By Edd Merritt, Contributor
Polka on the Banjo
Make that five-string hot
Polka on the Banjo
Give it all you’ve got
Polka on the Banjo
Watch them fingers go…
~ Polka on the Banjo, Bela Fleck
I can remember my daughter-in-law’s mother saying that when an idea comes into her brain, it instantaneously comes out her mouth. Well, for me, ideas for OutTakes travel a similar route, except for the fact that instead of my mouth, they head straight to my fingers, then onto my computer keys and, bingo, end up in a newspaper. I hope that as a result they contain a bit of healthy journalism and thoughtful commentary. If not, as my friend John Rosenthal once said, they make good wrappings for salmon guts—little else. (Maybe I should scour the town dump for fish parts and OutTakes.)
So, what is moving through the mind and into the News today? Despite the fact that Santa and elves are preparing for the annual cruise, and despite the fact that “he and his crew” are unlikely to spread corona virus throughout the universe, or do in Champ, or short-circuit Rudolph’s nose, my thoughts are on music and not just any style—rather plucking and polkaing.
If that is enough of an introduction, here is what has wended its way to my fingers.
I happen to be a fan of North Country Public Radio’s “String Fever.” Barb Heller is the host, and after listening to what tunes she featured one Thursday afternoon, I picked up two albums of mine called Tales of the Acoustic Planet featuring banjo-picker Bela Fleck and several of his string-picking friends. On his second acoustic one he does a piece called “Polka on the Banjo.” Well, polkas came from my neighborhood of the Upper Midwest, southern Minnesota and the town of New Ulm in particular. It also happened to be where my grandfather was born and grew up. Its culture featured polka music and beer. To be exact, it held seven breweries in a town the size of Charlotte. Oom-pa music added a favored flare to the bars, and so my grandfather, Edvard Herter, had little choice but to savor his favorite brew.
There were a couple of notable polka bands that played all around southern Minnesota. Two stick in my mind. The first was Whoopee John. Whoopee’s birth name was John Anthony Wilfarht—but Whoopee John seemed a much better moniker for a polka musician. Of the nearly 1,000 songs the band recorded, the “Mariechen Waltz” and the “Clarinet Polka” were the two most popular.
The second band featured the “Six Fat Dutchmen” who were led by Harold Loeffelmacher. Their featured style of music was “Ooom-pah,” heavy on the tuba as the Ooom and countered by the high tones of the clarinet as the pah. While the Dutchmen did begin as six swingers, the band doubled in size over time. Their home ballroom was George’s in downtown New Ulm where they were voted the Number One Polka Band by the National Ballroom Operators Association for seven years running.
My own touch with polka music came in high school with a band we called the White Sport Coats. We were asked by a local politician to gather in the cargo bed of his truck and play polkas as we drove from small town to small town, hoping that the citizenry would be drawn by the music and the politician could give them his pitch, and they would leave humming while we would head on to the villages of Kasson, Zumbrota, Pine Island and Oronoco. It must have worked, because I think he won his election. It is strange, however, what sticks in your mind as a result of such activities. In my case it was the music. We played a song called “Alee Hasenpfeffer” whose words praised a traditional German stew made from marinated rabbit.
Ah yes, “Alee Hasenpfeffer, Alee Hasenpfeffer, Alee, Alee, Alee Eh!” As young teenagers, we changed the song’s words to “Alee cut the mustard,” thinking we were being clever by slipping in a bit of off-color humor and fooling our parents or whoever cared to listen. I dare say that nobody did.
The major change that came about as a result of band tours probably showed in my lips. I believe they are still a bit puffy from the mouthpiece on my trumpet after hitting high notes in the back of that pickup parked in front of several city halls.
Despite the fact that my musical interests have shifted in another direction, why not attach picks to fingers and polka on? Is it all right with you, Alee? Jawohl?