Sunday, December 02, 2012

A life in 2/4 time

The things you find where you least expect them.

At an estate sale more than a year ago, I found a cache of old home transcription discs -- 78 RPM homemade records people used as people later would use tape recorders, and now digital recorders.

Among a family's discarded treasures were 1950-vintage recordings of Polka Time on a radio station in Council Bluffs, Iowa -- KSWI, as it was known then. The live band in the studio was Ed Svoboda and the Red Raven Orchestra, destined to become legendary, more or less, in the American polka universe.

It was an era when this neck of the woods -- or Plains, as the case may be -- had a case of polka-itis, full as it was then of folks born in the Old Country and their first-generation American offspring. Around these parts, Ed Svoboda's band was a big deal.

Founded by Svoboda in 1942, the Red Raven Orchestra would remain oom-pa-pa royalty for seven decades, and it's still a going concern today. Today, though, the band carries on without its founder.

Ed Svoboda died last week at age 99. Here's a bit of his obituary in the Omaha World-Herald:
“I’ve been amongst people all my life and if you put me in a corner someplace, you may just as well carry me out now.”

That’s what musician Edward E. Svoboda told the American Rag newspa­per in 2007, the year he retired from his day job. “He had a strong work ethic,” said his son. Musician Svoboda, 99, whose funeral will be Satur­day, formed the Red Raven Orchestra in 1942. He last played publicly with the orchestra in July, at the Corrigan Senior Center.

Svoboda died Sunday at Compassionate Memory Care in Omaha after a brief illness, said son Edward “Sonny” Svo­boda of Omaha.

The elder Svoboda led the orchestra for 70 years, eventu­ally ceding the reins to his son. Svoboda was inducted into the Sokol Polka Hall of Fame in 1974.

“He grew up in a family of 10, and his dad was very strict,” said Sonny Svoboda.

Edward E. Svoboda, the fam­ily’s youngest child, ended his formal education after the third grade at Assumption School in Omaha.


In the 1930s he bought a top­of- the-line button accordion, paying off the $300 instrument a little a time at Hospe’s Music. He began playing for pay in 1937 in South Omaha.

He led the orchestra with the accordion until a machine accident damaged his fingers enough that he had to switch to drums.

Red Raven Orchestra played at Bluffs Run Casino, Sokol Hall and annually at the Czech Festival in Wilber, Neb. The musicians were popular at pub­lic and private dances through­out the region. The group also played the polka circuit in Ne­braska, Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota.

“I feel good when I see peo­ple smiling and dancing. I know they’re enjoying themselves,” Svoboda told New Horizons newspaper in 2011. “It’s been a nice journey. We’ve met a lot of nice people.”
ISN'T THAT a fine epitaph for anyone? Especially so for a musician.

Svoboda did just that for 70 years -- 70 years! And the Rolling Stones think they're hot stuff for being in the game a mere half-century.

Somehow, I doubt Keith Richards is going to hold out another two decades.

Some 62 years ago, someone in the Campagna family of south Omaha though to capture a slice of time -- and Ed Svoboda in his prime -- on a handful of fragile transcription discs, off the radio on a little station across the Missouri River. Back when polka was king, and Ed Svoboda was, too.

I wonder whether they knew they were leaving a gift to the future and preserving a slice of time from a world that no longer is.

Somewhere, it will be south O in 1950 forever and ever. Amen.

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