Faces of Polka

The Wisconsinites behind the oompah tradition

Czech Polka

1908 (Source: Народная музыка [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes the polka gets a bad rap.

“Polka went through a time when it was kind of … the made fun of music, like in the 1950s and 1960s, ” says Professor Susan Cook, Director of the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There’s a scene in the 1950s dance musical West Side Story when the kids are at a dance in the gym. They’re dancing to jazz. When the song ends, the emcee tries to get all the kids to dance together. He arranges them in two concentric circles, organized by gender, and proclaims, “Boys to my right and girls to my left!” The kids begin to circle to Leonard Bernstein’s “Promenade.”

“It’s sort of this very slow polka,” Cook says. “And of course what do the kids want to do? Mambo!”   

The second the promenade ends, they choose their own partners and bust into a Mambo. “It’s like polka is this embarrassing, American boring thing that none of these kids want to do.”

 Despite this cultural frame, the state of Wisconsin remains a polka stronghold. It surfaces at weddings, festivals, baseball games, and dance halls. “I think it keeps bubbling up in interesting ways,” Cook says. “A number of [students] say they have strong identifications with it.”

For many Wisconsinites, polka is more than just background music at German-themed beer halls or school dances. The oompah beat is part of the soundtrack of their daily lives, their identities, and their traditions.

The Old World Bartender

Sometimes it seems as if Madison, Wis. is a series of fair trade coffee shops populated by people with thick-framed glasses, thumbing through e-books.

Phil Alft behind the bar at Essen Haus 

There’s a spot on East Wilson Street that’s different. It’s a veritable time machine into a world of lederhosen and schnitzel, where bites of Kartoffel are chased with swigs of beer from boot-shaped vessels. Live polka bands pump out steady ‘oompah’ beats, providing an ambient soundtrack. Madison’s Essen Haus restaurant on 514 E. Wilson St. is a step into the Old World, or the Old World with a dose of kitsch, at least.

“Essen Haus kind of frames [polka] in a little bit this faux-Deutsch, Fraulein, Saint-Pauli-girl kind of way,” Cook says. Yet something rings true beneath the Deutsch façade. It's the siren call of the polka band.

“People love it,” says Essen Haus bartender Phil Alft about the polka music. “It goes great with beer.” Though a group of regulars is posted up at the bar, he admits the place attracts a fair number of tourists. 

“Polka is the party music of the old days. It’s like club music,” Alft says, swiftly filling steins with draught beer. Even after working at Essen Haus for three years, Alft says polka hasn’t gotten old.

“I think I’m the only person that likes it,” Alft says. “Everyone else tunes it out. I still sing along.” A Wisconsin Rapids-native, Alft grew up with the polka. His Grandma taught him how to dance when he was three, he says. He sometimes still listens at home with his family on Sundays.

Alft’s affinity for the polka makes sense – the men sitting at the bar say polka is more popular further north and in the Milwaukee area. In Madison, Essen Haus is practically an institution because it’s the only place in the city to regularly host polka bands. 

Located a few blocks from the first train station, East Wilson Street was home to Madison’s first German neighborhood. In the eighties, Vietnam War veteran Bob Worm took interest in reviving the area. Worm loves Germany and visits frequently, according to Alft. He opened the German-themed Essen Haus in 1983.

Thirty-one years later, the place is still packed. Polka musicians play live almost every night of the week. Essen Haus is the nation’s largest seller of German tap beer, according to their website. The restaurant boasts an extensive beer menu of 16 different German beers on tap and over 200 import bottle varieties – all served up by staff dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, a type of traditional Bavarian dress.

“It’s not to say it’s not fun, but it’s a particular way of framing the polka,” Cook says. Even so, it’s all the city has to offer for polka. 

The Folklorist turned Benefactor

Despite Madison’s limited polka scene, Wisconsin is a polka state through and through.

Professor James Leary, PhD (Source: news.wisc.edu)

“It is entrenched in Wisconsin culture,” says UW-Madison Professor James Leary. In fact, polka is so much a part of Wisconsin culture, it is written into law as the official state dance. James Leary is the man who helped it get there.

“It was kind of a corny thing to do, in a way,” says Leary about designating polka as the official state dance. However, when he was approached to sponsor the polka, he couldn’t refuse – but not for the reasons one might expect.

Leary is a Wisconsin man.He grew up in northern Wisconsin, in River Falls. His neighbors were farmers and loggers and often spoke English as a second language. Polka was on the radio and played live in local dance halls.

