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"Another Polka Rockin' Weekend": Polish American Polka Music, Identity, and Traditional

Values
Author(s): David James Jackson
Source: Polish American Studies, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 37-52
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of the Polish American Historical
Association
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Polish American Studies
Vol. LXXI, No. 1 (Spring 2014)
©2014 by the Board of Trustees
of the University of Illinois

“Another Polka Rockin’ Weekend”:


Polish American Polka Music, Identity,
and Traditional Values
by

David James Jackson

This article examines the expression and maintenance of a form of Polish American
identity. Specifically, it examines how some Polish Americans demonstrate their
“Polish American-ness” at large-scale, dancing-oriented, polka music weekends
held in large hotel ballrooms in the Midwest. Through these “polka weekends”1 a
subset of Polish Americans expresses and maintains a particular version of what
it means to them to be Polish Americans.
What does it mean to be Polish American in the early twenty-first century?
Before we can answer that question we must first answer the question of who we
mean when we say “Polish Americans.” Do we mean the descendants of the im-
migrants from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? The displaced persons
who came to America after World War II? The Solidarity-era immigrants and their
children? The more recent economic immigrants who have come to cities like
Chicago and Detroit?
Each group is quite distinct from the others, and, therefore, to know something
about one is not necessarily to know the same thing about the others. For example,
the immigrants who arrived at the turn of the nineteenth century and the displaced
persons who arrived after World War II were often from very different class and
regional backgrounds, and frequently did not see eye to eye in terms of international
and domestic politics, as well as within the politics of Polish American fraternal

1
The title refers to a song by polka legend Lenny Gomulka, which is a celebration of
the polka weekend concept investigated in this article.

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38 Polish American Studies

organizations. Mary Patrice Erdmans draws a very useful distinction between “im-
migrant” and “ethnic” communities, whose needs and objectives vary widely and
are more likely to have the result that the “ethnic” community benefits from the
“immigrant” community, but seldom vice versa.2
This article examines the first group mentioned above—the Polish Americans
who have been Polish Americans for the longest time, and who have, therefore,
faced the greatest pressures to assimilate. They have also, therefore, had more
time to create ways of maintaining what they perceive to be the Polish part of their
hyphenated identity, even if, to the less careful observer, most of the time they do
not seem particularly different from other Americans.
Scholars have noticed that Polish Americans have preserved their identity
through the production, distribution, and enjoyment of polka music. Scholars have
long believed that music provides a space in which the community is imagined.
Mark Mattern described three models of political action in popular music: confron-
tational, deliberative, and pragmatic. When he describes the “deliberative” model
of the political importance of popular music, Mattern argues that, “the discovery,
creation and re-creation of community may themselves be a political process and a
form of political action marked by debate and deliberation over communal identity
and commitments.”3 This is a very important point, and so far little research has
been done to determine whether Polish Americans use polka music in the con-
frontational, deliberative, or pragmatic ways. This article presents evidence that
some Polish Americans use polka music in a deliberative/community-creation way
through “polka weekends.”
Polish Americans have promoted and enjoyed polka music in myriad venues,
including taverns and bars, weddings, and at festivals that include long perfor-
mances by many bands spread over an entire weekend. Initially, festivals were
church-oriented affairs, and often occurred near the feast day of the church’s patron.
However, another tradition developed as polka-promoting organizations, such as
the United States Polka Association (USPA), the International Polka Association
(IPA), and individual polka entrepreneurs, began holding “polka weekends” at
hotel ballrooms and other venues that draw thousands of participants. This article
examines a number of these nonreligious festivals, including the 2008 USPA Polka
Festival and Convention, which was held from May 23 to May 25 in Independence,
Ohio (near Cleveland); the IPA Convention and Festival held in the same location
from July 31 to August 3; as well as the Summer Music Fest held in Frankenmuth,
Michigan, during the first two weeks of August.
The USPA festival, one of the largest Polish American-style polka events, has
been held annually in the United States for more than forty years. Nearly a dozen

2
Mary Patrice Erdmans, “Immigrants and Ethnics: Conflict and Identity in Polish Chi-
cago,” Sociological Quarterly 36, no. 1 (1995): 175–95.
3
Mark Mattern, Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 33–37.

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“Another Polka Rockin’ Weekend” 39

bands play over the course of the three-day event, the USPA polka awards banquet
is held, as well as a teen beauty pageant. Almost 3,000 people attend, coming from
across the United States and Canada. The IPA does not draw as well as the USPA,
but the Summer Music Fest draws thousands (although not all of them come to
hear polka bands, for other styles of music are also represented).
To investigate how Polish Americans who participate in polka weekends use
polka music in the maintenance of their distinct identity, interviews were completed
with about a dozen participants at the 2008 USPA Festival and Convention, IPA,
and Music Fest. As a participant-observer I recorded images and observations of
these events, and did in-depth interviews with about a dozen participants, whose
levels of participation in polka include being musicians and promoters themselves,
and in some cases just fans of the music and the scene. References to interviews
in this article refer to interviews done at these events.

