This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 4, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Since two of my newspaper columns, one about accordion music and polka bands and the other one mentioning New Braunfels accordionist, Isaak Klaus, I have received overwhelmingly positive responses, including phone calls, from my readers. I guess it’s pretty obvious how much I love German and Czech polka music, and especially the accordion. Apparently, there are many folks in Wharton County and throughout the rest of Texas who share my love of such music. Seeing the hauntingly magnificent video of young Isaak Klaus playing the accordion while standing in a snow-covered New Braunfels field continues to replay itself in my mind.
Ethnic polka music, almost always with the accordion, entered my life as a child growing up in Lee County, Texas, when my family attended church picnics regularly in Serbin, Fedor, Lincoln, Loebau, Dime Box, and other Lee County towns. I came to love the Czech polka bands at Catholic picnics and the German and German-Wendish polka music at Lutheran picnics. In those days, many of the Lutheran churches had small parochial schools for which money was raised by having “school picnics,” where barbecue and polka music were served up together.
Some of the polka bands played at dances, too, but many of them played only for weddings, picnics, family gatherings, etc., and were really not commercial entities. Most of these groups were made up of folks who learned to play their instruments from parents and grandparents or were self-taught, and they did it for the love of the ethnic music of their ancestors. Today’s trend to shed your ethnic customs, traditions, music, etc., is very puzzling to me, because our ethnicities are like our fingerprints, — you can’t scrape them off, and why would you want to?
When I first moved to Wharton County in 1966, I noticed that the local church picnics were similar to those I grew up with, and included ethnic polka music, — one of the reasons I came to love Wharton County. But, first living in the town of Wharton, I noticed something else that I don’t remember experiencing in my home county, — not that it didn’t exist, but, as a child, I wasn’t involved in such adult activities. Small groups of both amateur and professional musicians would play music at area nursing homes, regularly and for special times like Christmas.
When my father-in-law and my wife’s aunt were residents in a nursing home in Wharton, I remember how delighted we all were when a small group of musicians came to the facility and played for the residents and for us visitors. The leader of the group was Rudy Sulak, who played accordion, his wife Dorothy on drums, my dear friend Ozzie Ullmann on trumpet, and one or two others whom I am sorry to say I don’t remember much about. Because of the ethnicity of many residents, they played German and Czech polka music, as well as sing-along favorites. The smiles and laughter of the nursing home residents was one of the most heart-warming experiences of my life.
There were other wonderful musicians who entertained at Wharton nursing homes, too, but these are the ones I personally remember. Rudy Sulak was not a musician by profession; he was a watchmaker for 40 years and a butcher for 15 years. Nor was his wife. Nor was Ozzie Ullmann, who was an insurance agent by profession. I don’t know about the others in the band specifically, but at least one was a teacher. This little group played at nursing homes out of their love of music and out of their compassion and tender love for the elderly. Rudy and Dorothy also played at reunions and church picnics, with some of the other musicians. Rudy taught himself on his father’s accordion, coming to love the instrument and the ancestral music he learned to play on it. A friend taught him how to tune the accordion, and over the years, he has refurbished many accordions which he bought for very low prices, a skill made easy by his experience as a watchmaker. Thank you, Rudy, and those others like you!
I share these stories for the love of ancestral music.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.