'Happy Music' is Disappearing

April 15, 2008

Download Story

A musical form thats the butt of many jokes is on the verge of dying off. It's the polka. Some local bands are working hard to get it taken seriously, and to save the art form.

NOTE: Therapy Tuesday is at Major Hall, 5660 W. Grand Ave., every Tuesday starting at 10 a.m. Polonia Today is a good resource to find out where you can hear polka. Also check out Club 505 and Rudy and Ann's, which are among the few polka bars left in the city.

The dance floor at Major Hall is packed. And it's only 10 in the morning. Many of the circling couples come to this Northwest Side dance hall every week to hear the Major Pensionaires. They stake out the same tables and carry in doughnut holes.

They say that polka is like therapy. So they call the event Therapy Tuesday.

MARY VARGA: We're not Polish, but they let us in here anyway.

Mary and Rudy Varga of Des Plaines are regulars. They've been married for 56 years and go out dancing at least twice a week.

MARY VARGA: We dance at home in the kitchen, something comes on the radio. Our dogs always looked at us like, here they go again, these crazy people.
RUDY VARGA: See the nice thing about polka dancing, you can hold a woman in your arms, see, as compared to some of my friends, oh, they like their golfing, their fishing. Yeah, but you're not with a woman, you got a club in your hand or you got a pole.

But the couple worries that the dance they love so much is disappearing. In polka's heyday, there were dozens of bars and clubs in Chicago. One section of Division Street had so many, it was called Polish Broadway. There were polka shows on TV.

BLAZONCZYK: On this land over here, we had three warehouses at one time of record albums, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, things like that. There was just a huge mail-order business.

Ed Blazonczyk Jr. leads the Versatones polka band. His family runs the polka label, Bel-Aire Recordings, in Bridgeview. Over the decades, the number of active artists dropped from 75 to four. The company tore down its warehouses. What's left is a storefront, where polka records share space with liquor sales.

BLAZONCZYK: This is grassroots Americana music. This is a piece of America. To say what would happen if polka music were lost? What would happen if we lost all of our bluegrass music, or our hillbilly music? If we lost those art forms, they're gone forever.

The Versatones tour internationally, and have received multiple Grammy nominations. Yet Blazonczyk says all of the band members have day jobs, because they can't make a living playing polkas. Even a more modern polka, that draws from country, bluegrass and the blues.

BLAZONCZYK: I think the future of the polka, it's kind of on a wing and a prayer. I think if we can get it to cross over into some young audiences, that's the only way this music is going to survive. Younger audiences have to get past the word polka.

BLAZONCZYK: See. Is that what you expect polka music to sound like?
REPORTER: No. Definitely not.
BLAZONCZYK: No. It's a different music. It really is.

The Versatones aren't the only local group trying to modernize polka and attract new audiences.

There's an Internet station called The Jammer that's based in Chicago and plays polkas around the clock. Another band called FreezeDried, fuses polka, with reggae and zydeco. And then you have the Polkaholics

SONG: Yes, he's a son, son of a gun ….

Over in Lincoln Square, there's a bowling alley located over a hardware store. In the corner of the bar, there's a tiny dance floor. The band wears frilly tuxedo shirts and green velvet vests.

The Polkaholics formed 10 years ago. That's when “Dandy” Don Hedeker came across polka records in thrift stores.

HEDEKER: Well, it's really the music of my upbringing that I wanted nothing to do with. When I grew up, being from an immigrant family, seeing the Brady Bunch on TV, I wanted to be in the Brady Bunch, but that was an impossible thing. I tried to kind of deny my ethnicity for a long time. After awhile, I thought, why don't I try to make it work for me? You know, use it.

Hedeker says he was struck by the music's rawness, and the Do-it-Yourself attitude of artists who started their own labels. He saw parallels to the early punk scene. So he formed a band to play polka songs, using rock instruments.

Bass player “Jolly” James Wallace says the Polkaholics changed his mind about polka.

WALLACE: I thought polka was kind of square. I thought old blue-haired ladies listen to it, and they do, and they rock, and they can dance my butt off, which I've learned.

The trio wears sequins, vintage glasses and ill-fitting tuxedos. They play songs like the “Pimps of Polka” and “Hallelujah, I'm Drunk.”

Wallace says they get accused of making fun of polka a lot.

WALLACE: We're not making fun of it.
HEDEKER: What we're really like is, we're like the Blues Brothers of Polka, except we're not that funny.

This night at the bowling alley, there at least two converts. Katie Scholz and her boyfriend, David Clinard actually came to bowl. That's until they heard the Polkaholics playing.

David Clinard says what he loves about polka is the fast tempo. And no one judges your dancing.

CLINARD: You dance to polka, nobody really knows how to dance to polka, so it doesn't really matter. You just do it, and it's OK.

Both have some German heritage. And Katie Scholz says hearing this music, makes her want to hang onto her traditions. She says the music is contagious.

SCHOLZ: You cannot hold still. You have to dance, you have to have a good time. Anybody who's sitting in this place, and is sitting down or not bouncing in their chair is a dud.
CLINARD: That's why we need to go dance. We need to go get our groove on girl.

They head back to the dance floor that's packed with people from their 20s through their 50s, and they polka.

I'm Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.