Poles, Polka, Rituals, and Symbols


According to the 2010 United States Census, 9,447,939 people of Polish an-
cestry are living in the United States, which represents 2.6 percent of the nation’s
total population. Polish American historian Thaddeus Radzilowski estimates the
number of Polish Americans at around 10,000,000, of whom approximately 500,000
were born in Poland. He assumes a substantial undercount of Polish Americans.
There are several reasons for the undercount, but a significant one is that in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when millions of ethnic Poles emigrated
to the United States, there was, of course, no Polish state. Poland was partitioned
by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and Ellis Island immigration documents showed
the origins of the immigrants as whichever part of the partition they came from.
Most Americans know little about polka music, and certainly cannot differenti-
ate among the various styles of the music currently being performed and recorded
in the United States. One easy first attempt at differentiation involves the ethnic-
ity of the musicians who play the music and the fans who enjoy it. Polka scholars
Charles and Angeliki Keil distinguish among three broad ethnic categories: Slavic,
German, and Southwest. Each of those categories contains two subcategories, with
Polish and Slovenian under the Slavic category, German and Czech under the Ger-
man rubric, and Mexican and Native American under the Southwest. But it is even
more complicated than that because there are also thriving Ukrainian, Bavarian,
and Scandinavian polka scenes in the United States.4 In other words, while largely
unnoticed by the mainstream media and entertainment industry, polka is a broad
and popular musical style enjoyed among a diverse population of Americans.
Also, within Polish American polka music are various subgenres based on in-
strumentation and tempo. The earliest Polish American polka music was the so-called

4
Charles Keil and Angeliki Keil, Polka Happiness (Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1992).

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40 Polish American Studies

Eastern style because it developed on the East Coast, not because of its connection
with Eastern Europe. It is essentially “big band” music, with a full orchestra, com-
plicated arrangements, and very fast tempos. Very few bands of this style exist today,
in part because of the expense of maintaining such a large orchestra.
“Honky” style polka music developed in Chicago after Eastern style, and
offered dancers a slower tempo and musicians more room for improvisation in
a much smaller band, usually consisting of no more than trumpet, clarinet, con-
certina, bass, and drums. “Push” style developed after honky and remains the
dominant style of Polish American polka music today. According to polka musi-
cian Mollie Busta, “Push style was generated from Honky style . . . along with
the influence of ‘rhythm and blues’ and rock-n-roll [sic]. Push style received its
name from the high-energy, ‘push’ or ‘ride’ section of the song that often takes
place near the end.”5 It is highly amplified and driving music, influenced as it
is by rock ’n’ roll. Variations of push style have developed as well, and these
include the punk-rock style of bands like the Polkaholics and the complicated
wider-range style of Brave Combo and Freeze Dried, who play most kinds of
polka, and many other styles of music as well.
Scholars have examined polka lyrics and the overall polka scene and come to
varying conclusions. For example, in my “Pushing Politics: Polka Music and Po-
lonia,” I suggest that polka lyrics carry a number of important meanings for Polish
Americans, including a connection with the ancestral homeland, defense of values
such as hard work and heterosexual love and marriage, and pro-American patrio-
tism.6 Ann Hetzel Gunkel goes further and argues that the entire practice of polka
culture by Polish Americans symbolizes defiance of assimilationist pressures to
conform to nontraditional values. She refers to this defiance as “counter-hegemonic
ethnic practice,” wherein polka’s joyfulness, communitarianism, and Catholicism
counteract the dominant culture’s disdain for ritual, support of individualism, and
adherence to a postreligious ethic.7
There is a rich anthropological and sociological literature on the role of rituals
in forming and maintaining group identities. Examining polka weekends as rituals
allows us to understand what is really happening when thousands of polka fans get
together for a good time. Joseph C. Hermanowicz and Harriet P. Morgan suggest that
“most sociological and anthropological studies of ritual emphasize separation from
customary group practices on ritual occasions.” They then suggest that “on some

5
Mollie Busta, “Polka: The Changes and Developments Through the Years”; available
at http://www.nostradamus.net/polka-mollie.htm (accessed August 13, 2013).
6
David J. Jackson, “Pushing Politics: Polka Music and Polonia,” Polish American
Studies 61, no. 1 (2004): 61–87.
7
Ann Hetzel Gunkel, “The Polka Alternative: Polka as Counterhegemonic Ethnic Prac-
tice,” Popular Music and Society 27, no. 4 (2004): 407–27.