In college, he realized this mid-western folk culture was largely unstudied. Leary went on to get a PhD in Folklore and American Studies. His work focused on indigenous and immigrant working class people, especially Scandinavian Americans. For seven years, he co-produced Down Home Dairyland, an audio program of Upper Midwestern traditional and ethnic music for Wisconsin Public Radio. He also had a travelling photo-text exhibit called “Polka Music, Polka Culture,” that he brought to festivals and bars.

When a second grade class from Madison’s Lindberg Elementary School wanted to make the polka Wisconsin’s state dance, Leary was a natural choice for a sponsor. He felt compelled to help the cause, but not just because folk culture was his life’s work. He did it mainly to protect Wisconsin from a national dance crusade.

 “There was a strong national effort to make the square dance America’s official dance,” Leary says. Through the National Folk Dance Campaign, square dance enthusiasts attempted to make the square dance America’s official dance, state by state.

“I felt it was a sort of vile thing to have the square dance as our state dance,” Leary says. Like other folklorists, Leary opposed the square dance because of its social and cultural exclusionism.

Besides, the ethnic culture and history of Wisconsin is thoroughly intertwined with the polka. When German, Czech and Polish immigrants began settling in Wisconsin in the 1840s, they brought along a new dance craze: the polka. 

An illustration of a couple dancing the polka, ca. 1850. Source: Charles Vernier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Couples dancing was sort of this lurid, sexy thing of people holding each other and gazing into each other’s eyes,” Leary says. The polka was born in nineteenth-century Bohemia and grew up alongside other couple dances, like the waltz. The urbanization and industrialization of Europe caused people to stray from village traditions, like group dances, to couples dances.

In Wisconsin, distinct musical styles developed in different pocket settlements, evolving locally over time. “[Polka] was a common language in some ways,” Leary says. Today, four main styles exist in Wisconsin: the precise German polka, the slurred Polish polka, the slow, full Czech polka, and the twin accordion Slovenian polka.

Intent on preserving this cultural heritage, Leary testified before a joint session of legislature to make a case for the polka in 1993. He made the case it was an inclusionary dance in Wisconsin, and not just because of the European immigrants who settled here.

“It’s been influenced both in the musical and dance style by African American jazz and then the Mexican immigrants coming here brought with them their own variety of the polka,” he says. “In addition, even, there’s kind of a similar two-step style that gets danced after hours at Woodland Indian powwows.”

On April 21, 1994, the bill became a law. The dance craze that captured Wisconsin residents for over 150 years officially became a Wisconsin state symbol. Meanwhile, Wisconsinites continue to unite unofficially over the polka at festivals, Sunday masses, sporting events, weddings, and dance halls. 

The Concertina King

The problem with young love is it doesn’t always last. 

Dan Gruetzmacher and his concertina. (Source: Dan Gruetzmacher)

Dan Gruetzmacher’s relationship with the concertina, an instrument similar to the accordion, began at age seven. But Grueztmacher proved he’s in it for the long haul. He still practices concertina an hour each day, every day. It’s been over 70 years.

“He told me that he married his concertina first and me second,” says Sue Gruetzmacher, Dan’s wife. Quite frankly, he did. Dan and Sue have only been married for 54 years.

They met at a dance at the Colonial Ballroom in Wausau, Wisconsin. She was there with a friend; he was there with his brother. When Dan told Sue he played the concertina, she had no idea what he was talking about.

“We girls would go dancing and we would just dance,” Sue says. “We would never pay attention to what instruments the bands were playing.”

On their next date, Dan brought along a concertina. He introduced her to his squeezebox, which resembled a small button accordion. Just like button accordions, concertinas have button keys on the side rather than a piano keyboard. The main difference between the concertina and the accordion is the concertina plays a different note on both the push and the pull of the instrument and the accordion plays the same note in both directions. The concertina evolved in Europe in the early to mid-nineteenth century, alongside the polka. The compact design of the concertina paired well with the rapidly diffusing polka craze.

Incidentally, the compact design was easier for seven-year-old Dan Gruetzmacher to hold. His neighborhood barber taught him how to play different styles of music on the instrument. With his brothers and sisters, Dan made his first recording in 1941 on a wire recorder. By 1969, Dan started his own band, The Dan Gruetzmacher Orchestra. His band piled into a big 9-seater Ford wagon, emblazoned with painted letters across the front hood that read, ‘The Concertina King’ to travel to performances. As the orchestra’s repertoire of waltz and polka grew over the years, so did the van. The Gruetzmacher’s traded in the wagon for a 15-passenger model. Later, they added a trailer.

