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Polish Polka in Texas

by Brian Marshall on May 25, 2007

in Culture

Originally Published in the Texas Polka News

There are over 50,000 people of Polish descent in the Houston and surrounding areas.  As a Texan of Polish descent, I can add that Polish music has been an integral part of my appreciation of my Polish heritage.  For many others, it may be their only link to their cultural past.

Many people are not aware that Polish music is or ever was alive in the Texas region.  Prior to 1980 there were only nine recordings in existence representing the Texas Polish style.  Six cuts were by Steve Okonski who represented the Robertson County style ; three others were by Randy and the Rockets with well-liked fiddler Pete Kwiatkowski who represented the Washington County style.  But I jump ahead of myself.

Polish settlers came to Texas as early as the mid-1800s and settled south of San Antonio in a village named Panna Maria.  I have no knowledge of the music from this area.  Twenty to thirty years later a much larger wave began arriving and established themselves in Texas areas that are now New Waverly, Stoneham, Anderson, Carlos, Brenham, Bremond, and Chappell Hill, to name a few. Mostly of peasant stock, these immigrants had very few possessions.  They did bring their Catholic faith, culture and music. In many ways the traditions have been lost, but they did well in maintaining their faith and their music.

The music has been passed down orally from generation to generation and this tradition continues today.  The music of these peasant Poles typically consisted of a fiddle, a bowed bass, and an occasional clarinet:  Later, guitars, drums, and accordions were introduced, though I’m sure the accordion was a Czech influence as it was not accepted as a Polish instrument at the time of this Texas migration.

Music was played at all weddings and family gatherings, and this tradition continues today.  Until recently, formal recordings of this music were not considered a necessity as it was not looked upon as a marketing tool.  Only when the tradition started weakening did certain musicians take it upon themselves to “document” the age-old tunes.

Two distinct styles of Polish music exist in Texas. They reflect regional differences that came to America with the Polish settlers.  Poles in the Chappell Hill/Brenham area had a rhythmic sawing style that created strong rhythms while a more melodic sound dominated the Bremond area, the largest Polish settlement in Texas.

Because of the distance and separation of Texas from the northern states, the instrumentation and sound of Polish music in Texas did not progress as it did in Chicago and New York.  In fact, many Texas Poles shunned the idea of horns in Texas Polish bands because they felt that it Czechanized the music.  That is not to say that Texas Poles did not enjoy and support the dominant Czech sound found in Texas.  However it did depict people who were proud of their own unique heritage.

Over the past ten years, many recordings have been made that document the old tunes and represent the distinct styles that we have.  This has also introduced Texas Polish music to new generations, both Poles and non-Poles.  It should be noted that one would he hard pressed to find the traditional fiddle-driven style of Polish music that is enjoyed in Texas today, even if he or she were to travel to Poland in-search of it.  This is antiquated music representing a time that has passed, yet it lives on.  The tunes and musical style of Texas Polish music is unique.

Texas Polonia should be proud of their success in keeping this tradition alive for well over a hundred years!

“Niech Zyje Polska Tradycja

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