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Cleveland. They call it that happy, snappy music that is perhaps America's last great undiscovered genre-or, as others say, the real alternative. Most people, of course, know it-or think they know it-as polka. But maybe we shouldn't call it polka, said veteran polka musician Jack "Porky" Ponikvar at a recent "state of polka" gathering here of some 30 of the top artists and business professionals in Cleveland's Slovenian polka community, dedicated to one of the most prevalent of the many ethnic and regional variants of polka. Others there and throughout the polka world also cringe at the stigma of what they sometimes call the "P-word," much as contemporary folk musicians shy away from the stereotyped confines of their "F-word."

 

INTEGRAL PART OF LIFE

 

For those born into it-like former Cleveland mayor and current Ohio state senator and Democratic congressional nominee Dennis Kucinich, who recently sponsored a state Senate resolution honoring Yankovic's contributions to making polka a source of worldwide joy- polka has always been an integral part of life. "For me, life is like a polka," says Kucinich, who remembers seeing great Cleveland Slovenian polka legends Yankovic, Johnny Vadnal, and Johnny Pecon. "It has a lot of energy, its colorful and congenial, upbeat and fun, and expresses optimism. And if you'll pardon the expression, it's also very democratic in its free-spirited participation and appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds." Ohio's Republican governor, George Voinovich, proves his point: "One of the first resolutions I introduced in the Ohio General Assembly when I was a legislator was to designate Cleveland the polka capital of the world," says Voinovich, who grew up in the city's Collinwood neighborhood, known for its may polka musicians. "My parents introduced us to many types of music, especially to the folk music of the people from Central and Eastern Europe who settled in Cleveland -particularly polka- and this made a lasting impression on me," he says. Cleveland is home to the National Cleveland-style Polka hall of Fame, a comparatively tiny collection housed in a converted school building in Euclid, Ohio, that celebrates the "Cleveland," or Slovenian-American, polka style's little-known but significant legends with due respect.

 

POLKA SUBSETS

 

American polka, it should be noted, is ambiguously divided and subdivided according to nationality and associated instrumental and musical characteristics-all of which can blend or overlap to the point of making exact definitions difficult at best. The word "polka" is Polish for "Polish woman," though historical records suggest that the style was invented by a Czech servant girl in the 1830's whose song and dance was transcribed by a local schoolmaster. Polka came to America with the Eastern European immigration of the last century and emerged on radio and record in the late '20's. Early 78 recordings indicate that Polish-American polka evolved out of arranged band or orchestral music; the more rural and traditional string-ensemble gorale, or "highlander," style; and Polish novelty and specialty acts that featured accordions, xylophones, and street singers. The Slovenians brought their old country music with them as well. Marching bands and button-box music in taverns eventually gave way to a more Americanized form of dance banc music that featured the piano accordion, leading to veritable postwar polka craze in the late '40's, when such Cleveland Slovenian polka legends as Vadnal and Pecon recorded for RCA Victor and Capitol, respectively, and Yankovic had million-selling singles on Columbia with "Blue Skirt Waltz" and "Just Because." While the National polka fever peaked around 1960, it remained strong in the ethnic centers of Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Milwaukee; Buffalo, N.Y.; Youngstown, Ohio; Minneapolis; and Chicago and further developed along the ethnic-geographic lines cited by the Keils. The once dominant Slovenian Cleveland style is a smallish big band in format, heavy on brass, piano accordion and banjo. Mellower than the Polish "Eastern" big-band version, it counts Lou Trebar, Kenny Bass, Al Markic, Eddie Habat, Joe Fedorcheck, Eddie Bucar, Fred Ziwic, Joey Miskulin, Canada's Walter Ostanek, Milwaukee's Verne Meisner, and Kansas Cit, Mo.'s Don Lipovac among its many luminaries.

 

MAINSTREAM OBSTACLES

 

