In Pulaski, Wisconsin, there is plenty of beer, especially during Pulaski Polka Days.
If you grew up in central Wisconsin in the ’70s, as I did, polka was just another style of music in the background.
Especially when you went to someone’s wedding at one of the classic, vintage dance halls in the Wausau area — the Colonial Ballroom, the Rothschild Pavilion or the Rib River Ballroom. (They’re all still there, too.)
None of us bought polka albums or became polka fans, but we had to learn how to dance the polka if we stood any chance with the ladies. Needless to say, there often was beer involved.
As there was Saturday night in Pulaski. It was as if 30 years had not passed. The charming young ladies were good to go on the wooden dance floors in both polka tents. However, the buff young gents were not quite so sure about it all. Quaff enough beer, though, and dancing commences.
Polka has long been big in Wisconsin, thanks to all its German and Polish families. I’m three-quarters German, but my grandparents always seemed more intent on being American than ethnic. But for others, especially in Polish families, ethnicity is a point of pride, even today. To borrow a phrase, the force is stronger in some than others.
At the west end of Pulaski’s downtown, Zielinski’s Ballroom — another classic, vintage dance hall with an arched wooden roof — hosted bands playing the slower German and Bohemian polkas and waltzes. The oompah music, as my dad would say. This party is pretty mellow.
At the east end of the downtown, the Polka Days grounds host bands playing the more upbeat Polish polkas. This party rocks.
The New Generation was the first group I saw, and the group I enjoyed most. These young guys are doing it right. They’re taking classic Polish polkas and updating the sound, adding covers and originals.
The first song I caught was their old-time polka medley, which pretty much covered every polka song I know. It must have gone on for 10 or 15 minutes, with these twentysomething performers putting on quite a show. They also covered “Never Ending Song of Love” (yep, the one by Delaney and Bonnie and Friends) and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” polka style.
Crowded around the small stage was a group of charming young ladies that was pretty easy on the eyes. (And a spirited sixtysomething woman wearing a raspberry-colored halter top and pants, white Keds and an orange lei.) Hanging out on the edge of the crowd were the buff young gents, occasionally swooping in to ask the ladies for a dance.
Polka dancing is always energetic but not always smooth. Sometimes, it looks a little like bumper cars. I’ll give it a go, but as my wife and good friends will attest, it usually isn’t pretty.
Drink enough beer, and it really doesn’t matter.
It didn’t matter to Eric Niziolek, who’s 25. He and his buddies drove an hour from the Wausau area to get to Polka Days. They’ve been coming since they were old enough to drink. Eric was interviewed by the paper and listed these reasons for coming to Polka Days:
“Good music, good people, girls and beer.”
Eric didn’t say whether that was the order of importance. I suspect not.
I confess I didn’t buy one of The New Generation’s CDs, so I can’t offer you one of their tunes. I also confess I have no Polish polka music.
So this classic will have to do: “In Heaven There is No Beer.”
First, watch the Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band performing it at a pep rally at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
They’re familiar with this tune in San Antonio, thanks to Tex-Mex accordion legend Flaco Jimenez. Enjoy his version.
Flaco Jimenez, “En El Cielo No Hay Cerveza (In Heaven There Is No Beer),” from “Brewed in Texas, Vol. 2,” a collection of — what else? — drinking songs from Compadre Records, 2005.