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folk roots polka in the upper midwest instruments polka in iowa today
  polka and community festivals    
  lesson plans resources traditional artists  


Image of  Central Europe in 1900
Folk Roots
Rooted in Central European folk tradition, the polka came into its own during the 1840s, superseding the staid minuets and quadrilles popular among the elite. As social and economic revolution spread across Europe during this time, so did this lively couple's dance, which became the rage from Parisian salons to village squares and taverns. During the mid to late19th and early 20th centuries, the polka traveled to the United States with the German and Slavic speaking peoples who fled their homelands for better social and economic conditions.

Image of Upper Midwest
Polka music moved along with its musicians, from Central Europe to immigration entry points in the Northeast or in Texas and Louisiana, and from there to the Midwest. While each ethnic group had its own style of polka, it was the variety of traditions that influenced the evolution of the genre over time and space. Conjunto bands from south Texas and northern Mexico, Danish groups from western Iowa, Cajuns in Louisiana, and French Canadians, as well as Germans, Slavs, Czechs, and Poles all played and danced the polka as well as a variety of related dance tunes for schottisches, waltzes, two-steps, and more. By the end of the 19th century, however, recorded music was readily available. This media revolution combined with the advent of radio in the 1920s created a widespread audience for polka and other forms of old time music, further changing their character.    TOP

Image of Duncan Band, c1920Polka in the Upper Midwest
The upper Midwest, particularly northern Illinois, the eastern Dakotas, southern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, became the heart of polka country. Influenced by Czech (Bohemian) traditions as well asthose of Scandinavians, Anglo-Celts, and Poles, polka bands played for weddings, house parties, and local celebrations. From the 1920s through the 1950s, the heyday for this music, the Duncan Band, Hrubes Corn Huskers, Malek's Accordion Image of Malek's Accordion Band, c1938Band, Ray's Accordion Band, and others toured Iowa. The popularity of brass bands combined with the polka craze to produce a new and characteristically American form. Although many ethnic groups played and danced the polka, it was the "Deutsch" (German) bands of the Midwest that truly defined an emerging tradition that became known as the "Dutchman" style.

Image of Ray's Accordion Band, c1950The exuberant style of vocalist and concertina player "Whoopee John" Wilfahrt of New Ulm, MN introduced the polka to the regional and then the national scene in early twentieth century. Whoopee John, whose name derived from his whoops and hollers (Ach Da!), started out playing in a Image of Polka Dance Postertrio (concertina, trumpet, and clarinet) for weddings and house parties. Within a few years, he had a 10-piece band, which played in regional dance halls nearly every night of the year. By the mid-1920s, he could also be heard on radio and on 78 rpm recordings. Whoopee John defined the concertina as the solo instrument for Dutchman bands. At the same time, Harold Loeffelmacher, also of New Ulm, transformed the tuba, the rhythmic mainstay of brass bands, into a rowdy, improvisational sound.    TOP

Image of AccordionThe Instruments
Typically, polka bands include a tuba, drums, and a piano accordion or concertina. Violins, the mainstay of orchestras and earlier bands, dropped out of the mix with the advent of newer and more sophisticated accordions. At the same time, button accordions, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were edged out by the more versatile concertina, which, with brass instruments, formed the core of various types of polka bands. By the end of the 1920s, technical improvements made it possible for a concertina or accordion to play melody, a chordal accompaniment, and a bass line all at once. Trumpets, saxophones, and clarinets created a big band sound, popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Image of Tuba

During the 1970s, the ethnic music revival created a renaissance for the button accordion. Button accordions along with the concertina are also popular instruments in the polka playing conjunto and norteño bands of northern Mexico and south Texas-other areas where German and Slavic-speaking peoples immigrated. Such sounds can also be heard today in Latino communities from Columbus Junction to Storm Lake.   TOP

Polka in Iowa Today
A variety of ethnic and regional styles affect the repertoire of traditional bands in Iowa, which, like other Midwest polka bands, toured the region from the 1920s-50s. Today, Scandinavian bands like the Foot-Notes of Decorah and Dave Franklin's Party Time Band play polkas as well as laendlers, hombos,and two-steps. Country two-steps are popular with eastern Iowa old time bands like Harvest Home and polka bands such as Becky and the Ivanhoe Dutchmen.