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“Another Polka Rockin’ Weekend” 41

occasions, activities resemble practices, albeit with more dramatic flair.”8 Hermano-
wicz and Morgan call the use of versions of customary group practices in rituals as a
means of strengthening identity “affirmation.” Specifically, they suggest that “identity
affirmation occurs when practices being celebrated are both customary and already
invested with a high level of sacredness.”9 Their case study is the centennial celebra-
tion of the University of Chicago. Examples of practices both customary and sacred
include academic conferences, lectures, theater productions, and so on. In other words:
more of what the university community normally does and more dramatic flair.
The authors then describe five dimensions divided into three major categories
that “structure identity and account for patterns of relations among ritual partici-
pants.”10 These are: locus of control—who leads the ritual; participation; and how the
ritual is conducted in terms of tone, duration, and space. These are useful categories
for analyzing polka weekends.
In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim wrote, “it is by
uttering the same cry, pronouncing the same word, or performing the same gesture
in regard to some object that they become and feel themselves to be in unison.”11
A polka weekend involves plenty of uttering of the same cry, pronouncing words
the participants do not normally pronounce (because they have lost the ability to
speak Polish), and feeling themselves to be in unison.
In Ritual, Politics and Power, David Kertzer argues that “ritual builds solidarity
without requiring the sharing of beliefs. Solidarity is produced by people acting
together, not by people thinking together.”12 The essential point, then, is that part of
one’s commitment to a group is emotional and not rational. Clearly the participants
at polka weekends do not all share the same beliefs, but do see themselves as con-
nected with one another, in part through their shared experience of polka music.
Finally, Kertzer defines ritual as “symbolic behavior that is socially standard-
ized and repetitive.” He claims that “ritual [is] action wrapped in a web of symbol-
ism.”13 Symbols possess three crucial properties for Kertzer: they condense a rich
diversity of meanings, they simultaneously contain more than one meaning, and
they are ambiguous, which is to say differently interpretable to different interpret-
ers. As we shall see, a polka weekend, and polka culture in general, involves the
use and manipulation of a number of symbols.

8
Joseph C. Hermanowicz and Harriet P. Morgan, “Ritualizing the Routine: Collective
Identity Affirmation,” Sociological Forum 14, no. 2 (1999): 197–98.
9
Ibid., 200.
10
Ibid., 208.
11
Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Free Press,
1915), 262.
12
David Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
1998), 76.
13
Ibid., 9.

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42 Polish American Studies

The Polka Dance


The dance, of course, is the centerpiece of the weekend. Polka music is dance
music, first and foremost. Polka bands play a majority of polkas, in 2/4 time;
waltzes; and obereks. And that is basically it—because people dance and they
only dance the polka, waltz, or oberek, no other forms are permitted. This tight
structure also limits the amount of instrumental improvisation that is permitted by
the musicians. Many fans and thinkers appreciate this, even suggesting that it is
the essence of what differentiates polka and other folk creation from high art. It
is not about individual instrumentalists “showing off,” but is instead about a tight
group working together to produce a danceable sound for the people.
So some people think it is good that the individual musicians do not stand out,
that the comprehensive piece of music as an expression of the group’s identity is the
important thing, and that individual personalities must be subsumed for the good of
the whole—which is a certain kind of collectivist tendency noted by other scholars.14
During the 2008 USPA festival in Cleveland, one band dared to be different and
allowed an extended drum solo. It went on for between five and ten minutes, and
most of the dancers stopped dancing. The crowd that was gathered near the front
of the stage seemed to enjoy it, but from where I sat at a table behind the dance
floor, grumbles and complaints were common. “They do this every year,” a woman
complained, suggesting that this particular band was wearing out its welcome with
what she perceived to be their musical self-indulgence.
The geography of a polka weekend dancehall deserves some attention here. The
room is longer than it is wide, forming a large rectangle. At one end of the rectangle
are two bandstands side by side, so that bands may alternate performances with a
minimum of downtime. The large wooden dance floor is set up directly in front of
the stages, and behind that are rows of tables and chairs. This geography allows or
prompts different levels of engagement with the performers. Dancers are engaged
with the beat and tempo, but in a way they are in their own world, interacting with
their partners and all the other couples on the floor. Out at the tables and chairs sit
dancers who are taking a break, and couples and small groups enjoying a conver-
sation. The volume of the music is such that those sitting at the tables, especially
those furthest back from the stage, can carry on a conversation if they raise their
voices only a little.
The most intriguing group of people are those who stand in front of the stage
during the performances. Generally, they include the younger folks at a polka dance,
and often they have consumed substantial quantities of alcohol. They are there for
the party. Others in the group near the stage include those who are most into the
music, not for dancing, but instead for the lyrics and quality of the musicianship. It
is really loud up there, but the listener gets a better feel for how well the musicians

14
Gunkel, “The Polka Alternative,” 415.

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“Another Polka Rockin’ Weekend” 43

play, the singers sing, and the Polish is pronounced. It is also a sign of respect for
a good performance for a larger crowd to gather near the front of the stage for a
band’s final set, and bands are quite competitive with one another when it comes
to measuring which had the largest group up front at the end.

