On a day trip with friends to Schulenberg to visit its painted churches, I stumbled across the Texas Polka Music Museum. Before our visit, I thought I had a slight grasp of the history of polka music. However, immediately upon entering the museum, the my first (silent) reaction was, "I don't know jack about Texas polka music!"
As I took in the museum's collection of early 20th century and even late 19th century photographs of Czech, German and Polish immigrants, posing with violins, tubas, and even the occasional dulcimer, an instrument I hadn't associated with polka music, I decided my next column for CultureMap would be a primer on the history of Texas polka music!
I mentioned that I didn't know jack about polka music, right?
As I took in the museum's collection of photographs of Czech, German and Polish immigrants, posing with violins, tubas, and even the occasional dulcimer, I decided my next column for CultureMap would be a primer on the history of Texas polka music!
Thankfully, there are music lovers, writers, and archivists for just about any musical culture one can imagine. A month or so after visiting Schulenberg, my editor brought to my attention a new book, Jimmy Brosch Remembers Twenty Legendary Texas Czech Polka Bands by Theresa Cernoch Parker.
Parker, in collaboration with fiddle player and saxophonist Jimmy Brosch, who has over 50 years of experience playing polkas and waltzes, as well as country music and rock and roll, arranged and conducted several interviews with living as well as family descendants of Czech polka musicians.
Parker transcribed and edited the material she and Brosch gathered, creating an interweaving story of Texas immigrant life and music. The book includes tons of photographs, most courtesy of the interviewees, that provide a welcome visual component to this survey of music extending back to the late 1860s.
An accompanying CD complies 20 classic polka recordings, one for each band profiled and programmed in the same order as the chapters in the book. Brosch provides a short introduction to each track, as if he were hosting a radio show or DJing polka 78s and 45s on your living room's record player.
"Corn Cockle Polka" performed by Jimmy Brosch & His Happy Country Boys:
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Farming, professors, and the dulcimer
So why did so many Czechs settle in Texas? "I've heard several different things," says Parker. "One is the similarity to Czech land when it came to farming and community. It seemed like Texas was a home away from home." Between the state's climate and the land itself, they could do what they already knew how to do in Europe.
So why did so many Czechs settle in Texas? "I've heard several different things," says Parker. "One is the similarity to Czech land when it came to farming and community. It seemed like Texas was a home away from home."
Several photos in her book show musicians seated before music stands containing sheet music. So going back to before World War II, how did young immigrants learn to play, read, and compose music, other than by ear? Was there any kind of formal music instruction in these communities?
"When doing these interviews, I heard about professors in a couple of the communities, well respected composers and teachers. And they always had the name 'professor,' although I don’t think they had a degree or anything like that. There were some who taught the actual music, and how to write it. Others taught themselves. The majority of the musicians played by ear," Parker says.
Some of these professors probably taught in Europe and continued to do so in the United States.
I was surprised to learn that the dulcimer was a part of some polka bands. You hear it loud and clear on the recording "Houston Polka," a track on the book's accompanying CD, performed by Ray Krenek & Orchestra.
"Houston Polka" performed by Ray Krenek & Orchestra:
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"The dulcimer was a major part of Czech music," says Parker. "You don't hear it much in contemporary polka bands, except for the Kreneck's who still use it because their dad was one of the masters of it. And they've continued to keep that tradition alive."
"It's like aerobics with beer!"
Parker's website, polkabeat.com, is regularly updated with dates for polka dances at venues all over Texas, including Lodge 88, belonging to the Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas, located at 1435 Beall Street in the Heights. Brosch is quoted in the book as saying, and Parker confirms this, that there are more polka bands today than there have ever been.
"One thing we need to do is get more young people out dancing," says Parker. "We have young bands who are playing the traditional music. But it'd be really great to get more young dancers out."
Polka music is music for dancing. But if you've never danced to polka music and show up ready to boogie, will you just pick it up? "Oh, you do," confirms Parker. "That's the thing. Everyone wants you to get out and dance, whether you can or not." Consider that John Rivard, editor of the Texas Polka News, describes polka as "aerobics with beer." That sounds like the best of both worlds!
You can purchase the book and CD, either together or separately, at 20polkabands.com.