World Polka News
For Polka Prince, The Grammys ain't "Sweet"
By Jed Gottlieb, Boston Herald
If it’s true what they say about awards shows - that it’s an honor just to be nominated - then Lenny Gomulka is truly honored.
In the past two decades, he’s received an astounding 12 Grammy nominations, including one this year for his latest CD, “As Sweet As Candy.”
So why isn’t Gomulka, 56, better known?
Because his nominations have come in the Best Polka Album category. Plus, every time Gomulka and wife Estelle make the trip from their home in Ludlow, Mass., to the Grammy ceremony - which this year takes place in Los Angeles tomorrow night (WBZ, Ch. 4, 8-11:30 p.m.) - they’ve left empty-handed.
“There’s a certain amount of, um, I don’t want to say politics, but connections involved in who wins,” Gomulka said. “He who is better connected seems to come out on top. My friend Jimmy Sturr is very well connected.”
If Gomulka were Superman, Sturr would be kryptonite. The biggest name in polka, New York’s Sturr has dashed Gomulka’s Grammy hopes year after year. In the 22 years since the Best Polka Album award debuted in 1985, Sturr has claimed it 15 times.
Gomulka speaks kindly of Sturr, betraying only a trace of envy. But he does repeatedly note Sturr’s connections, which include recording with Willie Nelson, Bobby Vinton and Alison Krauss.
“I cater to the polka audience, while Jim is a little more savvy with reaching out of that circle to the nonpolka person,” Gomulka said.
Since forming his band, the Chicago Push, in 1980, Gomulka has played more than 1,000 shows. He composed the official Massachusetts state polka and has been inducted into the International Polka Music Hall of Fame.
But tomorrow night, Gomulka and his wife will watch the Grammys at home in Massachusetts. For the first time, they won’t be in attendance following a nomination. Gomulka won’t say that he expects to lose again, but he’s a realist. With Sturr also nominated, the trip just didn’t seem worth it.
Enthusiasts Trying to Revive Polka
By CARRIE ANTLFINGER, Associated Press Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006
Three nights a week at Art's Concertina Bar you can step back to a time when couples went out to dance the polka and listen to the sounds of a concertina.
But now owner Art Altenburg wants to sell his polka bar — which is the last in Milwaukee and bills itself as "The Only Concertina Bar in the U.S.A." — and he doesn't know if the new owners will keep it as a polka haven.
"That would be fantastic if it could be kept up that way, but I have no idea what is going to happen if I leave," said Altenburg, who tells everyone he's 81, but won't reveal his real age.
Like the tavern, polka itself is at a crossroads.
A fragmented effort is under way in the polka community to make sure it doesn't die — through festivals, use of more modern instruments such as electric guitars and teaching the dance in elementary schools. Enthusiasts say their efforts are working with younger people, particularly on the East Coast, Midwest and in Texas.
"I believe polkas are going to keep growing, mainly because I think the younger people are very, very tired of the ... bar scene with the rap music and the loud rock music," said Barbara Haselow, president of United States Polka Association in Cleveland, Ohio.
Polka started from Bohemian folk music in the 1850s and soon spread around Europe, said Cecilia Dolgan, president of the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid, Ohio. Countries including Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and Germany then put their own touch on the music and dance.
Immigrants brought it to the United States, where its heyday was in the 1940s to 1960s. Frankie Yankovic, who died in 1998 but is considered the polka king, popularized the genre with songs such as "Just Because" and "Blue Skirt Waltz." But as immigrants and their children aged, they didn't introduce it to their kids, said Ray Zalokar, director 247Polkaheaven.com, the world's first 24-hour polka Web site.
"The heritage gets washed out with each generation," he said.
Ken Irwin, one of the owners of Rounder Records, which has two polka artists, said polka devotees need a central source to promote and educate people on their music.
Irwin said the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou" changed people's attitudes about bluegrass. Polka needs something similar that shows the music and culture in a positive light, he said.
"I think it is really infectious music," he said. "There is a great amount of talent out there. People, when exposed to it, seem to really enjoy it."
At Art's, 70 concertinas — some date to the 1800s — are scattered around the room. Three dozen line the wall behind the long bar along with concertina-themed gifts he's received, including a winged-bear playing a concertina. Framed newspaper articles about the bar and photos of its performers adorn the walls.
Altenburg regularly pulls out a concertina — a small hexagonal accordion with buttons for keys — to demonstrate for visitors. On one recent Saturday night, he was playing with a tubist and drummer.
Chris Lohman, 31, and his wife Leanne, 35, were among the mostly older dancers who took to the asphalt-tile dance floor between the bar and a row of small tables. "I love it because it's really a thing from the past," said Chris Lohman.
