Research combined by Amari J., Cameron B., & Sara C.
The history of polka music and dance reaches far beyond Omaha, including cities like New York, Cincinnati, and New Orleans. Brought to the United States from Europe by groups such as Czech, Slovak, Polish, and German immigrants, polka is deeply rooted in heritage and memories of the homeland. While each of these groups have different styles of polka, they all deal with the immigrant experience and the preservation of cultural and social identity.
Polka’s shifting popularity reflects not only changes in popular culture like the emergence of Rock ‘n Roll in the 1900s, but also the everchanging immigrant communities of South Omaha. In this city especially, polka is kept alive through festivals and community parishes, where the community is brought together through song and dance. With this upbeat music, local polka musicians share and preserve their heritage, while creating a music scene that welcomes all members of the Omaha community.
Published during the Summer of 2018
Happy Music for Happy People: Polka in Omaha, is about polka's history in South Omaha and its importance to the preservation of Eastern European heritage. Those interviewed in the documentary include John Szalewski, Bob Zagozda, Jeff Janda, and Ken Janak. The documentary can also be viewed on YouTube.
Despite polka’s major influence on American music culture in the mid-17th and 18th centuries, its story begins across the Atlantic in Eastern Europe. While polka’s exact origins are unknown, it is widely accepted that polka was a variation on earlier Bohemian dances and Polish folk traditions. It is likely that the polka fad began in Prague in 1835, then spread to nearby Vienna in 1839, finally establishing itself in Paris and London in 1844. Polka took the world by storm and as the popularity of this upbeat music increased, it was introduced to the English elite who in turn introduced it to the United States.
In the 1840s, polka mania settled in New York city, where this exciting and unfamiliar dance was featured on Broadway at Niblo’s Garden. Polka’s following remained strong through the 1840s in New York, but took longer to reach the rest of the country. Through the buzz created by newspaper articles and published sheet music, the 1850s saw polka’s migration to other American cosmopolitan centers like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Louisville, and New Orleans. Popular among the working classes in dance halls and the ballrooms of polite society, polka was a part of mainstream American popular culture throughout the 1850s and 1860s. However, with the influx of immigrants in the late 19th century, Polka’s connection to Americanism was replaced by its association with the heritage of European immigrants.
The 1850s also saw the introduction of polka to Omaha as the Eastern Europeans fled worsening economic conditions in Bohemia and Moravia. Drawn to the Nebraska by the promise of large tracts of farmlands, these immigrants brought from their homelands a love for polka music that was otherwise rapidly decreasing in the United States. Mass emigration from these parts of Eastern Europe began to end in the late 19th century. Yet, with the invention of squeezebox accordions and records that could be played on the radio and at home, polka’s following in the Midwest stayed strong.
In Omaha, polka’s presence settled in South Omaha, which was a melting pot for immigrants, drawn to that part of the city by jobs in the world’s largest stockyards, packing houses, and breweries. These Eastern European immigrants played polka at festivals, weddings, and at home to both preserve their memories of the homeland and to maintain their communities in the United States. Aside from South Omaha parishes like Saint Stanislaus and Immaculate Conception, polka was also played at the Polish Home at 25th and L, Sokol Hall on 13th and Martha, and the Starlite Ballroom in Wahoo. The Starlite alone used to draw in 800 people every Saturday night in the 1960s and ‘70s for polka dances, a testament to this music’s popularity in Omaha.
While polka saw its heyday in Omaha in the 1960s and ‘70s, its popularity declined in Nebraska in the 1980s with the farming crisis. This crisis paired with the increasing popularity of Rock and the rise of disc jockeys, the need and want for live bands, including polka, diminished. However, while polka is not as prevalent in Omaha today as it once was, local musicians still see it as integral to preserving their heritage through lyrics and dance, while also sharing a little happiness with their communities.
Ceremony. Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame, 8 July 2017
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