Showing posts with label polka. Show all posts
Showing posts with label polka. Show all posts

Monday, May 15, 2017

Pure Nebraska. Straight, no chaser.

In south Louisiana, where I was born and raised, you have Cajun music at Fred's in Mamou on Saturday mornings.

In way-rural eastern Nebraska -- by way of a couple of gravel county roads and a winding dirt one, if you're coming from the nearby metropolis of Brainard  (population 330) -- there's a polka band at the Loma Tavern on Sunday evenings.

You don't stumble across Loma, an unincorporated hilltop village of 30 souls, a handful of houses, a church, an empty hardware store . . . and the Loma Tavern. No, you have to look hard for Loma.

Ever see the 1990s cult movie, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar with Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo? The fictional Snydersville, the middle-of-nowhere burg where they get stranded, is really Loma. And the bar is the Loma Tavern, which used to be the Bar-M Corral.

If you didn't know that before you find your way to the Loma Tavern, you'll know it before you leave.

Anyway,  in this stretch of Nebraska -- Butler County, like many stretches of Nebraska -- you have two kinds of people: Czechs and more Czechs . . . though I did see someone who copped to being German. And on this seasonable spring evening in Little Bohemia, 13-year-old accordionist Addie Hejl (pronounce Heil) was fronting the band for the first time. Then again, she's only been playing for a year.

Sounds like she's been playing for 20 but, no, just a year.

BEING FROM bayou country and having been force-fed a Saturday-night diet of Lawrence Welk during my formative years, I am not unfamiliar with accordions. Or -- thanks again to Mr. Welk -- polka music.

But polka is a Midwestern thing. In eastern Nebraska, polka music on small-town radio stations every Sunday afternoon is akin to Cajun music on small-town Louisiana radio stations every Saturday morning. I think, truth be told, that the DNA of folks on the Czech and German plains of this state has developed a polka mutation, much as my swamp-Gallic DNA has the extra Jolie Blonde chromosome.

The shared trait of the two mutations is the accordion. That and little roadhouses in the middle of nowhere that, on warm and lazy weekend evenings, become the center of the musical universe. Ask Addie Hejl, who still is eight years shy of being able to knock back a legal cold one.

When I was still eight years shy of being able to knock back a legal cold one, I, too, found myself in a few centers of the musical universe in parts of southeastern Louisiana more familiar to bullfrogs and bream than actual people.

A few of them, to tell you the truth, made the Loma Tavern look like the Cocoanut Grove. One in Whitehall -- in deepest, darkest Livingston Parish -- had a drop ceiling . . . with the bottoms of beer cases substituting for tiles.

I REMEMBER sitting at a table drinking my Coca-Cola as my parents and my aunt and uncle sat and drank their beers. It was a quiet Sunday evening -- not much going on except for another 45 dropping on the jukebox.

It was Tony Orlando and Dawn's "Knock Three Times."
Hey girl what ya doin' down there
Dancin' alone every night while I live right above you
I can hear your music playin'
I can feel your body swayin'
One floor below me you don't even know me
I love you . . .

Oh my darling,
Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me
Twice on the pipe if the answer is no
Oh my sweetness,
Means you'll meet me in the hallway
Twice on the pipe means you ain't gonna show
AT THIS, Aunt Ceil looked up at the ceiling.

At the cardboard beer-case bottoms that were the ceiling. At the Budweiser and Schlitz and Dixie and Falstaff and Miller High-Life "ceiling tiles."

"Knock three times on that ceiling, and the damn thing'll fall on you," she deadpanned.

I don't think Coca-Cola blew out of my nose, but it had to have been close. That may have been when I decided that Aunt Ceil was -- by far -- the funniest person in Daddy's German-Dutch-Irish family.

I THOUGHT of these things as I stood in the back of a century-old country bar in Nebraska listening to a teenage accordion wunderkind and a couple of guys a generation and two older playing polka music -- things half a country and a lifetime ago made present here and now by musical ties that bind.

As I looked across the tavern, through the dancing couples and toward the band, I saw something else entirely. I saw Mama and Daddy, alive again and younger than myself, two-stepping across the dance floor to a country band in Killian, La. I saw a time when a little honky-tonk between river and swamp seemed like a big thing to a kid.

To me.

The thought of trying to explain to strangers why a 50-something man was crying in the back of a little bar in Loma, Neb., kept the tears -- and humiliation -- at bay.

Maybe geezers like myself could be forgiven for thinking that, maybe, 13-year-old girls instead should aspire to play in a Runaways tribute band. Call it the Queens of Noise.

It's just that those accordions will get you every time.

Every. Damn. Time.

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.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

At 1560 on your dial, Radio Oom Pa Pa

You got your Germans, and you got your Czechs, and you got your Poles. In the Midwest, that means you got your polka. 

Somewhere on the radio dial every weekend, there are two beats in a measure, with a quarter note getting a beat. Except when there are three -- Oom, his brother Pa, and his other brother Pa.

Back in 1950, there was even more of it in the air . . . and over the airwaves. This part of the country was plumb polka crazy. Polka bands. Polka dances. Polka records. Polka programs.

Some people were so polka crazy, they'd record it off the air onto 10-inch, 78 rpm transcription discs with something called a Recordio. It's a radio . . . it's a record player . . . it's a disc recorder!

That's exactly what the Campagna family was doing one fine spring Sunday in south Omaha -- 11:15 in the morning, to be exact, June 11, 1950. You see, it was
Polka Time, live and direct from the palatial Strand Theater studios of KSWI, the radio voice of the Daily Nonpareil in beautiful Council Bluffs, Iowa!

Polka Time is brought to you by Modern Appliance Co., at 24th and N streets in south Omaha. Your host . . . Frank Urban. And in the studio, live music by Ed Svoboda and the Red Raven Orchestra.

Vítáme Vás!