NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 4, Nos. 1-4, 1978
UTICA’S POLKA MUSIC TRADITION
Susan G. Davis
Polish dance music—or polka music—has been a vibrant tradition
in Utica, New York for almost eighty years. Brought to the
city by Polish immigrants, the polka is played today at weddings,
community events, and festivals by a variety of local bands. In
Utica, the modem polka is amplified arid eclectic, incorporating
electric instruments and borrowing from other American popular
music forms. Yet it stems from the dance tunes played by the
Polish immigrants, whose ethnic traditions and social institutions
supported it in the urban, American environment.
This paper seeks to describe some of the continuities and
changes in Utica’s polka tradition during this century. Based on
interviews with musicians, radio announcers, and dance hall
owners, its focus is on the polka’s social context, although changes
in the music itself can be glimpsed. (1) The forces underlying change
in the music’s setting can only be suggested at this point. In fact, it
is hoped that the material presented here will encourage other
researchers to explore urban, ethnic music from a variety of perspectives.
The influence of contact with other ethnic groups, the
growth and boundaries of distinctive regional polka styles, and
structural changes in the music are all topics for further investigation.
The origins of the popularity of the polka among twentieth-century
Polish immigrants are unclear. A popular dance, the polka
swept through Europe in the nineteenth century, and is now
found in varying forms in North, Central and South America. (2) In
the reminiscences of Utica informants the music played by the
earliest musicians is referred to as “polkas,” so it seems likely that
the polka travelled to Central New York with the mass of
twentieth-century immigrants, along with other folk music and
In Utica, “polka music” and “Polish music” are roughly synonymous
terms, although polkas are played in other parts of this
country by people of German, Ukranian and various Slavic backgrounds,
as well as Mexican-Americans. Local Polish-American
dance music in Utica includes mazurki, waltzes, oberki, and figure
dances. But because of the heavy concentration of Polish-speaking
people throughout the Mohawk Valley, the polka is identified
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