The Flags Behind the Stage


At most polka weekends, flags are hung behind the stage. These include the
Polish and America flags. Often the Canadian flag is included as well. The use of
both flags stresses the hyphenated identity of Polish Americans. Polish American
polka bands have long stressed this hyphenation. For example, often at the close of
a polka dance some combination of Polish and American patriotic songs is played.
My informants from the 2008 USPA, IPA, and Frankenmuth Summer Music
festivals discussed the hyphenated nature of their identity as well as the role of pa-
triotism in different ways. Forty-eight-year-old polka band leader Jimmy K., whose
grandmother emigrated from Poland, said at the IPA, “I do consider myself an Ameri-
can first and foremost and the Polish thing is something that is part of me and one
that you hold dear. You’re an American first.” Another band leader, fifty-two-year-old
Mike Matousek, echoed a similar “American first” attitude at the IPA when he said,
“I don’t even like to consider myself Polish American. Polish descent, but not Polish
American. No way.” Matousek comes from a mixed ethnicity family, and stressed
pride in his heritage, but stressed his identity as American above all.
Most of my informants, however, answered in the affirmative when asked if
they consider themselves Polish American. They were asked what it means to be
Polish American, what activities differentiate them from other Americans. Not
surprisingly, given that the interviews were taking place at a polka weekend, most
answered that listening to polka music and attending polka dances were a large part
of what identifies them as Polish American. Foodways and holiday traditions were
frequently mentioned as well, often in the context of maintaining them in the face
of significant assimilationist pressures. “I think that Polish Americans have a way
of really trying to maintain the traditions, trying to maintain the cultures that their
ancestors had before them,” said Nicole Cuglewski, a twenty-five-year-old polka
fan and occasional singer at the USPA. Kevin Kwiatkowski, a fifty-seven-year-old
polka fan, promoter, and Toledo, Ohio, area polka association officer echoed that
sentiment when he said, “I like to keep a lot of those customs going on so that the
next generation, it might be a little diluted down through the years or American-
ized, but Christmas, Easter, Weddings, music. I think it’s important for the oldest
member of the family to pass that on.” Finally, polka fan and spouse of a polka
musician, forty-five-year-old Barbara Adams said, “I think one of the things that
separates us apart is our holidays—having Wigilia, coloring the Easter eggs . . .
Dyngus Day, of course.”
Just as interesting as what was mentioned is what was not mentioned. Being
Polish American did not mean living in the same neighborhood with other Polish

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44 Polish American Studies

Americans. It did not mean dressing a certain way so as to stand out among other
Americans, nor did it mean voting a certain way. It did not mean speaking Polish
(only one of the interviewees described herself as fluent in the language), nor did
it mean having ever been to Poland (only two had ever been). But all of those who
had never visited Poland expressed a wish to do so.
The mention of Dyngus Day is also significant. The day after Easter has been
celebrated by Poles for hundreds of years, often in the form of young men drench-
ing young ladies in whom they have a romantic interest with buckets of water, or
whipping their legs with pussy willows. The ritual likely precedes Christianity,
although the Church appropriated it as the symbol of King Mieszko I’s baptism into
Christianity in 966. Some version of the tradition has been present in the United
States ever since large numbers of Polish immigrants arrived, but there have been
some important changes in recent years, giving the event something of a “Saint
Patrick’s Day” for Poles feel.
Buffalo, New York, claims to hold the largest Dyngus Day celebration in the
world, and there is little reason to doubt their claim, because Dyngus Day in Poland
is not generally a celebration or ritual that includes a large gathering of people.
Instead, it involves pranksters of both genders now dousing everyone, not just po-
tential mates. In Buffalo, there are ten sites (mainly bars and halls owned by fraternal
orders) that offer polka music, alcoholic beverages, squirt gun activity, and potential
pussy willow thrashings on Easter Monday. Sobieski Vodka offers a shuttle among
the venues and there is also a parade. Polka bands have written myriad songs about
the tradition and its recent incarnation, including one titled “Everybody’s Polish on
Dyngus Day,” which echoes the sentiment of profit-making-oriented Saint Patrick’s
Day celebrations.
Other cities that have significant Dyngus Day celebrations include South Bend,
Indiana, and Toledo, Ohio. Dyngus Day 2008 in Toledo, Ohio, took place at a
new Irish bar near the new baseball stadium downtown and drew several hundred
people to hear Randy Krajewski’s polka band amid significant squirt gun activity.
The plan is to make the event an annual one. These types of events are rituals that
announce to the broader community the presence of Polish Americans and invite
the community to participate. They are ritualized expressions of a form of Polish
American identity, and they “cost” the participants almost nothing in terms of
potential discrimination from the dominant ethnic majorities.

The Instrumentation of the Bands


Polish American polka bands must contain drums, bass, trumpets, and accor-
dion. More specifically, usually they have two trumpets, and often a concertina.
Polka bands of other ethnicities might contain certain instruments that are almost
never present in a Polish American band. These include the banjo, which are com-
mon in Slovenian-style bands, and tubas, which are prevalent in German and Czech

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“Another Polka Rockin’ Weekend” 45

bands. Accordions can be tuned in various ways, and the sounds are distinct among
Polish, Slovenian, and Mexican bands.
The 2008 USPA was no exception to this general rule, but the addition of a
violin (fiddle) often caused great and positive crowd response. Many Polish-style
polka bands will use the fiddle for a few songs, or even most of a set. These songs
usually include a version of the “Mountaineer’s Polka,” which for many Polish
Americans evokes the highlands of southern Poland from which they believe their
ancestors came. The IPA, on the other hand, featured mainly Polish-style bands, but
a Slovenian-style band performed as well. The Summer Music Fest in Frankenmuth
featured almost every European style of polka music, as well as oldies and Christian
music. However, the styles are scheduled such that they do not overlap much, but
instead perform in blocs of the same style of music. This is because ethnic adher-
ents of one style in general want nothing to do with the musical stylings of other
ethnicities. Slovenian Americans like Slovenian-style polka, not Polish American
style and the feeling among Polish Americans toward Slovenian style is the same.

