I just heard an eighteen-time Grammy winner perform. Despite his immense popularity, due to the structures of American cultural life, it is very unlikely that the reader of this essay would recognize his name: Jimmy Sturr. His band plays polka music, which, until recently enjoyed its own Grammy category (doubtless reflecting significant sales). Polka has now been folded in to ethnic music (reflecting a decline), so he must compete with African and Indian musicians.
Lamentable or inevitable, the fact is that the number of polka fans who read (literary) poetry is as small as that of litterateurs who listen (and dance) to music like Sturr’s. The cultural divide is not imaginary. When I was a young lad, newly interested in classical music, and asked if I might resume piano lessons, my Czech Uncle Bill told me a bit confidentially, as though he were letting me know my fly was open, that “Girls study piano, Bill. If you really want to play music, it would be just fine if you took up accordion.” It was, of course, of polkas that he was thinking.
A consumer of a broad variety of music from Tibetan to African pop, I eventually (through Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family) gained some appreciation for country music, but polkas continued to strike me as mindless and shallow in spite of polka-based works by Smetana, Strauss, and even Stravinsky.
Unlike such genres as blues and country music, which engage issues like alcohol with gravity as well as relish, to the polka dancer the barrel of beer is an unambiguous blessing: “Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun.” Of this world the same song testifies, “Only happy faces bloom there/ And there's never any room there/ For a worry or a gloom there.” At Sturr’s concert, his aides redefined red plastic beer cups as fetish objects, distributing them before singing a paean to “my red Solo cup.”
In spite of the alcohol, in this happy land, there is no infidelity. Love songs do exist, but unlike most of the world’s poetry on the theme, love in Polkaland is uncomplicated and enthusiastic as everything else. Radio shows featuring the genre are always sending out fortieth and fiftieth anniversary greetings to listeners to whom the very notion of an affair would be unmentionable (though not in every case undoable). Likewise, polka fans tend to be religious and patriotic to a fault.
All received ideas are not only welcome; they are celebrated with manic intensity. Doubtless reassuring to an audience uneasy with modern uncertainties, the constant fast tempos allow no second thoughts. The wall of sound from the horn section is insistent, uncompromising. Indeed, the dancers at Sturr’s appearance appeared without delay, charmed by that powerful sound. They began hop-stepping rapidly about the floor, doing the half-step from which some would trace the name of the dance. Virtually all of retirement age, they skipped about the floor and were always ready to go again when the next number started up. It was as though I stood in the middle of the abandon of a festive Breughel scene. Where else could the energy and devotion to each other of these happy couples find expression?
These polka people need not be Polish or Czech. Sturr sings in no Slavic tongue, and he is liable to stray from polka proper into country and popular material that shares its infectious, almost mindless beat and ideological conservatism. One recognized genre of American polka music is in fact the Native American Papago-Pima “chicken scratch” music. The urban factory worker and the small farmer may share with the native American a sense that the world is passing them by, that they have little control over the terms of their daily life, and that, as a result, the best strategy is to make one’s way doggedly through the week determined to have a good time on Saturday night. Once the band strikes up a tune, the greatest social problem is who stole the kischka.
Sturr works the crowd infecting others with his wild exuberance. Yet he is a celebrity with whom the audience feels a connection. He steps among them, shaking hands and greeting people. He mentions many individuals known to the local crowd. Small and slim, with styled hair, he calls for “hallelujahs” from his people as though he were at a Pentecostal meeting (and, indeed, the last half century has seen a good many polka masses).
They certainly have no need of the approbation of the aging half-Czech critic who cannot do the dance, but only stands by the sidelines, albeit with one foot tapping.