Friday, October 31, 2008

Polka and Childhood

Yesterday, I made a post about The Beer Barrel Polka. Normally, when I post accordion videos, they go by without comment, and I assume my faithful readers usually just quietly tolerate my musical oddities. Yesterday, however, my post was met with a couple striking comments, one about awful childhood memories and the other suggesting my musical choice of the day was actually idiotic. Strong words indeed.

When I was a kid, in most ways my parents wanted me to be a Canadian. I mean a Canadian rather than a Polish-Canadian. My mother was born in Poland. My father's family was from Poland too, but another generation or two back. His father came to Canada from Chicago, where he played violin in pit bands. We retained a tradition of eating Polish food at Christmas and Easter, and along the way I learned to cook cabbage rolls and pierogy and those tasty meat-on-a-stick treats we called patitchky. My mom would speak Polish to her sisters on the phone when she didn't want us kids to know what they were talking about. Fortunately, their Polish had enough holes that with the English words they stuck in there, we could often figure out the topic of conversation. She also swore in Polish. I loved that.

My father loved jazz, and so as a kid I could tell one Dixieland horn player from another by their riffs. He loved to crank it loud. I think it took him back to the days when he played clarinet and sax in dance bands back in the day. My mom had a love of polka. She liked to listen to a chemnitzer concertina player from Chicago named Li'l Wally. She had one of his records in which he sang racy songs in Polish. My mom's face would turn red and she would laugh and laugh. I remember so clearly even today. My father wasn't by any means a polka fan, but that doesn't mean he couldn't dance the polka or the obereck. That was de rigeur at parties at the church hall or at family weddings. He was proud of his ability to kick it up.

My mom wanted me to play the accordion. I hated the idea. For me the accordion represented a culture which my parents had taught me was the old culture. I knew they wanted me to be Canadian and I wanted to be Canadian. I wanted to listen to rock n roll (and my Ernest Tubb 78s that my dad bought me to play on my little record player, the one with the penny on the needle to stop it from skipping). I must have been seven or eight when mom arranged for one of the neighbours to come to the house each week to teach me accordion. I didn't like her (for no reason) and I didn't like learning accordion. I used to hide when I knew she was coming over. Finally, my mom gave up. In the fullness of time, I wish she had continued to push me way back then. It would have given me quite a head start on the instrument I would take up over 30 years later.

I think that for a lot of people, polka represents an old world or their parents world or at least something from the past it was necessary to reject. It was not cool. The music was not cool. I think that's how I felt. The first polka I think I liked was a Tom Russell tune about a rooster born in heaven, called Gallo del Cielo. Ian Tyson recorded it as a Mexican polka. It was the story of a guy who stole a rooster and fought the rooster to win enough money to buy the land which Pancho Villa stole from father long ago. From there I discovered Tex-Mex, Conjunto, Norteno. I had already been listening to other music from the American south like Cajun and Zydeco so it wasn't a big step.

Then I heard a band from Buffalo New York called The Dynatones, who were often known, in tribute to their concertina player, as Scrubby and the Dynatones. I got hold of a CD called Vintage Dynatones, a collection of their tunes from the 80s. When I heard Scrubby say Zosia, let's go and break into Zosia Polka I thought my god these guys are very very good. They had a horn section, and a piano accordion doing a fantastic bellows shake rhythm, bass, drums and Scrubby's concertina weaving around the melody. They sang in Polish, but this was American music. I could hear some of the Dixieland groove my father loved so well somehow wound up in this driving polka sound. I loved it! I started to see that old music in a whole different way.

So thank you dear readers for indulging my little polka habit. I'll leave you with one more. Here's the great Flaco Jimenez playing a Czech polka with a Tex-Mex groove, In Heaven There is No Beer (that's why we drink it here, and when we're gone from here, all my friends will be drinking all the beer).


Anonymous said...

No no no...for me the one song "Roll Out The Barrel" does not represent polka. I love polka music and I have done polka dancing. That one song for some reason it is associated with a weird sarcastic vibe...I don't know just makes my skin crawl.

But I didn't say anything about polka music. And I love the ccordion...hey wasn't it me who kept bugging you to take up the accordion again? One of my favourite bands has an accordion as one of it's major instruments: ARCADE FIRE. This Canadian band completley understand shte accordion and how it can be played within a group complimenting and "question and answer" with other players.

I don't think there is anybody in my family that I associate with polka...oh god, no, they were the generation that rejected polka or old timey music...they were "the me decade" everything for my parents had to be new and modern. They were into folk music though Judy Collins, Simon Garfunkel, Dylan, and rock and roll, The Doors, Led Zeplin, The Beatles.

My grandparents had served overseas in Germany after the second world the 50's and 60's and they loved Dixieland, Zydeco, and Polka...we listened to those musics at their house laying around the living room floor with my grandfathers records or jumping around I would entertain my grandmother.

Usually, I wouldn't have said somethign soe xtreme about not liking a particular song. I love music so much that it pains me when I don't like a song...and I am surprised that I commented so freely without more diplomacy heh heh about not liking that oen song.

It's like if anyone says "polka" automatically that song comes up. So maybe it is me rejecting that stereotype of the music...but was in my head all last night...when I woke up this morning and I just makes my skin crawl.

And meanwhile...much more importantly...I absolutely LOVED this post of yours it's one of your very best. It was really fun to read and imagine all the people!

Anonymous said...

Oh I meant that my parents were really into being modern and rejecting things like old music or polka WAY they would have listened to polkas... It was my grandparents who listened to German music they had brought back and many accordion pieces from when they were overseas with the military posted in Germany.

Gardenia said...

What a wonderful, warm post - a treat to read on a chilly day - it warmed my soul. How wonderful to have such a rich, rich heritage, Mr. Anchovy!

Is that new header photo your Halloween cat? Scary......specially in large format, LOL!!!!

Anonymous said...

I don wan her

yu cun ave her

she's too fat fo me

she's too fat fo me

oh, she's too fat fo me

I don wan her

Yu can ave her

she's too fat fo me

she's too fat
she's too fat
she's too fat for meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

(best polka ever)

My brothers sang it to me in a fake Ukrainian accent to make me cry.

sp said...

What a story. It's wonderful that the accordion has always remained a part of your life.

mister anchovy said...

LM, those are excellent lyrics, aren't they? They're right up there with Pierogi pierogi two for a dime, pierogi pierogi two for a dime, pierogi pierogi two for a dime - I like mine with wine!