Food and Drink


The music and dancing portions of a polka weekend resemble a Polish wed-
ding or a traditional parish festival. As such, copious amounts of beer and liquor
as well as large quantities of traditional Polish foods are consumed.15 However,
despite the large amount of drinking, fights and violence are extremely rare at polka
weekends. I have never witnessed any, in fact, after having attended twenty or so
polka weekends and hundreds of other dances.
The food is another issue. At many Polish parish and neighborhood festivals,
much of the food is provided by the good cooks of the neighborhood. This is not
always the case at the commercial polka weekends, where quality and authenticity
sometimes suffer at the hands of non-Polish providers. As the comments from polka
participants above indicated, foodways are a crucial element of Polish American
identity, and therefore not surprisingly, the lyrics of many polka songs focus on food.
From the comedic “Who Stole the Kiszka?” (a blood sausage), to “Polska Kielbasa”
(Polish Sausage) and “She Likes Kielbasa,” food-related songs are plentiful in Pol-
ish American polka music. The food songs often take on sexual overtones, as band
and audience members make mildly salacious lyrics out of those that often are not.
For example, sometimes during the song “Polska Kielbasa” men place their hands
two feet apart during the singing of the chorus, and women place their thumb and
forefinger about two inches apart. This gendered rendering of perceptions of the size
of male reproductive anatomy is about as bawdy as a polka performance becomes.

15
One of the interviewees was a little disappointed with how much alcohol is consumed
at a polka weekend. “They drink like it’s their last day on Earth,” he said.

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46 Polish American Studies

The Toasts and the Polish Language


Although I have not conducted a scientific survey of attendees at the USPA or
any other polka weekend, I believe it is safe to say that very few of the participants
are fluent in the Polish language. Language proficiency in the mother-tongue tends to
decline with each successive generation of removal from the country of origin, and
the participants tend to be third- and fourth-generation Americans. However, what
is remembered and used is very telling about the condition of Polish Americans.
Many participants know how to greet each other in informal Polish, ask how
the other person is doing, and answer about his or her own condition. Some know
the words to some of their favorite songs, and can sing them in their entirety, even
though they could not really use the Polish language’s rules to produce grammatical
sentences. Others know words to Polish toasts, and offer them with much vigor,
especially as the number of drinks consumed rises.
Only one of the informants indicated she was nearly fluent in the Polish lan-
guage. Interestingly, however, they all expressed affection for the language even
though they have not learned to speak it. The reasons for this are complicated.
Jimmy K. said he learned to read and pronounce Polish so that when he sings
songs in the language he sounds more authentic doing it. “It doesn’t bother me,
but there are some bands that are really, really bad and it’s kind of a mixed thing. I
mean, part of me says, ‘God bless them for trying,’ and the other side of me wishes
they would just take a little time to [learn to speak Polish properly].” All of the in-
terviewees expressed fondness for Polish-language vocals. Kevin Kwiatkowski said,
“I prefer the Polish polkas. There is a strange thing that I like to do. I try to get the
lyrics and therefore I try to translate it, so at least I know what the song is about.”
Mike Matousek said something similar. “By going to a Polish school, I remember
all of the pronunciations and I can tell if the song is about war or love or drinking.”
Even though they do not always understand them, most informants said they
prefer, or at least like, Polish-language vocals. Interestingly, Thad Seaver, a thirty-
eight-year-old non-Polish American interviewed at the USPA said he does not
speak Polish, but enjoys the sound of the language as sung by the musicians, and
considers it almost another musical instrument.

Clothing and Buttons


John Madden famously once quipped that there is no way to dress badly at a
football game, and the same might be true of a dance party at a polka weekend.
Older participants tend to be dressed more conservatively, and suits and ties are
the rule for awards ceremonies. On the other hand, a wide range of clothing, often
with a message, is worn by other participants. At USPA 2008, a female participant
who looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties wore a red T-shirt with white
lettering that read, “What happens in Poland stays in Poland,” a take-off on a Las
Vegas slogan from a few years ago. I have never seen a similar T-shirt in Poland,

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“Another Polka Rockin’ Weekend” 47

and it is doubtful she purchased it there. A man in his fifties wore a black T-shirt
with red letters reading, “Yes I’m Polish. Want to see my Kielbasa?” The reference
was a crude one, but not over the top.
Perhaps this confirms what the poet Czesław Miłosz once referred to as the
“incredible cultural crudeness” of Polish Americans. When challenged in the New
York Times by a Polish American professor about this comment, combined with
his willingness to take the money of Polish Americans for copies of his books and
tickets to his readings, Miłosz responded:

