GateHouse — If you read the news these days with any regularity at all, if you take even a small time to try to keep with the disorder and disquiet in the world, then you already know these are very, very difficult times. For the polka.
I am saddened to report that the polka is dying, although I am mostly saddened to report it without the benefit of a depressed-sounding tuba honking gloomily in the background, so you’ll just have to imagine that part, and that it’s doing so unloved and under-respected, even by its musical cousins, the waltz, the mazurka and, of course, the modern oom-pah band. And sadly it is doing so as a relic, something believed to be practiced only by older men whose names sound like what would happen if consonants spent a day beating the hell out of each other, names such as Roman Rezac, Ernie Kuchera, Al Grebnic and, of course, Frankie Yankovic.
Because as of this year, the polka category is being dropped by the Grammy Awards. The. Grammy. Awards. Being shot down by the Grammy Awards is like being picked last in dodgeball in gym class, except it’s more like being instructed by the teacher to go lay quietly during dodgeball in gym class with your head on the floor facing the bleachers in a corner of the gym located, if possible, in an entirely different school district.
(Happily, remaining intact in Grammy-land are categories such as the grammar quandary Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, as well as the part where the Vice President of Something or Another lectures you for 15 minutes why downloading is the legal equivalent to individually removing hash browns from the plate of Don Henley, which, believe me, I would do if I had the time, or liked hash browns.)
Needless to say, this has rocked the polka world. The president of the Chicago-based International Polka Association, whose satisfyingly unpronounceable name is Dave Ulczycki, told the Chicago Tribune in a story I am reading with tears in my eyes and pierogi on my fork: “Why are we being left out?” while the leader of Chicago-based polka band FreezeDried, the impossible-to-articulate John Krawisz, added: “We had it, and it got taken away from us.”
But the fact is, the music is just less popular than it used to be, the story quotes one of polka’s most famous names, the intolerably complicated Eddie Blazonczyk of the Versatones, as saying: “There has been a decline in the music over the last 25 years, there’s no denying it.”
Needless to say, this affects me on a deeply personal level, if by “deeply personal” I mean “in a way that is commensurate with my not being the slightest fan of polka music, except when it’s delivered by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, in which case I cannot get enough.” That two of the world’s most famous polka practitioners are unrelated men named Yankovic is a baffling mystery on the order of Stonehenge; I demand an explanation from God on what exactly He was thinking with this galactic polka joke.
However, I am of Slovak descent, and Slovakia — or whatever country Slovakia was when my family came over, that was like three or four names ago — is either home to or very near the Birthplace of the Polka, which is something that turns up like constantly in their travel brochures. The polka originated in the Czech lands in the 19th century and remains common on the area’s music scene, which is both a testament to the area’s rich interest in its own heritage and the reason that most of the notable rock n’ roll festivals do not take place in Slovakia.
So as someone with the region’s culture in my blood, as well as God knows how much cholesterol brought on by the attendant regular consumption of sausage and sauerkraut, this is a BIG HONKING DEAL, and not just because there comes a moment at every family wedding where the “Beer Barrel Polka” gets rolled out and you have to decide whether to watch the carnage unfurl or pretend that’s a really spectacular time to get another beer (answer: that second one).
Luckily, I have a solution: Stop blaming the Grammys. It’s not their fault. The last thing they need is Taylor Swift or John Mayer boorishly massacring some South Side-Polish name on live television. Luckily, this problem is easily solved: Polka community, change all your names immediately to “Li’l” something. The kids will EAT IT UP like sausage and sauerkraut.