Playing Polka: or Chicago Hold 'Em

Oh, I don’t know. How’s the week been treating you?

Trying to soothe my fevered brow after my encounter with the collectability of antique laserdiscs, I thought I might hunker down with the boxes of records for a while. I still have plenty from that collection of easy listening records to go through, and so far the vast majority of those were issued before I learned to read. (Yeah, it was hieroglyphics in those days. Go dust your turntable or something, Nutella kolace.)

I little realized that peril awaits us everywhere. The first box I opened was part of the original owner’s polka collection.

This had a little of everything in it. I already knew about Mexican polka records. See, the polka craze was in full swing—and if you’ve ever polkaed, you know I mean swing—when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was trying to consolidate its overseas empire, and all those officials from Vienna naturally had the polka at all their society affairs. It caught on, mingled with the other strands of Latin music, and so now I have these albums of mariachi bands playing polkas.

I come from primarily Bohemian territory, myself, so I had never come across so many oberek records. The oberek, Wikipedia informs me, is the second most popular dance among Polish-Americans, after the polka. Their description of it makes it sound very athletic. I think I can confidently state that this is the largest collection of oberek records the Book Fair has ever turned up.

The hint that things might get a little weird came with the album of “Polish Religious Hymns”. I expect I may have one or two non-religious hymns in this collection so far, but they do not come with labels.

A lot of these records were produced right here in Chicago. I was already aware of a record company or two which specialized in polkas, thanks to that collection a year or so ago which included a massive stack of their 45 rpm polka records. What I had yet to learn is that there is, just as with pizza, a uniquely Chicago style polka. (In fact I’m told there are two “Chicago Hunky” or “Chicago Honky” and “Chicago Push”. The difference between the two seems to be the composition of the band, clarinets taking the lead in Chicago Honky and an accordion or concertina in Chicago Push.)

One of the leaders in the world of Chicago-Style Polka, and a man represented by about two dozen albums in this collection, was one Walter Jagiello, or Li’l Wally. From “Chicago is a Polka Town” in the 50s through “God Bless Our Polish Pope” (his composition for the visit of John Paul II) and beyond, he recorded Chicago-style polkas for years, usually on Jay-Jay records. A picture of him appeared in the ads on the backs of even the records of other artists. (He founded Jay-Jay records. By the way, the Pope requested an encore.)

What set me back, though, about the collection was that it included Li’l Wally’s “Adults Only Polka Party” album. I am no prude, coconut crumpet, but I could only hang my head in dismay to see such a record. Because, dadburn it, the titles of all the naughty songs are in Polish.

Serves me right, I spose, for making fun of their religious hymns.

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