I . . . continue to believe that the story of hardships, deprivations and tragedies
which were the lot of the Polish mass immigration to this country makes a vast epic
and perhaps one day this epic will be told. My bitter words stem from my knowl-
edge about what should be done by the many-millions-strong Polish-American
diaspora in the realm of cultural value—yet is not being done.16

In other words, his criticism was aimed at his contention that Polish Americans
have an incredible story to tell and are not doing so, at least through means preferred
by the poet: probably poetry and long fiction. However, many polka scholars have
pointed out that polka songs themselves often tell the story of Polish America
in their lyrics.17 Furthermore, polka weekends create a situation where the older
members of the polka-oriented Polish American community can pass stories down
in the oral tradition. I have heard dozens of stories about the antics and skills of
great polka musicians of the past; the sacrifices made by the immigrant generation
and their children; and the decline of the old neighborhoods.
It should also be pointed out that perhaps the Polish American community
took Miłosz’s complaint seriously, because since 1987 many sweeping novels and
memoirs have been written to capture the Polish American experience.18
The T-shirt certainly is not the only instance of mildly vulgar humor in polka.
Humor holds a crucial and sometimes difficult place in the Polish American com-
munity. Before more politically correct times, ethnic jokes were all the rage, but
special rancor and hatred seemed to be reserved for use in Polish jokes. They have

16
Cited in Stanislas A. Blejwas, “Milosz and the Polish Americans,” New York Times,
November 22, 1987.
17
See Gunkel, “The Polka Alternative”; Jackson, “Pushing Politics: Polka Music and
Polonia”; Laurie Gomulka-Palazzolo, Horn Man: The Polish-American Musician in Twen-
tieth-Century Detroit (Detroit, MI: American-Polish Music Society, 2003).
18
These include Keith Maillard, The Clarinet Polka (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
2003); Suzanne Strempek Shea, Hoopi Shoopi Donna (New York: Washington Square Press,
1997); Gary Gildner, The Warsaw Sparks (Ames: University of Iowa Press, 1990); Gary
Gildner, My Grandfather’s Book (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002);
Leonard Kniffel, A Polish Son in the Motherland (College Station: Texas A&M University
Press, 2005); David J. Jackson, Classrooms and Barrooms: An American in Poland (Lanham,
MD: Hamilton Books, 2009).

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48 Polish American Studies

been explained as the logical process in which the assimilated immigrants from
one country and generation mock the next arrivals. Yet they can sting. So polka has
produced a number of responses, but the polka weekend appears to be an especially
apt place to show a Polish-based sense of humor, a willingness to take a joke.

The Songs
A typical set at USPA, Music Fest, or IPA lasts for about an hour. Bands perform
a combination of polkas, waltzes, and obereks—usually more polkas than waltzes
and more waltzes than obereks. This is to ensure that the dancers do not become
overtired from dancing the polka, or too comfortable from dancing the waltz. Usu-
ally multiple polkas are played in a row, and the same pattern obtains for waltzes.
Often, only one oberek is played in a set, for it seems fewer participants know
exactly the correct way to dance to one of these songs in an odd time signature.
Bands have to please not only the dancers but also the other groups in the hall.
They need to play loudly for the enthusiastic folks up front, in proper time and
tempo for the dancers, and quietly enough for the people at the tables to be able
to hear each other talk. Another topic of concern is whether the lyrics are sung in
Polish or English.
Even though many polka fans cannot really speak Polish, they like to hear
songs sung in Polish. One seventy-seven-year-old son of Polish immigrants said,
“I like both Polish and English lyrics and even though I am not anywhere close to
fluent in Polish, I enjoy just hearing that great language in song.” This apprecia-
tion for the sound of Polish was echoed in comments from a younger non-Polish
American mentioned earlier who said he thought of the sound of Polish vocals as
another instrument in the polka sound, and enjoyed them very much.
Any song that can be played in 2/4 time can become a polka, so country and
rock-and-roll covers are common. While the rock-and-roll covers were initially
somewhat controversial, the polka repertoire has always included polka or waltz
versions of popular American songs. Gene Wisniewski’s Polish-language version
of “Good Night Irene” (Dobranoc Irenku) is a favorite. But some people prefer
the old songs. An interviewee who has frequently visited Poland and speaks the
language, Barbara Adams, said, “I think for me, the favorite songs are traditional
folklore songs that could become polkas or waltzes . . . because they are rooted
in Poland and they are songs that grandparents sang that are family favorites.”
Kevin Kwiatkowski summarized well the position that both English and Polish
vocals have a proper place: “Some of the songs I think, because of the translation
of Polish to English, it loses a lot when it goes to English. I think there are a lot
of songs out there that have to be in English. It doesn’t bother me that they are.”
Helenrae Budzilek, immersed in polka all of her life because of her parents’ deep
involvement said, “My favorite type of song is one done in a minor key. I don’t
have a preference of Polish versus English. English lyrics are fun, but the Polish
lyrics remind me of who I am, even though I don’t speak Polish.” Others have

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“Another Polka Rockin’ Weekend” 49

expressed the love for the minor key, fiddle, clarinet, and Polish vocals with the
same concern for authenticity or a real ethnic feeling.

