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

Polkabilly by James Leary

January 18th, 2010

Last fall Bob Dylan released a Christmas album entitled Christmas in the Heart which bewildered a lot of fans who weren’t quite sure if it was a joke or not. While I haven’t heard the album, I have heard the song “Must Be Santa” for which Dylan made a video. Now, I’m no Dylanologist but I’ve heard a fair amount of his music and I have to say that, listening to the new tune with its polka beat and accordion, it occurred to me that this is the first song of his I’ve ever heard which betrays his roots in the Upper Midwest.

The earliest known Dylan recordings show a young Robert Zimmerman’s love for the rock’n'roll of Little Richard and Elvis Presley morph into a dedication to Anglo-American folk song and African-American blues. In the early 1990s, Dylan released two albums of traditional music, As Good As I Been To You & World Gone Wrong, both of which stuck to Anglo-American and African-American songbooks.

And so it was just odd to hear a polka from someone who has promoted the folk music of the American South for virtually his entire career.

polkabilly small Polkabilly by James Leary

One person intent on redefining American folk music to include the sounds of the Upper Midwest is Prof. James Leary of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to being a professor of Folklore and Scandinavian Studies, he also co-directs the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Thusly it should come as no surprise that he is the author of Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music. I attended the release party for the book back in 2006 and you can read more about that event here as well as listen to some Goose Island Ramblers. Much to my shame, I finished reading the book only a few days ago. Better late than never.

Over the course of six chapters Leary argues a forceful and convincing case that the Upper Midwest’s creole stew of Continental European, Scandinavian, Anglo, American Indian, and African-American musical influences has unfairly been excluded from traditional notions of what constitutes “American folk music”. Furthermore, he opines that the resulting “polkabilly” is best exemplified by Madison’s own Goose Island Ramblers. More generally, he is also trying to dispel the notion of the Midwest as “fly-over country”, a bland, homogenous land of average people living average lives. Leary notes:

Lacking the antiquity of the East, the tragedy of the South, or the destiny of the West, the Midwest is most often conceived of as an enduringly average region in the American imagination: a vast flat land to fly over where, despite rusty factories and troubled farms, small towns and neighborhoods persist and family values remain in tact.

The book’s first chapter is a broad overview of the region’s folk music traditions. Ethnic groups left out of standard American folk music histories get their due. Croatians, Poles, Norwegians, Finns, Ojibwes, etc. all found themselves neighbors and the musically inclined traded songs and learned from one another. One example is Bruno Synkula, “a Pole, not only learned to play an accordion from an Italian, but also acquired a Swedish version of a Finnish song from a Norwegian accordionist whose repertoire included mostly German tunes.” In addition to encountering the music of neighbors, people also saw touring acts, which were especially important in the days before radio. Artists/bands diverse as Kryl’s Bohemian Band, the Croatian Tamburica Orchestra, Olle i Skratthult, and the Plantation Minstrels all toured the Upper Midwest. The advent of radio brought about even more creolization as stations in Minneapolis, Eau Claire, and elsewhere in Minnesota and Wisconsin broadcasted music from the traditions of the people of Upper Midwest. In addition, the National Barn Dance from Chicago’s WLS, which broadcasted country music, was also extremely popular. It is this mix of European music with that of Anglo-American country that forms “polkabilly”.

The middle four chapters are devoted to profiles of the three members of the Goose Island Ramblers – “Uncle Windy” Whitford, “Smokey George” Gilbertsen, and Bruce Bollerud (“The Hollandale Wildcat”) – and the band itself. Leary traces the roots of the three musicians and shows that they all grew up in communities where the music of diverse ethnic groups was alive and well. They drew upon the music they encountered in their families and towns (& southern Wisconsin generally), the songs they heard on the radio, and other musicians that they encountered while serving in the military.

Whitford co-founded the original Goose Island Ramblers back in 1938 but the incarnation featuring Gilbertsen and Bollerud started in 1963 when Bollerud found himself in need of a new band to continue playing regular gigs at Glen and Ann’s tavern, which is now the Nitty Gritty. He recruited Gilbertsen and Whitford and they adopted the name of Whitford’s former group. For the next seven years, they entertained crowds with cowboy songs, Anglo-American folk, waltzes, polkas, schottisches, Norwegian & Dutch comic songs, Hawaiian tunes, et al. But shows weren’t just music as there were also costumes and skits to be had. Gilbertsen dressed in drag for “Mrs. Johnson Turn Me Loose” while Bollerud donned a train engineer’s hat for songs about trains such as “Oscar’s Cannonball”. Audience members would play with the band and some even donated custom instruments to the cause such as an 8-string violin and an electric plunger. Glen and Ann’s provided a homey atmosphere where the band and audience got to know one another and let loose. An analogy that might be familiar to more recent Madisonians is that of the Cork’n'Bottle String Band and their gigs at the now-defunct Ken’s Bar.

Leary devotes his final chapter to explaining how the folk music traditions outside of Anglo-Americans and African-Americans have generally been neglected and not included in most conceptions of “American folk music”. In the late 19th century, WASP intellectuals such as William Wells Newell gave primacy to their own Anglo heritage. In the 20th, the Lomaxes, John & Alan, focused on the music of the working classes of the South, where they were from. Leary also notes that the younger Lomax developed an aversion to the accordion. One of Lomax’s prized “discoveries”, Leadbelly, played the one-button accordion but Leary shows that Lomax virtually ignored this aspect of Leadbelly’s playing. Generally speaking, the people who get to define what American folks music is have all but ignored the Upper Midwest as well as the music of Continental Europeans, Slavs, American Indians, etc. in other areas of the country.

I don’t know what impact, if any, Leary’s book has had in the world of academia, but I would maintain that in the popular realm, the folk music of the Upper Midwest is still largely ignored and will continue to be ignored for some time. “Americana”, a seemingly inclusive name for a genre, is exclusively composed of music descended from the American South while I challenge anyone to find the Upper Midwestern musical traditions that Leary chronicles at No Depression magazine, where the roots of “roots rock” lie anywhere but the Upper Midwest. Even in Leary’s own backyard, polkabilly is basically a memory. As I noted before, Madison is not
a polka town
but there are other signs as well. The Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival has, for the most part been unable or unwilling to book acts that reflect the unique folk traditions of the Upper Midwest and Madison’s community radio station, WORT, has a folk schedule of a distinctly Southern slant.

Professor Leary has a long row to hoe.

Related posts:

  1. Polkabilly!
  2. Polkabilly in Mount Horeb
  3. Show #89: Goose Island Ramblers
  4. The Best of the Goose Island Ramblers
  5. Sugar Maple Fest '07

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