Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Polkas

““Original Polka, The””. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 16 May. 2015.

I wrote this past week about one of Youngstown’s distinctive wedding traditions, the cookie table. It was fun to hear from so many who read this blog who confirmed that this is a tradition that goes back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century, and may have been brought here by immigrants. And in the last few decades, this has become an “all-Youngstown” tradition.

One tradition that is perhaps less distinctive to Youngstown but was also a big deal at weddings was polkas. Polkas originated in Central Europe.  Almost all polkas are in 2/4 time and involve a very simple dance step that you often see parents teaching children at weddings (2 half steps with a hop on each foot in turn beginning on your right–you can watch a dance instruction video here.). Polkas are usually accompanied by accordion, string bass, banjos, drums, and perhaps an electric keyboard.

Here is an example by one of the giants of polka music, Frankie Yankovic from nearby Cleveland:

This is fun music (“I hear a polka and my troubles are through”) and the perfect thing for those receptions in the union halls of Youngstown. It was so fun to watch surprisingly light-footed, burly steelworkers and their wives twirling around the floor as well as young kids and teenagers. And at most weddings as the liquor flowed freely during the evening, the dancing got more exuberant.

All the “chicken dance”, “hokie-pokie” and line dancing that seems to be a feature at every wedding these days came later. There were slow dances to be sure but polkas kept things lively. Then there was the tarantella, which makes the line dances at today’s weddings look pathetic–we remember a tarantella at a wedding reception at Powers Auditorium while we were in college, where the tarantella snaked up and down the staircases in the foyer!

My dad loved to listen to polkas on the radio every Saturday afternoon (while mom was in the background muttering, “I wish he’d turn those d**n polkas down!). The two that I always remember are “the Beer Barrel Polka” (“Roll out the Barrel”) and “Who Stole the Kischka, an excerpt of which was in the dance instruction video linked to in this post (a kischka is a kind of sausage, but the polka is rich in double entendre). I understand that the Beer Barrel Polka is played during the seventh inning stretch at Milwaukee Brewers games. There are a number of Youtube videos of both online as well as a number of other polka videos, particularly of Frankie Yankovic.

I’m wondering if there are places around Youngstown where polkas are still a big part of weddings. I suspect part of the problem is that there might not be as many people playing this kind of music, or even playing the accordion, these days. This is a tradition that I hope is not lost. It just seemed to be perfect — a simple dance, lively music, fun lyrics — for celebrating a couple launching out on life.

What are your polka memories? Have you been to a wedding where there were polkas lately?

[Want to read other “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts? Just click “On Youngstown” on the menu bar at the top of this page to read any or all in this series.]