Rockford’s annual On the Waterfront festival is just the sort of thing I should like—in theory, at least. Held every Labor Day weekend since 1985, On the Waterfront is the largest community event in Rockford and features both local and national musical acts. The entire downtown is closed to all but foot traffic for three days, and local non-profits provide most of the food and drinks, making a tidy sum in the process. In Illinois’ largest small town, such expressions of community solidarity are, sadly, rare.
Still, in nine years in Rockford, we had never attended On the Waterfront, partly because the Richert family reunion is held in Southern Indiana on the Sunday before Labor Day, but mostly because we had always heard—even from people who enjoy it—that the festival is more than a little overwhelming, and certainly not a place for children.
Yet here we are, at 4:30 in the afternoon on the Friday before Labor Day, waiting at the gate closest to the Ethnic Stage, sponsored by—of all organizations—my favorite local Gannett paper. As we enter, the children can barely contain their excitement. “Where do you want to sit?” I ask. “In the front row!” they respond with one voice, and we make our way past the tables and the white plastic lawn chairs to within a few feet of the stage.
Minutes later, they appear in all their glory—three grown men in ruffled shirts, bow ties, dark pants, horned-rim glasses, white bowling shoes, and sequined vests. Bubbles rise from the front of the stage, and then, from a frenetic burst of electric guitar and a clash of cymbals emerge the familiar strains of the “Pennsylvania Polka,” but with very different words:
Ladies and gentleman
the show has begun.
We are the Polkaholics.
We’re here to polka
It’s second to none.
We are the Polkaholics.
Half-Polish, half-German, and all Midwestern, I had grown up with polka on the fringes of my life, but in recent years, my exposure had been limited to “The Chicken Dance” at weddings. About a year ago, however, I’d been seized by one of my momentary obsessions and started Googling around for polka on the internet, stumbling first across a round-the-clock internet polka station, 247PolkaHeaven.com. Polka, however, is meant to be experienced live, and typing polka and Chicago into Google brought me to the website of the Polkaholics (Polkaholics.Chicagogigs.com). A few minutes later, I was listening to mp3’s of their songs, and I was hooked. I tried to get Molly Fleming to book them at the Irish Rose, but she decided she couldn’t afford them. She did, however, bring them to the attention of Craig Nagus, who was scheduling the Ethnic Stage, and so here we are.
Billing themselves “a Chicago band that plays a high-speed collision of polka and rock ’n’ roll,” the Polkaholics emerged not from the traditional Chicago polka scene but from the punk rock of the late 70’s and early-to-mid 80’s. Guitarist and lead singer Don Hedeker founded the band (along with bassist George Kraynak and drummer Mike Werner—that’s right, no accordion) in 1997 “just as an experiment to see if we could play polka songs in a rock kind of format.” A first generation German-American, Don admits that he had never really liked German-style polka. “We definitely started with—I don’t know if a joke is right—but kind of on a lark.” He and his wife shopped at thrift stores, and when he ran out of closet space, he began looking at records. Living in Chicago, many of the records in the bins were polka albums.
Today, Don has over 500 polka records in every style, European and American. When he started the band, however, he knew only one polka song: “The Beer Barrel Polka.” His main desire was not so much to play polkas but to bring some fun back to rock music, a point echoed by bassist James Wallace, who joined the band in June 2001: “You go to a rock show now and people just kind of stand there. I think at a show people should be talking with each other and drinking with each other and making new friends.”
The polka culture, however, is quite different. While the Polish honky-tonks that used to line the Polish Broadway in Chicago (the stretch of Division Street between Ashland and Western) have largely disappeared, polka is still, Don believes, “the biggest underground kind of music in the United States.” And, he argues, it’s distinctly American: “I used to view it as European music. But there’s not very many people in Europe putting out polka records over the past 50 years. But there are a lot of people in the United States putting out polka records.” Every major region in the United States has its own style of polka, partly conditioned by the ethnic groups that settled there, partly by the other music styles of each region.
