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New York Folklore Vol. 4. Nos. 1-4, 1978
Utica Project Issue
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Vol. 4, Nos. 1-4, 1978

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 dance forms.

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 with Polish-Americans....

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