"We need a hit record," says Tony Petkovsek, 35-year host of a daily polka radio show on WELW-AM Cleveland and a major promoter of Slovenian polka via the polka tours and cruises run through his Kollander travel agency. But Petkovsek and others in the Slovenian community recognize that social changes play a part, from changes in ethnic neighborhoods where polka once prevailed to changes among the polka demographic itself. "In my day, the family went {to polka events} as a unit," Johnny Vadnal said at the Cleveland Slovenian polka meeting. "Then baby sitters came along - they never heard of polka!" Johnny Krizancic - head of Marjon Records in Hermitage, Pa., a prolific polka recording artist, and host of a weekly polka radio show on WPIC-AM there for the last 40 years - observes that the young Slovenian generation just isn't there anymore. "Their ethnic background is disappearing, and there aren't enough ethnic organizations taking pride in our heritage like there was five years ago {such that} 99% of our sales are to those age 60 and over." "It's up to the parents to bring the heritage home," Youngstown-area air personality Val Pawlowski of WKTX said at the Slovenian polka discussion. But Fred Kuhar, a bandleader and head of Cleveland's Polka hall of Fame, noted that any decline in polka interest in the young generation is only natural, considering that "kids don't want to be where their parents are" and that part of the "ongoing evolution of pop music" - namely, the advent of youth-oriented rock stars like Elvis and the Beatles - had made polka passé among the young. But young polka musicians were also in attendance at the meeting, such as Kim Skovenski, who plays in Eddie Rodick's band, and John Pecon Jr., who, with his brother Jeff, strives to keep alive his father's legacy.  "I'm not knocking Slovenian, but there's an excitement in our music, and we're getting younger people back in it," says Eddy Blazonczyk. His remarks are borne out by Rich Krzynowek, whose "Prime Time Polkas" Polish polka show on WRMR Cleveland gets phone calls from Italians, Jews, African-Americans, Germans and Slovenians, as well as, in the last six months, an increasing number of late-teens/early '20s callers of all backgrounds. "Years ago, it used to be people celebrating their 30th or 40th anniversaries," says Krzynowek. "Now, its their 19th or 20th birthdays." Adds Ray Somich, president/GM of WELW, "People need to see that it's not 'old man music!'

 

INDUSTRY ACTION

 

But for this to happen, polka people feel, a more professional polka music industry is necessary. "For polka to go into the future," says Carl Rohwetter, a retired auto worker who publishes The Polka News bimonthly from St. Charles, Mich., "it has to be marketed, the same way as the Beatles and the rest of the rock acts. We have to be just as good." Publishing since 1970, Rohwetter distributes some 6,500 copies of each issue to subscribers and approximately 2,025 polka outlets "here and there." More than 100 bands pay to have their schedules listed, "but that's just scratching the surface," Rohwetter notes, estimating that the total number of polka bands in America is at least 1,000. Rohwetter further tallies 500 radio stations that program polka in some form or another; as for the number of record stores that carry polka product, "that's something that needs to be worked on," he says. Ron Shaeffer, head of Cleveland-based polka label and distributor World Renowned Sounds (the label's roster includes Ostanek), services 300 chain accounts (he notes that no chain carries polka product chainwide, nor should they) and another 150 individual and specialty stores. "It's a very small business, but very steady," he says. "You don't get hit with returns, and those that do come back get recycled. There's no such thing as cutouts in this business." In terms of sales, Shaeffer says a good-selling album, apart from "the Jimmy Sturrs of the world," moves 20,000 - 30.000 pieces. Occasionally, a polka single will come out of nowhere, such as "Dance Little Bird," one of many versions of a novelty song that started out as a "70s European instrumental hit called "Tehip Tehip" but became better known as "The Chicken Dance."

 

CREATIVE MARKETING

 

Joey Miskulin, a onetime Yankovic accordionist who now stars as Joey the Cowpolka King in Riders In The Sky, fielded one version of "Dance Little Bird" under the band name Joey & The Little Birds. He also puts out polka albums, such as a pair of "Hooked on Polka" collections on K-tel, "which sell like crazy," he says. " 'Hooked on I,' which is 6 years old, is approaching 100,000 {units}, which is a megahit for a polka band," he adds. "But polka records are like cowboy records - they continue to sell." Cleveland International's Popovich is probably the only polka supplier besides Shaeffer, Rounder, and Ranwood (another Sturr label marketed by Welk Music Group) to get product into major music retail accounts. "Everybody's forgetting blue-collar America," says Popovich. "My people can't afford to shop in the malls, so we need an alternative, blue-collar distribution, and we need to get a complete master list of every account that likes polka music and find more of them." Polka publicity is also needed, noted Ponikvar at the Cleveland confab, "to get the image of polka back to where it was after World War II." The quality of recording must also b increased, noted Gary Rhamy, who runs major Youngstown polka studio Peppermint Productions, and Del Sinchak, who runs and records for the studio's label. "So many bands in polka think they can just cut records in their basement and put it out, and then people who aren't polka people hear it and thin we're all out of touch," said Sinchak.

 

 

Polka Power

Article - #1 (By Jimm Bessman, 1995)

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