Sexuality
Not surprisingly, almost everything about polka music promotes heterosexual
love and marriage. Polish folk songs made into polkas, original songs written by
polka musicians, and covers of country and rock songs all share lyrics that concern
romantic love between a man and a woman. Polka dancing is couples’ dancing; one
almost never sees individuals doing more than a little bit of moving and grooving
in place. The couples are almost exclusively one man and one woman, but occa-
sionally two women may dance together, especially if they are older and cannot
find dance partners. Sometimes young mothers will dance with their children, to
socialize them to polka music, and even grownup daughters will dance with their
older mothers. Men almost never dance together.
However, as in any community, there are homosexual people among Pol-
ish Americans and among polka-oriented Polish Americans. Several prominent
musicians are well-known among polka people for their homosexuality, and the
community appears to deal with it in a number of ways. The first is to ignore it.
For many of the people who attend polka events the backgrounds of the musicians
mean little, if they are able to play and sing well enough. In fact, it is the songs
that matter. Prominent polka bands consist of members of varied ethnicities. One
band, called the Polka Family Band, traces its origins to parents of Lithuanian and
Mexican American heritage. While the majority of musicians are of Polish origin,
the names of those appearing as musicians on contemporary polka recordings are
diverse: Bozzarelli, Adams, Baker, Dusseault, Baptiste, and many more.
A musician informant at the IPA mentioned the homosexuality of one member
of his band in passing, and followed it up with a claim that it is the least important
thing about him as a person. So another route is to recognize the existence of
homosexuality in the community, but to downplay or ignore its significance. One
particular band leader has long been identified as homosexual, and his flamboyant
performances, while not always or even frequently sexual, have proved contro-
versial over the years. During one of the festivals attended for this research the
performer was leading a band and made a few moderately offensive and sexual
comments between songs. A female in her sixties with whom I was sitting and
talking at one of the tables beyond the dance floor rolled her eyes and said she had
become tired of this performer’s antics over the years.

Ethnic Identity and Race


Not all scholars agree that being Polish American means much of anything any-
more. For white European Americans, ethnicity is something that can be switched
on and off and means little in terms of life chances. Herbert Gans describes white

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50 Polish American Studies

ethnicity as “symbolic ethnicity,”19 and Mary Waters claims that the “optional” ethnic-
ity of white Americans actually exacerbates racial tensions.20 This is because these
artificial ethnics (whose ethnicity is confused and inauthentic) cannot understand the
true plight of real racial and ethnic minorities, who do face actual discrimination.
Attendees at the polka weekends were asked if they had ever faced discrimi-
nation because of their ethnic background, and they offered a number of different
answers. Jimmy K. said he had not really been discriminated against, but, “it does
really fascinate me that there are certain ethnic slurs you cannot use in the workplace
or in public without being chastised, but calling me a Polack is perfectly acceptable
. . . that one is okay for some reason. But I can’t think of any other ethnic slur, for
lack of a better word, that you can get away with in public.” The interesting thing
about the ethnic slur “Polack” is that in Polish the word simply refers to a Polish
man, so in that language there is nothing at all insulting about the term. In the
United States, of course, it is a completely different matter and, outside of those
who speak Polish, the term has only a negative, derogatory connotation.
Kevin Kwiatkowski said he experienced discrimination for his ethnic heritage,
and described two separate occurrences. He said:

I was growing up during the era of Polish jokes—we were discriminated against
merely because we were Polish, and when it came time to talk with my counselor
in high school to graduate and trying to select the university that I was going to
take my advanced education from, with her assistance, she bluntly came out and
told me that I should just stay in the factories, because I was Polish and there
would be no way that I would ever get a college degree.

This is clear discrimination based on Kwiatkowski’s ethnicity. It should also be


noted that this did not happen 100 years ago, but in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Kwiatkowski also relayed another, perhaps less heinous, example of discrimi-
nation for being Polish American:

I feel, being fifty-seven, and growing up during that period of time, it was horrible. It
caused me to not announce my ethnic background. I covered it up—I tried to blend
in by not saying my last name. Another thing was that when I was trying to find
a job, I went to an employment agency and the person whom I was working with
asked me what my name meant in English, which is “flowers.” He recommended
that I change my name to Flowers because of the last name being so identifiable that
it would probably be easier for me to get a job with the name Flowers.

Other informants suggested that being Polish American never caused them
any difficulties in life. When I described Waters’s theory to Mike Matousek, he

19
Herbert J. Gans, “Symbolic Ethnicity: the Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in
America,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2 (January 1979): 1–20.
20
Mary C. Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1991).

