- Associated Press - Saturday, June 4, 2016

WASHINGTON, Pa. (AP) - Turn back the clock to June 2009. Just three weeks before Michael Jackson died, it looked like the death knell was sounding for polka.

The Recording Academy, which hands out the Grammy Awards every year, decided to eliminate the Best Polka Album category. In a statement, the Academy said it was showing polka the door “to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape.”

In other words, polka was something that had become faintly musty, like Dixieland jazz or doo-wop, something your granddad was tapping his wingtips to when he was courting your grandmother.

Granted, the Best Polka Album category had become somewhat, shall we say, predictable, considering that it was won year after year after year by Jimmy Sturr, who ranks as a superstar in the polka world and took home trophies for such offerings as “Gone Polka,” ”Polka! All Night Long” and “Shake, Rattle and Polka!” But polka didn’t die when it was no longer allowed across the Grammys’ velvet ropeline. If you turn to the AM radio dial and drive around this region on weekends, or venture through the upper reaches of Ohio around Cleveland or Toledo, the genre endures, with polka continuing to crackle over the airwaves. It also continues to be heard at an assortment of clubs, legion halls and restaurants.

“It’s happy music,” said Joe Grkman, a polka musician who lives in Peters Township and fronts the band Grkmania, which has played at venues around the Pittsburgh region for decades. “It’s the poor man’s Prozac.”

In Western Pennsylvania, polka gained a foothold because it was brought to the region by immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe who came to work in mines and mills. The same goes for places like Chicago and Milwaukee, though the industries were different.

When Grkman started playing polka music in 1967, when he was 13, polka musicians could rely on a circuit of ethnic watering holes throughout the region that catered to blue-collar workers looking for beer and bouyant music. While those clubs have largely vanished, they have been replaced by festivals that book polka acts, and Grkman also plies his trade at eateries in the region, with polka adding a lively flavor to some Saturday night meals.

“The old clubs are gone, but the music is still out there,” Grkman said.

Polka also developed a following in other locales where immigrants from Eastern Europe settled, such as New York and the western part of Massachusetts when it was rich with industry. Tejano music, a variation of polka music, has a following in Texas.

Neither the International Polka Association in Chicago, nor the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland had information on how many polka albums are sold in the United States every year, but it’s safe to assume that the number doesn’t match the weekly sales of blockbuster albums from Adele or Taylor Swift. Most polka artists nowadays record and release albums independently, so determining how many units the whole genre sells is just about impossible to gauge, according to Dan Mateja, a director at the International Polka Association.

Nevertheless, polka is present on streaming services like Spotify, and on download sites like iTunes. Albums by Sturr have migrated to those services, along with Brave Combo, which has garnered attention for giving the polka treatment to pop hits. Other noteworthy contemporary polka acts include Polkacide, a San Francisco band that serves up what has been characterized as “punk polka,” and Polka Floyd, an outfit based in Toledo that paints the Pink Floyd catalog with a polka brush.

Polka is a mainstay of the programming on WKHB, the radio station based in North Versailles that can be found at 620 on the AM dial and 94.1 on the FM dial. It makes up a solid block of programming on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with shows hosted by the likes of Frank Powaski, a veteran spinner of polka music on Pittsburgh radio, and Jack Tady, who leads a polka band that plays in the Pittsburgh region.

Because of its happy-go-lucky nature, polka is good weekend music, according to Eric O’Brien, a producer at WKHB. While he didn’t have specific listenership numbers, he said feedback they get on the polka programs is positive.

“The listeners love it,” he said. “It’s a very faithful bunch. We’re in the Mon Valley, and that tends to be a strong area for it.” While polka has not gone the way of the woolly mammoth or the dodo, Mateja concedes that it is having a hard time acquiring young followers. Some do turn up at polka festivals, he said, but the most dedicated polka aficionados tend to be older listeners with parents who might have had polka records in heavy rotation on home turntables.

One exception is Jason Cadez, a 33-year-old who books polka bands at the SNPJ lodge in Strabane and plays polka music while working as a systems specialist for the Port Authority of Allegheny County. The lodge hosted an appearance last weekend from a Cleveland polka band, Ron Likovic and Friends, and on Monday nights, the lodge hosts the International Button Box polka group.

Booking polka bands is “important to our heritage since we’re a Slovenian club,” Cadez explained. “We get our old-timers who come down, and we have a younger crowd that comes down, too.”

Last Monday, many couples got up and danced when International Button Box ran through their repertoire, including a polka-fied version of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

Polka “lets people get out there and shake it up,” said Norm Cimino, the director of International Button Box. “They have a good time and forget about their aches and pains.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1Wv1oKa

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, https://www.observer-reporter.com


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