The waltz is associated with Austria (Strauss and the Blue Danube!), the csárdás with Hungary and the tango with Argentina. What about the polka? Is the polka actually from Poland? The answer is not as obvious as the name of the dance would suggest (in the Polish language, Polka means Polish woman). Today we will have a look at the polka… in America.
It is commonly perceived that the dance called polka is Czech (or Bohemian) in origin. However, in her Lexicon (Taniec w polskiej tradycji/Dance in Polish Tradition 2005/2006), the dance specialist Grażyna Władysława Dąbrowska observes that the polka step appeared in numerous other older folk dances, which did not always have their roots in Czech/Bohemian dances. The polka had been influenced by the écossaise, various swirling and revolving dances, as well as local folk dances, which had their own effect on the polka wherever it was danced, e.g. in Brittany we encounter the polka-plinn dance in which the polka step is spiced with the elements of the plinn dance and in Podkarpacie we have the gacok – a polka danced in the village of Gać near Przeworsk (moderate tempo and one specific melody attached to the dance). In Silesia, there used to be a Scottish polka, sometimes associated with the so-called szołtyska or polka kokietka. Due to its multiple influences, today the polka is a generic term for all varieties of dances and their own sub-types. Therefore we have polka trzęsiona (a shaking polka), also known as drygano polka, polka gładka (a smooth polka), polka bez noge (a polka across the leg), polka chodzona (a walking polka), polka cicha (a quiet polka), polka cięta (a chopping polka), polka drobna (a small step polka), polka jarocinka (a polka from Jarocin) and polka wściekła (a mad polka).
Across the pond
A particularly interesting phenomenon from the sociological, anthropological and musicological perspective is that of the traditional music performed amongst the Polish expatriates in the United States.
The research into the folklore practised amongst the Poles living abroad is currently conducted by several scholars, including Prof. Bożena Muszkalska and Dr Łukasz Smoluch. I also warmly recommend listening to the albums from the series called Muzyka Źródeł (Sources of Polish Folk Music), e.g. Volume 15 Polacy w Brazylii i Argentynie (Poles in Brazil and in Argentina) and Volume 16 Polacy na Ukrainie, w Rumunii i Kazachstanie (Poles in Ukraine, Romania and Kazakhstan).
Let us, however, focus on the United States, or to be more precise on Chicago – the principal centre of Polish Americans. The extremely fascinating collections of music performed by our fellow countrymen living in the USA can be found and accessed in the recording collection of the Polish Museum of America. The collection holds numerous obereks, kujawiaks and, what is the most interesting from our point of view, all kinds of arranged and transcribed polkas. There are also multiple recordings of the intriguing phenomenon of the Chicago-style polka, which we will discuss here in more detail.
According to Karolina Skalska, commenting in her article Polonijne dziedzictwo dźwiękowe – kolekcja nagrań dźwiękowych w Bibliotece Muzeum Polskiego w Ameryce (The sound legacy of the Polish expatriates – a collection of sound recordings from the Library of the Polish Museum of America), the type of polka alternately called Chicago-style polka, dyno polka, honky polka or clarinet polka is a peculiar musical form combining diverse European traditions, Polish traditional melodies, popular music elements and the American country music.
Browsing through the archives of the Polish Museum of America, Karolina Skalska concluded that the older recordings of the Chicago-style polka are stylistically much closer to the traditional Polish music than the more recent ones heavily influenced by other musical traditions and stylistic conceptions.
The older polka recordings are dominated by the sound of the fiddle and the folk double bass (most notably performed by Kamil Stoch and Jan Krysiak), occasionally augmented by the accordion. However, from the 1930s onwards, the polka began to sound differently due to the emergence of the so-called Eastern style (Skalska 2017: 40).
Influenced by the American big bands, the Polish musicians began to play faster and increasingly introduce wind instruments, especially the clarinet (hence an alternative name – polka klarnetowa or clarinet polka).
We can safely say that the clarinet here plays the ‘first fiddle’. Let us listen to one of the most famous polka orchestras – Al Soyka and His Orchestra:
In its ultimate form, the Chicago-style polka did not take shape until after 1945 (its two initial phases had fallen between 1880 and 1914 and later in the inter-war period). The shape (sound) of the Chicago-style polka known today was largely developed by such musicians as Eddie Zima, Eddie Blazonczyk, Marion Lush and Walter Jagiełło – the so-called ‘Polka King’. Walter Jagiełło is sometimes credited as the initiator of what we now call the Chicago-style polka.
The 1960s was arguably the most prolific time for Chicago-style polka bands due to the emergence of multiple cultural institutions aimed at uniting the Polish diaspora in America and nurturing and disseminating Polish culture and tradition (e.g. a radio station specifically promoting the Chicago-style polka was set up in 1950). The most notable bands from those days were Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones, Casey Siewierski and His Orchestra, Al Soyka and His Orchestra, Frank Woynarowski and His Orchestra and Franki Yankowic and His Yanks.
Nowadays, the traditionally prominent string instruments are featured much less frequently. The most popular line-up consists of a clarinet, a trumpet and an accordion.
The lyrics sung by the American polka musicians occasionally combine both Polish and English texts:
Anyone interested in the topic of the Chicago-style polka should definitely browse the archives of the Polish Museum of America. In a lighter vein, I also recommend watching the comedy film The Polka King.