In the Chicago area, of course, Polish polka predominates, and so it’s no surprise that the traditional part of the Polkaholics’ repertoire is primarily Polish. Still, they play a lot of Oktoberfests in the Chicago area, dressed in lederhosen. “We do not want to get put into any one ethnic group,” Don says. “I’m the only one with any kind of ethnic background. James and Jackson [Wilson, the current drummer, who joined the band in January 2001] are rather WASPy sounding names.”
Here at On the Waterfront, there’s a pretty decent mix of ethnic groups, but after some initial skepticism (probably a result of the clothes), everyone seems to enjoy the show. Early on, Don jumps off the stage and moves through the crowd. My children are a little shell-shocked but loving it. A week before, we had returned from our circle tour of Lake Michigan, during which I’d unwisely told the kids I would play “Old Style Polka” every time they spotted an Old Style Beer sign on a restaurant or tavern. There are, as you can imagine, a lot of establishments serving Old Style in Wisconsin and the U.P. I don’t think we drove more than five minutes without playing the song, which lasts three minutes and 20 seconds. (At least, it seemed that way.)
“Old Style” may be the Polkaholics’ most-famous song—it’s been played without permission at Chicago Cubs games—but it’s certainly not their only song about beer or drinking or parties or bars. From covers of polka classics such as “In Heaven There Is No Beer” to their own compositions, such as Jolly James’ “We Drink ’Cause We Must Polka” and Dandy Don’s “Ten Drinks to the Floor,” this is after-hours music for the working man—some of it, like “Drinking With My Boss,” triumphally so:
Sitting at my desk
the one I have at work.
And I start to think
my boss, he is a big jerk
Just when I started to think
that he was acting queer
That’s when he comes on over
and asks me if I want a beer.
Raise a glass to the working man
a toast to the ladies, too.
You work real hard and
they bust your chops.
Hey, this beer is for you.
Your boss is a jerk
He’s just plain mean
He acts like a rotten skunk
But he says he’s buying so—
Let’s get drunk!
There’s a certain country feel to some of these songs, both in the lyrics and in the music, accentuated by the use of guitar and bass. Indeed, Don compares the band’s work in the polka world to that of the traditionalist musicians who occasionally rebel against the slick, pop-style packaging of Nashville and try to bring country back to its roots. While some may object that you can’t play traditional polka without an accordion (or at least a concertina), Don replies that it all depends on what the meaning of traditional is. As he points out, Li’l Wally Jagiello, “The World’s Polka King” who came out of retirement in Miami to return to his roots on the Polish Broadway and play a concert with the Polkaholics in September 1999, forbade his musicians from using sheet music during performances. That meant three things: They needed to know the music by heart; they could better improvise; and, most importantly, their eyes were where they belonged—on their audience, making connections with the people.
That’s the sense in which the Polkaholics are, in some ways, more traditional than a “traditional” polka band. Asked what they are really up to, James simply replies, “Bringing polka to the people.” Their hope, he says, is that the audience “might look at polka music in a different light, go out and get interested in more traditional polka music,” just as he did. “Before I joined the Polkaholics, I was like, ‘Polka, that’s corny, that’s goofy.’ Then I saw the Polkaholics, was amazed by them, became a convert, started looking for records, going to shows.”
“Sometimes for a tradition to survive,” Don argues, “the idea of a tradition can remain the same, but it has to be made fresh in some way. Many of the current polka bands are not traditional in that sense of being true to the tradition.”
Here at On the Waterfront, I’m probably the only one musing on tradition. Much of the crowd is up on its feet now, rocking to an extended version of “The Chicken Dance,” while James hops around, weaving in and out of the dancers. Some of the better dancers are on stage with Don and Jackson, while the rest of us are clapping to the beat.
Their 75-minute slot is up, but the Polkaholics plow ahead into their final song, the title track from their latest album, Polka Can’t Die, whose refrain is a passionate statement of the Polkaholics’ purpose:
The polka it can’t die
The polka it can’t die
It’s been around so long
You have to sympathize
The polka it can’t die
The polka it can’t die
Please don’t ever forget it
If it’s gone we’ll soon regret it
Help us try to resurrect it
Please don’t let the polka die.
To a standing ovation, they leave the stage as the next act, a zydeco band, starts to set up. I want to stick around, but the children decide it’s time to leave: The zydeco band has an accordion.