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Polka is the Upper Midwest's most popular roots music. This cultural region along the western Great Lakes has embraced and evolved polka music and dance from 19th century Slavic origins to its position today as community-based celebratory music shunned by mass media while embraced by its working class rural and urban followers.
The "polka belt" actually extends further east and west than the Upper Midwest and dips down to Texas - it locates according to settlement histories of immigrant Germans, Czechs, Poles and other eastern Europeans. The legendary origin of the polka is in 1830s peasant Bohemia; the following decade it was the dance craze of Paris and London. After migrating to the United States, each ethnic locality refined and combined the genre with its own musical traditions influenced by geographic and economic forces, to develop distinct sub-styles that can be labeled with ethnic, site or style descriptors: German/Dutchman, Bohemian/Czech, Polish, Slovenian, Finnish, Norwegian, Mexican, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago, honky, dyno, push. In Wisconsin, the dominant styles are Slovenian, in the southeast urban area near Milwaukee; Dutchman, along the state's western Mississippi River border; Bohemian, in northeast Wisconsin along Lake Michigan; Polish, in the central potato-growing region; and Croatian and Finnish, in northern mining regions along the southern shore of Lake Superior.
Wisconsin identifies with polka deeply enough that the state legislature named polka the state dance in 1994. The dance is energetic but smooth, using small steps that range from sliding or shuffling to hopping or kicking. In addition to polkas, a band will include other dances, most frequently the waltz. Favorite dance venues include taverns, dance halls, community and church festivals, and polka festivals held at fairgrounds, hotels or on cruise ships. Since the 1970s, the music has moved into sacred venues in the form of hymns for special-occasion Catholic masses or Lutheran services.
As polka continued to evolve in its American settings, the accordion or concertina became its central instrument. Polka became a big part of popular music during the 1940s and '50s with million-selling recordings like Frankie Yankovic's "Just Because" (1947) and "Blue Skirt Waltz" (1949). Yankovic's national popularity and the Slovenian style of polka, with its incorporation of banjo and saxophone instead of Germanic/Bohemian brass, popularized the genre as American music.
An outstanding musician within the Milwaukee Slovenian style is Steve Meisner (b. 1961). Steve hails from Whitewater, a town of 13,000 people that is fifty miles southwest of Milwaukee. His particular style within the tradition is the "Meisner Magic" sound, drawn primarily from his father, the lauded Verne Meisner (1938-2005). Verne was in the generation of polka musicians that followed Yankovic and was influenced by WWII-era developments. Steve traces the genealogy of his family's style from that period, crediting key musicians who each had a unique sound.
"My dad's melding of the Frankie Yankovic Slovenian style, Cleveland Slovenian styles like Johnny Pecon's or Doc Lausche's, and Louis Bashell's Milwaukee Slovenian style along with local bands from his childhood and other regional groups including all the Dutchmen bands like Whoopee John or The Six Fat Dutchmen, and bands that had radio shows like Cousin Fuzzy, solidified his style within a style. As a child, I was literally only exposed to Verne Meisner (who was always my mentor) and it wasn't until my early adolescence and my teenage years that I expanded my own influences to include bands from the Cleveland and Milwaukee Slovenian styles along with other polka, pop, country and rock genre influences. The intricacy of what has brought me into my own style within a style is pretty deep."
Part of what defines Steve's style is the originality of the Meisners' music. "I learned from my dad: be yourself. Write your own music. Play your own music. That defines who you are." Following that principle, Steve, as did Verne, writes original music, informed by the larger tradition while distinctive within it. His music continues the positioning of polka within popular culture by being featured in the studio film "Chump Change," the independent film "Red Betsy," and several film shorts.
Steve began playing professionally at the age of 16 and is one of the few professional polka musicians to make his living as a full-time polka bandleader, as did his father. He began learning the piano accordion at age 5, taking lessons from his demanding dad. At age 13, he picked up the diatonic button box, the instrument that preceded the piano accordion as the most popular polka instrument. At age 14, Steve played the button box on his first recording with his father. He formed his own band when he was 17 and has pursued that path ever since.
Steve's excellence on that path has been recognized through numerous awards including Musician and Band of the Year, Polka Artist of the Year, Favorite Polka Artist, Lifetime Achievement Award from the Maryland Accordion Club, and induction to the Ironworld Polka Hall of Fame (Minnesota) and the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame.
Steve is firmly within the polka tradition of emphasizing happiness. "My main goal in life is to use my music to make as many people happy as I possibly can while I can. Music is a large part of the soul of our society and I want to touch that part of people's souls." He is also a part of the movement that refuses to let polka be declared dead by people outside the tradition. His career is a testament to the genre's vitality.
By Anne Pryor, Wisconsin Arts Board
Charles Keil, Angeliki Keil, Dick Blau. 1992. Polka Happiness.
James P. Leary. 1998. Polka Music in a Polka State in Wisconsin
Richard March. 1991. Polkas in Wisconsin Music in The Illustrated
Maja Trochimczyk. 2000. Polish Dances: Polka. Polish Music Center,
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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