This article is coauthored by David J. Jackson, Ph.D and Lori Liggett, Ph.D. David J. Jackson is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bowling Green State University. Lori Liggett is Senior Lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University.
Like all genres of music, modern-day polka music needs fans to thrive — and survive — in a music industry environment that perceives it to be a thing of the past and even irrelevant. By studying how people engage with event-based live polka performances, we can make some educated assumptions about different types of polka music enthusiasts and offer some suggestions for what might contribute to reviving polka music as a dynamic and creative music genre.
Today, those who like polka music typically attend Polish-American festivals (as well as those of other ethnicities, like German-American and Czech-American) because they are drawn in large part to the live music that is performed. Employing informed speculation and observational analysis of event attendees’ perceptions of live polka music, there are at least three distinct categories of polka music enthusiasts.
1. Ambience Enthusiasts: For some, polka music is simply the live soundtrack or background music at an ethnic festival. They enjoy the ambient festival sounds, but they do not have much knowledge about the music being performed or strong preferences for which songs are played. They may attempt to interact with the music by polka dancing, and they generally show enjoyment of the overall festivities. But at the end of the day, the music is not the most important aspect of their experience, being neither more nor less significant than the food, beverages, or craftwares.
2. Nostalgia Enthusiasts: Other fans view polka music mostly as nostalgia. The music and dancing evoke memories of their family or community’s participation in past festivals or religious events when polka music was a prevalent part of the overall experience. Perhaps they were taught how to polka dance when they were young, still know how to do so, and so they dance to a few songs when they attend festivals today. Unlike the previous category of polka music enthusiasts, the ambience enthusiasts, for the seekers of nostalgia there are specific songs that are meaningful because they foster memories of their past and relate to them through the warm glow of nostalgic memories. For these fans, the handful of songs with which they are familiar are extremely meaningful to them, but the songs themselves are usually the most well-known polka songs that are now part of a somewhat worn repertoire. When at an event, nostalgia enthusiasts often request the band to play these significant songs — sometimes to the irritation of the musicians who tire of repeatedly playing the same songs over and over. Usually these fans will “tolerate” the original songs the musicians have written, as well as their cover versions of country, rock, or pop tunes, or significant rearrangements of classics, but mostly they desire to hear the traditional polka classics that conjure positive memories.
3. Polka Progressives: While not mighty in numbers, there exists today another category of polka music fan who appreciates polka music as the indispensable soundtrack of Polish-American, German-American, etc. ethnic community events (similar to ambience enthusiasts), and these fans also have specific polka songs they like to listen and dance to as a form of positive memory inducement (similar to nostalgia enthusiasts). But this category of enthusiast perceives polka music to be a viable contemporary music genre that has evolved and transformed over many decades into something that includes not only beloved polka standards but new original compositions from today’s polka musicians. Polka progressives recognize polka music not just as ambient festival sound or simply as a source of nostalgia, but as a dynamic, contemporary music genre with talented, creative musicians who are regularly writing and recording new songs. These fans purchase the new recordings from bands, appreciate the original compositions, and seek out bands to hear their live performances of new songs at community events. All types of polka music enthusiasts are necessary for the genre to survive and thrive. But polka progressives are essential to the continuous evolution of polka music as a creative art form. Polka musicians work hard at their craft and love the old songs because they recognize their significance to the overall experience of the event. But most are also creative, working artists who have something new and interesting to say with their music and lyrics. We should listen.
Polka music means different things to different enthusiasts of the genre, but it will only flourish if individuals develop more engagement with the music. Today, it is primarily a communal experience through which polka bands perform live for the listening pleasure of attendees at community events. If these three kinds of polka music enthusiasts exist at steps or levels of engagement, for the music to succeed as a genre, enthusiasts need to move “up the steps.” For casual fans attending an event with a live polka band, stop for a few minutes and appreciate the musicianship. For more nostalgic fans who love the oldies, let the musicians know why a certain song means so much to you — or buy a recording from a band and give their original compositions a listen, too. The songs that are considered classics today were considered new in the past. Polka progressives and other strong supporters of polka music should lead by example and encourage others to deepen their appreciation of the music and embrace the new music that is created.