indicated to me that he has to lobby for the store to have polka in stock, saying, “It is Wisconsin, after all.” He then directed me to shelf where I found 3 more polka albums: Frankie Yankovic’s Greatest Hits; a various artists compilation called 16 Most Requested Polkas; and Myron Floren’s 22 of the Greatest Polkas. There was a German but no Polish sections.

Barnes & Noble (East)
5 albums. Like Borders, everything was lumped in a German music section whether or not it was German. Selections:

Myron Floren – 22 of the Greatest Polkas
Lawrence Welk & Myron Floren – World’s Greatest Polkas
Frankie Yankovic – Greatest Hits
Frankie Yankovic – Greatest Polka Hits
Frankie Yankovic – The All-Time Greatest Polkas

Strictly Discs
1 CD. The Smithsonian collection, Deep Polka. The CD was in the “Various Folk & Bluegrass” bin and was in the back with no divider card.

Exclusive Company (West)

Barnes & Noble (West)
The polka bin here was in the “Pop Standards” section instead of the folk section. There were 7 albums in all.
Various Artists – 16 Most Requested Polkas
Smithsonian compilation – Deep Polka
Smithsonian compilation – Deeper Polka
Smithsonian compilation – Deeper Polka
V.A. – European Polka Hits
Lawrence Welk & Myron Floren – World’s Greatest Polkas
Myron Floren – 22 of the Greatest Polkas
Brave Combo – Polkas for a Gloomy World

I found:

12 different albums.
6 albums featured various artists.
All but 1 album was a compilation or “greatest hits” package.
Only 1 album was contemporary. (Polkas For a Gloomy World)
The four small, locally-owned stores which were dedicated to music alone had 1 polka album between them.
Large, big box chain bookstores ruled the day.
The Barnes & Noble on the west side had the best selection in both number of CDs and albums.

Conclusion: Madison is NOT a polka town.

Why? Not being an anthropologist for folklorist, I really don’t know. And I’m not really sure if Madison ever was a polka town. My intuition tells me that the answer is that Madison is a college town. Looking at the folk music that is popular – bluegrass, “old-timey”, and blues – one sees that it is these kinds of music that gave birth to rock’n'roll. It is not the folk music of Germans, Poles, Norwegians, or Italians that led to rock music. Instead it was the folk music of American South drawing on traditions from the British Isles and Africa. (Generalizations, I know.) The image of a black sharecropper playing a guitar and singing about his life is iconic in our culture whereas that of a lumberjack sitting around a fire doing the same thing isn’t. As I noted above, the polka CDs at one store were in the Pop Standards bin instead of the Folk bin. At another store, the polka albums were in a Miscellaneous bin along with spoken word and comedy albums. Such is the reputation of polka music here in Madison. Rather than being considered “the vernacular music of rural and working class people whose ancestry immigrated from Europe to labor on farms, in lumber camps, and in factories”, as Leary described it, polka is an afterthought instead of folk music. It is, for most people, music one’s grandparents listened to on the Lawrence Welk Show and something to be avoided at all costs.

For Further Info:

Wisconsin Polka Music

Essen Haus’ entertainment schedule (Includes links to polka bands’ webpages)

Cuca Records

It’s Happiness – a documentary film about polka shot in, among other places, Janesville & Pulaski, Wisconsin. An update from yesterday indicates that the film is finished and is being shopped around to film festivals. I think it would be great for it to be shown next spring at the Wisconsin Film Festival. If you’d like it to be shown, let the festival’s organizer, Meg Hamel, know:

Meg Hamel
Wisconsin Film Festival
6038 Vilas Hall

Related posts:

  1. Polkabilly!
  2. International Festival In Madison
  3. Madison Early Music Festival
  4. Koko Taylor and the Madison Blues Scene
  5. Gogol Bordello Coming To Town

4 Responses to “Madison Is Not a Polka Town”

  1. Ed says:

    If you’re researching Polka in Madison…

    When I was a wee lad, we would come home from Sunday church and would watch live polka on TV, which would have been broadcast TV out of Madison. Unfortunately, could not tell you any specifics anymore, like station, etc., but was cool as it was recorded live with people dancing and alive audience. This would probably have been the early 70’s.

  2. Palmer says:

    Thanks for the comment, Ed. Having moved to Madison only in 1990, I am really ignorant about the history of polka here. I grew up in Chicago so there was never any shortage of polka.

  3. Just releasing the first CD from the Pfau collection which we purchased from Mrs Pfau in 1957, masters and equipment. The first release will be of Lawrence Duchow.

  4. Palmer says:

    What’s in the Pfau collection? How large is it?

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