Image of Czech Plus dancersIowa polka music includes a mix of big band and Dutchmen style groups. A strong rhythm, melodic emphasis, and clearround notes characterize the Dutchman style. Czech bands have a similar affinity for the melodic line, making for a successful blending of those styles. As a further indication of stylistic leaning, band names often feature the term "Dutchmen," the group leader's name, or a place-name. Three of the best known and active of Iowa's polka bands today are Czech Plus, The Party Time Band with Dave Franklin, and Becky and the Ivanhoe Dutchmen — all of Cedar Rapids.

Polka and CommunityImage of Malek's Fisherman
All Iowa polka bands have deep ties to family and locale. For example, north central Iowa's Malek’s Fishermen, lead by Bob Malek, has its roots in the original Malek’s Accordion Band, founded in 1932 in Garner by Syl Malek, Bob’s father. Syl first played in the Duncan Band with his father. Ron Hrubes, a member of Malek’s Fishermen, also has a tradition of polka bands in his family. In 1929, his grandfather, Jilli Hrubes, founded Hrubes Cornhuskers, a dance orchestra that included several of Ron’s numerous aunts and uncles. 

Image of Czech Plus of Cedar RapidsFounded by Olga and Les Drahozal, Czech Plus is a 14-member group with a big band sound that plays a variety of venues in Iowa including the Czech Folk Mass in Cedar Rapids. The band, which started in 1978 as a revival of the Drahazol Family Band, was featured at the Sesquicentennial Festival of Iowa Folklife. With the decline in community dances, Czech Plus, now led by Walt F. Drahozol (son of the founders), has become more of a concert band that specializes in teaching traditional Czech dances. The group, which performs in Czech folk costumes, has traveled to the Czech Republic to research their music.

Image of The Party Time Band with Dave FranklinThe Party Time Band with Dave Franklin is a contemporary five-piece Czech polka band, which includes a tenor sax/clarinet, trumpet (Dave), accordion/vocalist, tuba player, fiddle player, and drummer. The band, which used to play the upper Midwest circuit, plays Minnesota-style polkas, schottisches, waltzes, laendlers, and fox trots. The group continues to perform locally several times a year and has been featured at the Amana Maifest, Czech village events, and the 2001 Festival of Iowa Folklife. In 2001, Dave Franklin, who heads up the band, brought his Sunday morning polka show from KCRG in Cedar Rapids to 1450-KMRY.

Image of Becky and the Ivanhoe DutchmenBecky and the Ivanhoe Dutchmen perform Czech and German polkas at dances and festivals across the Midwest. Featured at the Smithsonian's 1996 Festival of American Folklife and at the Sesquicentennial and 2001 Festivals of Iowa Folklife, the group includes from three to five members. Led by Becky Livermore and husband, Terry Ard, the Ivanhoe Dutchmen consists of accordion and vocals (Becky), drums, tuba and one or more horn players. "Barefoot" Becky, who grew up in Mt. Vernon, took her first accordion lesson at age ten Esther Zvacek. When she was 12, she had her first job with Ed Ulch and the Jolly Bohemians from Solon, IA. By the time she was 18, she started her own band with Terry Ard and other area musicians, which tours up and down the I-35 corridor and beyond.   TOP

Image of Polka dance in Carrolton, 2005Polka music and dance are, above all, about community. Polka dance clubs also make sure that their members know where and when bands will be playing. Polka Fests such as one in Harlan, home of the Jolly Homebrewers Polka Band in southwest Iowa; the Humboldt Polka Festival; Oktoberfests throughout the state; and the new Beckster Fest in the Amana Colonies are popular among new and old polka aficionados throughout the state.    TOP

Text by Riki Saltzman with assistance from Rick March, Dave Franklin Kralek, Becky Livermore, Ron Hrubes. Photos by Riki Saltzman, Lori Runkle, and courtesy of Ron Hrubes and Becky and the Ivanhoe Dutchmen. Historic Photos courtesy of Ron Hrubes. Audio provided by Iowa Polka bands.

folk roots polka in the upper midwest instruments polka in iowa today
  lesson plans resources traditional artists  
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