The polka, a couples dance in duple time, was popular in much of Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Since many immigrants from Europe settled in the Great Plains during that period, they brought an affinity for the polka dance and the associated music with them as part of their cultural legacy. Germans and Czechs, in particular, have tended to be the most active in perpetuating the polka tradition in the Great Plains, but Poles, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Finns, Italians, Slovenians, Croatians, and other European Americans also identify the polka as part of their ethnic heritage.
The nineteenth-century polka craze also entered Mexico from Europe, and Mexican musicians in Texas interacted with musical German, Polish, and Czech immigrants there to shape the polka style of the Tex-Mex conjuntos (bands). During the twentieth century Mexican Americans migrated to many areas of the Great Plains, bringing the conjunto style of polka music and dancing with them.
Polka musicians in the Great Plains play in several distinctive styles. The names of the most influential styles refer to ethnic groups– Czech or "Bohemian," German or "Dutchman," Polish, Mexican, and Slovenian. There is a core constituency of dancers and players from the particular ethnic group in each of the polka "scenes"; however, people from a variety of other ethnic backgrounds participate as well. Mutual influences are common in the music and dancing.
In rural areas, Czechs and Germans have been the most active. There are important concentrations of Czech bands in eastern Nebraska and central Texas. Both the Czech and German polka styles tend to emphasize brass and reed instruments in interaction with an accordion or concertina. The Dutchman style of German American music, originally from southern Minnesota, has also been influential in the Great Plains. Broadcasts of the Whoopee John Orchestra over Minneapolis's clear channel station wcco were avidly followed on the Plains, and the well-known Dutchman bands toured westward from Minnesota. Thus German bands from the Dakotas to Kansas often use the Chemnitzer type of concertina played by Whoopee John. The Czech bands, on the other hand, tend to utilize the diatonic button box accordion or modern piano keyboard accordion. The German bands strive for a smoother blended brass and reed sound, while the Czech bands opt for an incisive brassy or reedy tone from the wind instruments.
Germans from Russia have developed Dutch Hop, a polka style unique to the Great Plains and played mainly in western Nebraska and eastern Colorado. The hammer dulcimer is an important instrument in Dutch Hop, and the trombone provides the bass line rather than the tuba of the Dutchman and Czech bands.
Polish- and Slovenian-style polka bands are strongest in urban centers like Omaha and Kansas City, although on the western Plains there are also Slovenian bands in mining and mill towns. Polish bands are influenced by Chicago Polish musicians like Lil' Wally and Eddie Blazonczyk. They use the Chemnitzer concertina interacting with brass and reeds played in a raucous and polyphonic style. Slovenian bands foreground the accordion accompanied by tenor or plectrum banjo. Slovenian and Polish bands avoid the tuba, using a string bass, bass guitar, or recently a Midi bass synthesizer played by the accordion player with his or her left hand.
Richard March Wisconsin Arts Board
Greene, Victor. A Passion for Polka. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Keil, Charles, Angeliki V. Keil, and Dick Blau. Polka Happiness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
Leary, James P., and Richard March. Down Home Dairyland: A Listener's Guide. Madison: University of Wisconsin–Extension, 1996.