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A Passion for Polka

Thursday 02 August 2018 at 1:09 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 19, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Although I’ve never been to an Oktoberfest, either in Texas or in Germany, I have enjoyed many, many fundraisers in Lee County, Texas, that were very much like Oktoberfests, with barbecue sausage, beer, and polka bands the prime attractions. They remind me of the East Bernard Kolache Festival, and they were given by community organizations, ethnic groups (like Wends, German, and Czechs), and even by some Lutheran churches.

            In the early days, the Germans and the Wends had their oompah brass bands and the Czechs their accordion players, always ready to play for festivals and “picnics”. I grew up hearing so much of this wonderful polka music that I think it’s in my DNA (my youngest daughter even booked the Shiner Hobo Band for her wedding which we held in a beer hall, -- must be in her DNA, too?). Even to this very day, it’s my favorite music.

            Polka music originated in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the 1800’s. So, having originated as a Czech dance, it is not surprising that it’s a popular form of music with most, if not all, Slavic peoples, including Poles, Slovenes, Wends, Russians, etc. The polka migrated to Nordic countries soon after its origin and became quite popular in Norway, Denmark, Finland, etc. It became enormously popular in Germany, too. It has such a delightful, whimsical sound and rhythm that are liked and played almost everywhere in the Western world, including Mexico (where it is called “Norteno”).

            Some people call it “beer-drinking music,” and it’s often played in beer halls and dance halls in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, and many other States in the United States, not to mention its popularity in Europe. During Oktoberfests in Germany, beer and polka music are overflowing everywhere. Perhaps the strangest thing about this, then, is the fact that while polka music is in my DNA, beer is not, -- I don’t like the taste of it, and I don’t drink it! Nevertheless, some of the most captivating of the polkas are the ones about beer-drinking. Polka bands often provided music for the beer gardens, so beer and polka music have long been associated with each other.

            As I pointed out, Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) play and dance to this Norteno music. I love Mexican polkas and sometimes can’t tell them apart from the Slavic/German ones. One of the most delightful polkas written on the beer-drinking theme was composed by John Dujka, and it’s called, “Pivo and Kolaches, Cerveza and Tamales,” – it appropriately brings the two cultures together. I also enjoy hearing the Dujka Brothers sing “Pivo, Pivo, Cerveny.” For the few of you who don’t know this, “pivo” is the Czech word for “beer,” and “cerveza” is Spanish for “beer.”

            One of the popular beer-drinking songs at the Oktoberfests is “Ein Prosit” or “I Salute You” ( in the middle of which the lyrics tell the dancers to “take a big drink”). Another is “Haende Zum Himmel” or “Hands to Heaven,” with the lyrics telling the audience to “put your beer down and raise your hand and clap along.” Of course, the old favorites are still “Beer Barrel Polka,” “In Heaven There Is No Beer,” and “Bier, Hier, Bier Hier” or “Beer, here, Beer, Here.” By the way, “Beer Barrel Polka” was written by a Czech, not a German, even though the Germans like to claim it as their own.

            It seems to me that there’s something about polka music, whether Slavic, German, or Mexican, that enlivens and invigorates a person (it’s the music, not the beer). I play it in my studio while I am writing stories and poems, and it seems to give me that extra lift I need, especially during my mid-afternoon wilt-down. In fact, when I danced with my daughter at her wedding, the Shiner Hobo Band played their hearts out, and I was able to put my walking cane down, the music causing my bad knee to feel like it had been sprayed with WD40!

 -0-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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