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“Another Polka Rockin’ Weekend” 51

responded with, “We have the luxury of, just like if you’re Irish on Saint Patrick’s
Day, everybody can be Irish if they want to be. In fact, up in Buffalo on Dyngus
Day everyone is Polish for a couple of days. But you are right, we can turn it on
and off in the workplace.” But he also added, “Once I got a little older and people
found out (about my Polish heritage) they would call me the ‘Polish Prince’ and I
would have to bear whatever Polish jokes there were. But they were usually good
natured, so I don’t think it ever inhibited or caused me any unfair treatment.”
Most of my informants who mentioned relatively minor experiences of dis-
crimination either laughed them off or did not take them too seriously. Helenrae
Budzilek said she had never been discriminated against for being Polish, but,

sometimes looked down on due to my love of polka music. People have made
comments as if polka music is for second-class citizens. When people hear you
are Polish or like polka music they get this stereotype in their head of what you
should look like and how you should act, and after meeting them in person, I
have been told I don’t “look Polish,” as if that is supposed to be a compliment.

Relations between minority Americans, especially African Americans, and Polish


Americans have been the topic of much discussion and academic research. I asked
my informants about these relations, and they offered a number of explanations for
the tensions between the two groups, none of which was particularly focused on the
“optional” ethnicity of Polish Americans today. Mike Matousek said:

Whatever racism against other minority groups like African Americans, I saw to
it that that was going to stop with my generation. . . . From what I’ve been told
though, like my grandparents when they came to this country, their first exposure
to other ethnic groups were not in the ideal situations. Most of it was urban, inner-
city and, you know, there were a very strong work ethic and an independence that
somehow my grandparents survived not knowing the language and they did okay.
If they even thought that somebody else wasn’t doing that, right away, regardless of
what color you are, you were substandard in their minds. Again, they didn’t have an
understanding of the events that lead to the situation that you have in inner-cities,
so I’m a little more educated and a little more understanding of how that happened.

Clearly Matousek differentiates between his generation of Polish Americans and


his grandparents and parents, and believes he is more enlightened, and strives to
enlighten his children. He explains previous generations’ negative attitudes toward
blacks with the argument that the older generation perceived (in his mind unfairly)
that blacks did not work as hard as Poles.
The Polish Americans interviewed at these polka weekends are likely to be
more acutely aware and proud of their Polish heritage, and therefore may be more
likely to notice smaller slights and slurs due to their ethnicity. Certainly the polka
music performed at polka weekends has tried to account for it. For example, Happy
Louie (Dusseault), a retired legendary polka musician of French Canadian and
Polish ethnicity recorded an anthem in the 1970s that bands continue to perform

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52 Polish American Studies

today. It is called “Love and Peace” and it implores its listeners, “Let’s cut out
those Polish jokes / We’re as good as other folks,” while also chronicling some of
the great achievements of Poles and Polish Americans.
I am unaware of any attempts to deal with African American and Polish Ameri-
can relations through polka music, and nearly all of the attendees at a polka weekend
are white. If there is racism in the Polish American community, one does not see
or hear overt signs of it at a polka dance.

Polka Values Versus Pop Culture


In many ways the values promoted by Polish American polka culture could be
described as conservative, or at least counter to the prevailing values presented in
mainstream American movies, popular music, and television. Heterosexual love,
preferably within the confines of marriage, is celebrated. Religious devotion is
supported, and most certainly not mocked. In fact, most polka weekends have a
“polka Mass” on Sunday morning, during which musicians use polka instruments
and arrangements in the traditional Roman Catholic service. Homosexuality is
neither flaunted nor punished; instead, it is tolerated or ignored. While their iden-
tity is hyphenated, Polish Americans’ ultimate loyalty is to the United States, and
they are willing to end many, if not most, polka performances with the singing of a
combination of Polish and American patriotic songs. They use good-natured humor
to respond to malicious humor aimed at them, and they embrace a playful vulgarity.
Historically, their relations with other ethnic groups, especially nonwhite groups,
have been strained, but there is little evidence to suggest that Polish Americans’
enduring commitment to polka music and other elements of their “optional” eth-
nicity reinforce those negative attitudes. Polish American polka people who bring
their children to events are exposing them to a music and culture in many ways
profoundly at odds with the values of mainstream entertainment culture.
A polka weekend is very much a ritual performance. Expanding the tradi-
tional parish festival into a weekend focused exclusively on polka music creates a
space where some Polish Americans express their identity, and frankly negotiate
the character of their community and the meanings of their symbols. They decide
who is included and who is not, and how the rest of the community should react
to them and how they should react to the rest of the community. Through the ar-
rangement of flags behind the stage, the Polish and English lyrics of their songs,
and the combination of patriotic songs performed, they symbolize the dual nature
of their Polish American heritage, while insisting that the American side is the one
that matters in terms of political allegiance (one hears little discussion of American
politics, and no discussion of Polish politics, at a polka weekend). By “uttering
the same cry, (and) pronouncing the same word” in Polish or English and as the
lyrics of a song, they express and reinforce their perception of who they are in a
country that probably believes they are just the same as everyone else. They most
assuredly believe they are not.

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