Lost Culture? Polka Dance & Music in America


Peppy Dance Polkas.

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One thing that is lost in our culture is the awesome LP covers.

Sometimes, when I browse through second-hand stores, I can find them. They are always stacked in the dark corner, dirty and neglected. Nobody wants them anymore, but there was a time when these LPs were precious and celebrated for their unique cover art. Today, their covers look shabby: printing quality was poor, but the design ideas were great.

Looking through these LPs, I found Peppy Dance Polkas. It is a collection of then popular polka dances and songs such as Clarinet Polka, Emilia Polka and American Eagle Polka.

The polka is a genre of Slavic dance music that originated in the middle of the 19th century in Bohemia, today Czech Republic.

In the past, before the advent of TV, polka music was popular only with a limited audience. One would never hear polka music on popular music radio shows unless one was listening to “ethnic” radio programs in some of the bigger cities such as Chicago or Detroit. But when television became the major medium of home entertainment, things began to change. Independent station owners were searching for low budget shows that could bring some audience, even if it was limited. They found polka dance bands made to order.

Soon, many in the media became amazed that not only polka music attracted an audience large enough to sustain production of these shows (and bring profit to station owners), but that the polka shows appealed greatly to all groups, not necessary of Slavic origin.

One of the polka stars of that era was Lawrence Welk who hosted the television program The Lawrence Welk Show from 1951 to 1982. Welk was German, and although he was born in the U.S.A., he grew up in a German-speaking community and spoke English with “unusual” accent. Apparently, he never grasped the English idiom completely, producing a lot of grammatically incorrect “Welk-isms" that became a part of his TV persona charm.

Polka music is quite popular in German circles in America. It could because these Germans, like the Welks, emigrated to the USA from Eastern Europe. The Welks emigrated to America in 1892 from Odessa, Russian Empire (now Ukraine).

Contrary to what the purveyors of the “white privilege” say, the Welks, although White, were not the recipients of any privilege. The Welks were farmers. When they arrived in America, they were so poor they spent the cold North Dakota winter of their first year inside an upturned wagon covered in sod. Lawrence didn’t get any privilege from anyone either. He had to leave school during fourth grade to work full-time on the family farm.

Here’s Myron Floren on The Lawrence Welk Show, performing one of the hits, the Pennsylvania Polka. Pennsylvania used to be home to many Slavs who immigrated there to work in mining and on farms. Working in mines is not a privilege.

Pick up your partner and join in the fun: The Pennsylvania Polka…

One criticism of Welk’s music is that he always played the polkas so fast.

I have never liked polka music and I am a Slav. For me, it sounds too much like cats in March. I get a headache listing to it and the dance is too jumpy.

Anyway, that era is gone. Today, Slavs in America don’t have their own culture, even a polka culture produced by a German guy. They consume rap and violent Hollywood. They lost their ethnic awareness and identity.

Dazzles in Green is an educator, journalist, environmentalist, vegetarian and avid cyclist. She holds a master's degree in anthropology and a Juris Doctor in intellectual property.