Is this the last call for the polka?

Genres come and go.

Some, like the third wave of ska in the 90s, briefly took the world by storm. In the 70s, disco suffered a much-publicized demise, while other decades saw genres like emo and shouto peak with specific generations and then quietly fade away.

Polka, however, lasted for decades. Gaining popularity after World War II due to his positive and cheerful nature, he is still warmly welcomed in Saskatchewan.

There was a time when schools taught young people to play the accordion, dance halls were crowded every night, and entire communities thrived on the pure love of music. Saskatchewan was such a hotbed for the polka that in the mid to late 1990s it became the final destination of the American Polka King’s final tour, alongside the Saskatchewan Western Senators and the Canadian Polka King. Walter Ostanek.

By the end of the decade, polka and its large local fanbase even had their own documentary, They live in Polka.

The Western Senators in Regina while on tour with American Polka King Frankie Yankovic in 1995. (Brian Skler)

From punk to polka to politics

Today, with its fanbase and popularity slowly dwindling, the future of the genre is in question. Fortunately, new, young and exciting polka bands continue to perform and celebrate the genre across North America.

In Canada, The Dreadnoughts are one of the proudest bands still in existence. The band releases a unique hybrid of everything from punk to polka, klezmer to sea shanties.

The Dreadnoughts play a unique hybrid of everything from punk to polka, klezmer to sea shanties. (Basia Karpinsky)

Singer and accordionist Nick Smyth went from writing a punk-centric polka anthem Polka never dies in 2011 to a recent insightful blog post titled Polka Could Actually Die. He asks there if it is finally the last call of the kind.

According to Smyth, a sound that was once silly, fun, light and happy is now in serious decline and one of the main reasons for that is politics.

Saskatchewan Weekend13:27Is this the last call for Polka?

Famous punk and polka musician Nicholas Smyth of the Dreadnoughts worries if we don’t do something now: Polka might actually die. He even wrote a blog with this title. CBC’s Taron Cochrane joins host Shauna Powers to explore what it will take to keep the beloved genre alive.

“As a culture, you have some sort of choice, a collective choice to make. Do you continue to let our lives be more and more swallowed up by big tech and by people making money from our isolation or are you pushing back a bit?” he asks. “To me, that’s what makes polka the more radical choice. From my perspective, it’s almost a punk rock decision to make.”

DIY as a saving grace

Although Smyth’s views are strongly rooted in his full-time career as an assistant professor of philosophy, many of his ideas about how to save the genre aren’t complex.

“Generally, the world is becoming more isolated and has been for a long time and you can’t resist that,” Smyth says. “But what you can do is get involved in your local community. You can join a group, you can start a group. Maybe you can get involved in organizing and talking to local halls and seeing s ‘they will welcome what you do.

Between album releases and Dreadnoughts tours, Smyth is creating events and book shows with his new side project Polka Time! The group takes a rowdy approach to traditional, familiar polka songs and has attracted a crowd of ages ranging from 8 to 80.

The group’s inaugural event, the 1st Annual East Vancouver Polka Dance in 2018, was proof positive that the genre had sustainability and an opportunity for a bright future.

WATCH | Crowds fill the dance floor for Polka Time!

Just one more song

While Smyth believes action and community will help keep the genre alive, Canada’s polka king Walter Ostanek says it will never die. All he needs is new hits, like Frankie Yankovic had in the 1940s.

“It’s like everything else. You can be a rock star, you can be a football star or a hockey star, you last so long and someone else picks up the slack,” Ostanek said. “It’s never going to die, it might never be as popular as before but it’ll always be there. And who knows? All you have to do is have a song come out like [Yankovic’s] Just because Where Blue Skirt Waltz!”

Walter Ostanek is known as the polka king of Canada. (Radio-Canada News)
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