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Voices Spring-Summer, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the On Air column, “Up-Tempo Upstate: Polka in Western New York,” here.
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Volume 27
On AirUp-Tempo Upstate: Polka in Western New York

Scholars have traced the roots of the polka to the 1830s. According to ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, the polka originated when people living in Bohemia, on Poland’s southern border, imitated a dance done by Polish women. In spring 1844 the polka became a craze in Paris and London. European newspapers report that during the height of the polka mania, people danced in the streets of Paris day and night.

By the 1860s, the polka had spread across continents and oceans. It became the national dance of Paraguay and was played by the Papago and Pima Indians in the American Southwest.

The distinctive sound of Polish American polka music developed during the late 1920s as the recording and radio industries began simultaneously to popularize mainstream American music and cater to ethnic tastes. Polish Americans in search of a sound they could call their own—a music that would distinguish them from other ethnic groups—came up with a unique style of polka that drew on both Old World music traditions and popular music trends. As polka musician Mark Kohan puts it:
Polish American polkas are a concoction of Polish folk melodies, American country melodies, a dash of Dixieland and a pinch of jazz—all packaged in a lively 2/4 beat. They are as unique to America Polonia as Blues are to Black America.

The earliest recorded Polish American polka music drew heavily on a Polish “folk” sound. The melodies and lyrics of early Polish American polkas were often adapted from historic Polish folksongs. The popular “Malgorzatka” (Margaret) polka, for example, was sung by students at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow during the sixteenth century.

During the 1920s, Chicago-based orchestra leaders Karol Stoch and Jan Krysiak were well-known for their Górale-style fiddling—a traditional style that originated in the Tatra Mountain region. The fiddle and bass were emphasized over the accordion.

By the mid-1930s Polish American polka music had begun to acquire a more contemporary sound, later called “Eastern” style. Influenced by the tremendous popularity of the era’s big bands, polka groups began to play tighter and faster. Emphasis on fiddle and bass gave way to brass sections often fronted by virtuoso clarinetists. Although Eastern style dominated in many cities until the mid-1960s, a new sound began to take shape in Chicago during the 1950s. Band leader Li’l Wally Jagiello is credited with inventing what we now call Chicago-style polka. Featuring the concertina rather than the accordion, Chicago polka is slower and less orchestrated. It is sometimes described by musicians and fans as “polka from the heart.” Some aficionados further subdivide Chicago polkas into “honky” and “dyno” styles.

Polish American polka continues to change and evolve. In response to the perception that the polka had become increasingly influenced by country-and-western music and other mainstream sounds, many contemporary bands are committed to playing material derived from Polish folk music and singing in the Polish language. Even Górale-style fiddling has enjoyed a bit of a comeback. The up-tempo folk tunes and dances that once enabled peasants from the southern region of Poland to tolerate their hard life are now providing Polish Americans with new material—and keeping a traditional music alive.

Joe Macielag and his Pic-a-Polka Orchestra
Polka has been central to Joe Macielag’s life, and his Pic-a-Polka Orchestra has helped preserve—and expand—this traditional music in western New York. Photo: Kate Koperski
Joe Macielag is a second-generation Polish American who, interviewer Joyce Kryszak discovered, is helping carry on the polka tradition. This western New York musician had one of the longest-surviving—and most successful—polka bands, the Pic-a-Polka Orchestra.

Macielag: When the people came here at the turn of the century, they brought this with them. And we here in this country were given these traditional songs that were passed on from family member to family member, from generation to generation. We became preservationists. We clung to what they came with here to the United States.

Kryszak: Preserving Poland’s musical heritage once was a central part of Polish American communities. Polkas were at the core of Polish social, religious, and family life in the early 1900s. Macielag says his boyhood memories are intertwined with the music.

Macielag: People would get together, they’d play cards. I remember sausage being put out on the table and people would eat, and then they’d have a couple beers and drinks, and then they’d start singing. It was a festive time.

Kryszak: And he remembers his early days as a performer. In the 1940s and 1950s talented polka bands were in heavy demand. Macielag says back then, weddings were an all-day gig. The polka band would play in the morning at the bride’s home, on the way to the church, and at the breakfast reception, and then into the night. Macielag says the festivities followed the old Polish village traditions, lasting for days.

Macielag: The word was >popravena, “the next day.” Guests would again assemble and in many cases eat the leftover food from the wedding feast and just get together and regale again. Sort of a continuous party.

Kryszak: Now, Macielag says, that’s all changed. There are adult receptions, sound systems, and children learn to watch TV instead of play the accordion. Polish communities have drifted apart, and with them the demand for polka music. And Macielag says the music is also changing. The many rhythms of Polish folk music have become one. The mazur, the oberek, the kwakowiak, the czardasz: these are all three-quarter time, very similar. Here in the United States, in today’s day and age, the polka bands play these different rhythms identically.

Macielag’s orchestra was at the forefront of what is called the eastern polka band scene: a big-band sound with twelve musicians playing strings, brass, and wind instruments. But just as big bands faded away with economies of scale, so, too, have polka bands had to evolve. The 1960s gave birth to the Chicago style, with fewer players and a more contemporary sound.

Jerry Darlak is a western New York polka musician who started with Chicago greats like Little Wally. Over the years, Darlak says, bands have struggled to keep an audience. They’ve blended in country-and-western tunes and gone to English vocals. Darlak says there’s plenty of work for his band, but he worries about polka’s future.

Darlak: I see bands every year folding up because of lack of work. If you don’t draw the crowds, you’re not going to get rebooked. Consequently, the bands don’t work, and consequently, they go other ways. They go other routes.

Kryszak: But Joe Macielag says polka music will always be here. He says it will just keep changing. It has to—because culture is the mirror of society, and change is part of culture. Macielag believes it’s the soul of polka that will endure.

Macielag: It was part of my life, and you know, it’s something I almost deem sacred, because like I said, music is the soul of people, and this is my soul.


Kate Koperski is curator of folk art at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University. She coordinated the Polka History and Dance Workshop at the Cheektowaga Polish American Arts Festival in August 2000. Interviewer Joyce Kryszak is the arts and cultural affairs producer for WBFO, 88.7 FM, in Buffalo; she lives in nearby Kenmore.


The interview with polka musicians, presented here with a brief history of polka in the New World, is one of a series of radio documentaries sponsored by the New York Folklore Society. Others in the series include “Square Dancing in Western New York State,” “Mark Hamilton: Folk Fiddler and Square Dance Caller,” and City Lore’s 1999 People’s Poetry Awards. The documentaries have been produced by Dale W. Johnson and Lamar Bliss. Packaged as Voices of New York Traditions, they are to public radio stations and classrooms.

One of the best ways to learn about Polish American polka is to hang out with local fans and boosters. Western New York has three active clubs whose talented members are always ready to share their knowledge of polka dance and music. They welcome you to their monthly meetings.

The Polka Variety Club meets at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month at the Moran Post on Center Street in West Seneca.

The Polka Boosters Club meets at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month at the Polish Falcons on Columbia Street in Depew.

The Polka Originals meet at 7 p.m. on the last Thursday of the month at the Fr. Justin Hall on Union Road in Cheektowaga.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Spring-Summer 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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