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Polka Rhythms Bandstand

Bandstand used by Chad Przybylski and
his Polka Rhythms of Pulaski, Wisconsin,
from c. 1980 until 2003.

(Museum object #2003.10.1)

Alongside cheese, beer and brats, the polka might be one of the most readily recognized Wisconsin icons. In fact, in 1993 the polka was declared the official state dance. For more than a decade before the polka received this recognition, Chad Przybylski (born 1967) and his band did their own part to help perpetuate the Wisconsin tradition. Przybylski and his band began performing polka music in his hometown of Pulaski, Wisconsin around 1980. Przybylski commissioned this wooden stand from a local artist to both advertise the band during shows as well as provide a resting spot for items like sheet music and drinks during their performances. The bandstand's many scratches and stains document the hundreds of shows performed by Przybylski and his bandmates.

Polka first rose to popularity from humble folk traditions in Europe during the 1840s. The 2/4 dance step was markedly more rambunctious than traditional ballroom moves, and even became popular among the Parisian upper class. Immigrants to the United States brought their own unique variations with them, particularly to the Midwest, and polka evolved into various new forms according to its player's place of origin. Distinct styles still recognized today include Polish, Slovenian, Bohemian, and Dutchman.

After World War II, Polka made its first mainstream American appearance thanks to Cleveland, Ohio's celebrated "Polka King," Slovenian-American Frankie Yankovic. Yankovic's 1948 hit "Just Because" and 1949 tune "Blue Skirt Waltz" sold millions of records. Polka remained popular with younger crowds until the newer sounds of rock and roll music began to overshadow it in the 1950s and 1960s.

While the "Polka Palaces" once found in cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee are long since gone, polka still has a following in more rural areas of Wisconsin—even if the crowds do tend to be middle age or older. Still, Miss Wisconsin Polka Booster Beth Ann Birno explained to the Milwaukee Journal in June 2005 that young people often absent at other polka venues can be found in high numbers in Pulaski. "Pulaski's the best. I body surf there," she stated. "We've got teenagers. We've got young kids. It's a bunch of different people, and hanging out with the band members is awesome." Jake Nowak, an 18-year-old accordion player in The New Generation Band from Pulaski, told the Shawano Leader in 2006 that he never has to worry about being made fun of for his interests. "Pulaski," he said, "is kind of a polka town."

Pulaski, like some Wisconsin communities, possesses a disproportionate number of polka bands, and some have boasted that the town of 3000 has more bands per capita than even Nashville. The strongly Polish community located just outside of Green Bay is still a thriving locale for the polka tradition. New generations of musicians continue to learn the traditional music there as well as develop their own unique styles. Pulaski Polka Days, held in July every year since 1978, is just one of the many festivals in Wisconsin to honor the dance, and, with thousands of people in attendance each year from all over the nation, also ranks as one of the biggest in the Midwest.

It is fitting, then, that Pulaski-born Przybylski's interest in polka began at a very early age. He took his very first concertina lessons at the young age of five. He formed his first two piece band, the Polka Partners, during his seventh grade year. The next year Przybylski added a third player to the band and rechristened his group the Polka Rhythms, at which his point his original Polka Partners bandstand was repainted into the version seen here. The Polka Rhythms stayed together until his high school graduation.

When Przybylski reformed the Polka Rhythms in 1987, the band took on six members, adding brass to his original sound. The band lasted in this incarnation until 1994, at which point Przybylski again changed his sound and downsized back to three members. Since then, he has recorded eight albums and has played hundreds of events across both Wisconsin and the United States.

[Sources: March, Richard. "Wisconsin Remains Polka Country" in Wisconsin Folklife: A Celebration of Wisconsin Traditions (Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 1988); Leary, James P. "Polka Music in a Polka State," in Wisconsin Folklore(Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998); Johnson, Mark. "Polka still has a few twirls left," in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 3, 2005. Falk, Nathan. "Get ready to polka in Pulaski this weekend," in the Shawano Leader, July 20, 2006. Smodic, Frank Jr. "Frank Yankovic…America's Polka King," 1990, available online at www.polkas.com/yankovic/yankbio.htm.]

AGH


Posted on January 17, 2008

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