Haselow, of the polka association, said attendance at their annual convention has doubled over the last 10 years. They get 800 to 1,000 polka dancers.
The association represents the Polish style polka and has about 1,000 members, which has also doubled over the last decade with more young people getting interested, she said. Polish style, one of the more popular kinds along with Slovenian or Cleveland style, is a lively hop-step-step-step dance.
"I think we are pulling them in because it's a nice atmosphere," Haselow said. "It's a fun atmosphere."
Zalokar said the majority of his listeners to 247Polkaheaven.com are older than 50, but more young people are listening, especially to the newer music, called Extreme Push.
Over the last decade, some polka bands have incorporated rock 'n' roll and country, and brought in guitars and keyboards. He said there is also more singing, especially by women.
Fifteen-time Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr is also modernizing his music. His two most recent CDs — "Rock N Polka" and "Shake Rattle and" Polka — feature rock 'n' roll songs made into polkas.
He's also involved in Polkapalooza, which has toured the country for nine years.
Organizer Gus Kosior said some areas of the country have stronger interest than others in the festival, such as the Midwest, Texas and East Coast, but overall the crowds have increased over the last three to four years.
Kosior, vice president of United Polka Artists Inc., based in Florida, N.Y., believes that polka is "one hit song" away from being in the mainstream.
"People are starting to take notice but it's taking some time so to speak," he said.
In Wisconsin, where polka is the official state dance, the Wisconsin Polka Boosters Inc. teaches the polka in elementary schools. In October, they tried to set a world record at Cottage Grove Elementary School near Madison when they taught 402 students how to polka.
Club president John Pinter doesn't know yet if the attempt was successful.
"The only way to get it going is to get the people to dance," Pinter said. "My generation, we were so busy having fun doing the polka all over the place we didn't teach our kids to polka dance."
Altenburg said he's afraid that if the new owners of his 25-year-old bar don't keep it as is, it will hurt the polka scene in Milwaukee. Until then, he and his concertinas will continue to greet polka lovers from all over the world.
"Polka is happiness," he said.
Between notes high and low,
life in between is nothing but sweet
May 26, 2003
So it's already half past six before Concertina Millie shows up, and most people are finished with their Swiss steaks and the waitresses are rushing around clearing plates and distributing take-home containers, and there's got to be at least a dozen people - six or eight accordions, a saxophone, a couple of banjos and a set of drums - scrunched together on or at least near Moose Lodge 49's small stage.
Moose Lodge 49 is a members-and-their-guests-only place on the south side. The Milwaukee Accordion Club gathers there once a month and, between a basketball-size glittering globe and a cushiony linoleum dance floor, celebrates its members' birthdays.
You may remember Concertina Millie. Years ago, she was on the radio and on television playing with Joe Szot and the Hot Shots on a show hosted by Gordon Hinkley. She still plays around town; you can find her most Saturday nights at Ritter's in Brookfield. She is a regular at Accordion Club gatherings.
Millie drops her stuff off at the back door, near the stage, between a jumbo-sized American flag and a jumbo-sized tapestry of a moose. She then walks around the building and comes through the front door. She is wearing a pink blouse and faux pearls the size of eyeballs.
People clear a space for her on the stage, and she sits on a metal chair. She covers her legs with a blue and gold velvet lap pad (her daughter made it for her), then sets the concertina on her lap. The concertina gleams and is white. "Millie" is written in chrome on one side.
Millie was 12 when her mother died, and she dropped out of school to take care of her father and two brothers. Her father had a bandoneon, and Millie taught herself to play. She was 16 when she started playing professionally. One Sunday afternoon, she was playing in a tavern and this guy comes in, fresh home from the war. She was taking requests and he wanted to hear " 'Till the End of Time." Millie was drinking milk to calm an ulcer and she played the song, and the guy - Edmund - was impressed. They married and they stayed together for 42 years and then Ed died.
Millie punches a button on her concertina. Earlier in the day, she played at a retirement home, and while she was playing, it hit her that she was as old as the people who were watching her, but then how could that be? It didn't feel possible. They seemed so much older. And she figured that because she took on so much when she was 12 - because she grew up in a single day, because she skipped being young back then - maybe that is the reason she is young now, or at least feels young, feels an eternity away (especially now, here, in the light, on the stage) from being old and used up.
Millie plays and sings into a shining microphone.
"I want to hold you. I want to kiss you.
"I want to love you more and more.
"And when I tell you how much I love you
"I'm going to love you more and more."
Contact Crocker Stephenson at (414) 224-2539 or by e-mail at email@example.com.