"I love the concertina and my life around it, and I hope I have many years yet to perform, tune, repair, and teach."

The group toured extensively.Dan even performed internationally – in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Honduras and Mexico. He once played for Dick Cheney in the Wausau airport. In 1979, Dan was the youngest musician ever inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame.

While Dan mostly performs solo today, going alone did not slow him down. Dan performed a total of 111 times last year alone, between festivals and solo performances. In addition to performing regularly, Dan sells, repairs and customizes concertinas and gives music lessons. Several of his old students also hold Polka Hall of Fame titles.

As for Sue, she never shared Dan’s love for playing concertina. “My hands were too small. My fingers were too stubby to reach the keys,” Sue says. Instead, she owns and manages a concertina sheet music business. Sometimes she travels along with Dan; other times, she stays at home. She says she could never tell Dan to stop playing.

“That’s his love,” Sue says. “I would never take that away from him.”

The Parish Accompanist

In rare cases, polka divides the people of Wisconsin. The tradition of the polka mass is one of those cases.

Mike Schneider on the accordion. (Source: Madonna Courtney via mikeschneiderband.com)

“There’s different opinions about whether it belongs in your church or not,” Cook says. A polka mass is typically a Catholic mass that features polka music in place of traditional songs. The polka mass phenomenon is a Minnesota-Wisconsin tradition, according to Cook.

“To say it's a ‘normal worship service’ is probably a bit of an understatement,” says musician Mike Schneider. “I've heard comments from people who've attended Polka Masses that they can't stop their feet from tapping, or that they want to dance down the Communion line.” 

Schneider and his award-winning band, The Mike Schneider Band, provide the accompaniment for the polka mass at St. Aloysius Church in West Allis, Wis., just outside of Milwaukee. They also have gigs at restaurants, weddings, birthday parties, and festivals.  The band won 17 awards since they starting playing together in 1996. A year later, at age 18, Schneider was inducted into the Wisconsin Polka Hall of fame.  He played the accordion since age six, after he heard live polka music at a parish festival.

“[Polka mass] certainly is a fun way to celebrate Mass without, in my opinion, losing any of the reverence and respect the Service requires,” Schneider says. Unfortunately not everyone agrees. In the Diocese of Madison, polka masses are not forbidden, but churches were asked not to introduce new polka masses, according to Brent King, the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Madison.

Ironically, the bishop of the Minnesota diocese where the polka mass originated put an official ban on them. “The Bishop of a diocese might take the position that polka music is inherently irreverent and cannot be anything but associated with beer, for instance, and therefore has no place at Mass,” Schneider says.

Still, many churches in Wisconsin do a polka mass. “To me it's a very sensitive issue, as I take the Polka Masses I do very seriously. I think if you take the proper approach with it, there's no reason it can't have a place at a church once a year,” Schneider says.

 Polka masses often take place before Lent or after Easter and into the summer, according to Cook. Primarily Catholics of Eastern European, German, or Polish descent worship at polka masses, she says. 

“It’s a kind of way of reclaiming polka and a Catholic heritage,” Cook says.

Schneider and his band worked with an archdiocesan priest to produce what their website calls “the only theologically correct mass in the Midwest.” He’s already lined up to play another polka mass at St. Aloysius Church this summer.

“It's a lot of fun, and there's nothing I'd rather be doing for a living than playing polka music.”

Dancing into Tomorrow

Polka – the dance, the music, and the culture – is an inextricable part of Wisconsin’s collective past.

“It’s a way of celebrating our rural and urban heritage,” Cook says. For people like Mike Schneider, polka goes hand in hand with religion. For Dan Gruetzmacher, it’s a uniting force and his life’s passion. For Professor James Leary, the polka is part of his academic career. For Phil Alft, its part of his job description. For all these Wisconsinites, polka is something they grew up around and as Alft puts it simply, “It’s fun.”

“Polka still has that sense of being fun which is I think why, in a sense, it’s a Wisconsin dance. It’s that notion that we work hard and we play hard,” Cook says.

While there’s a sense the polka is declining, according to Leary, at least in comparison to its 19th century prime, there’s no denying it still exists and is relevant in Wisconsin. “We will have to shape [polka],” Cook says. “We will have to figure out where it goes.” 

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