Polka Mania!

From his modest headquarters in Little Haiti, polka legend Li'l Wally Jagiello spreads happiness the world over

"I was singing from the day I was born," Wally boasts. "By the time I was five years old it was the depression, and I was already working as a junk man. I walked down the alley picking up junk. I used to talk to all the women, I used to sing, and I used to whistle. I says to the women, 'If you've got something you want to throw away, don't throw it away until I see it.' One woman she says, 'You sing some more and whistle some more and you got everything I want to get rid of.'"

Every weekend during the summer, immigrants from several dozen different Eastern European villages held picnics at Caldwell Woods, a forest preserve just outside Chicago. On Sundays Wally's mother and father used to grab the family, load up a couple of shopping bags with hamburgers and hot dogs, and take the streetcar to Caldwell. While his parents mingled with friends from the old country, Wally would run off and listen to the polkas being played on various stages.

The polka is indigenous to Eastern Europe, though the precise location of the musical style's origin is not known. According to ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, polka literally means "Polish woman," and the song and dance originated in Czechoslovakia in the 1830s to mock Polish female stereotypes. The fast tempo and catchy rhythm caught on and eventually were exported by traveling entertainers. In 1844 the music and its dance debuted in Paris and immediately became all the rage, in no small part owing to the scandalous way a man was allowed to rest his hand on a woman's hip while dancing. After its Parisian incubation, the polka exploded around the globe. It crossed the channel to England. In Paraguay it became the national dance. It swept across Argentina and Brazil and the United States.

Li'l Wally and the Harmony Boys, one of his early bands
photo courtesy Wally Jagiello
Li'l Wally and the Harmony Boys, one of his early bands
Li'l Wally with band leader and television star Lawrence Welk
photo courtesy Wally Jagiello
Li'l Wally with band leader and television star Lawrence Welk

"There is no evidence that before or after 1844 the polka was ever popular in Poland," Keil writes in Polka Happiness. "As the fashion spread from Paris and London, the Polish aristocracy may have resented the stereotype, and Polish peasants probably had no time to be amused by any possible resemblance to their own regional dance traditions. Polish Americans returning to Poland are often frustrated to find that the music and dance they know and love as 'Polish' does not really exist there in the cities or in the villages or even in the folkloric ensembles unless a special effort is being made to please Polish-American tourists."

The international polka craze ended as abruptly as any fad, though its influence can still be heard in Tex-Mex, samba, even merengue, Keil says. In the United States, the polka retained popularity among Polish immigrants who hungered for music sung in their native language. In the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago, Buffalo, and elsewhere, the polka mutated over time into several strains of a uniquely American musical style. Li'l Wally is considered one of its most important innovators.

"I picked it up real fast, because I love music," he says while recounting those Sunday picnics at Caldwell Woods. In particular a concertina player named Eddie Zima caught his ear. "I sat back on a picnic table to watch the dancers and watch [Zima's] band play," he remembers. "When they started to play some songs I already knew, I turned around nonchalantly and started singing loudly. So this guy Zima taps me on the shoulder and says, 'Kid, come over here and sing.'"

The crowd loved Wally, so much so that when the hat was passed, the band collected more than 80 bucks, a small fortune at the time. Although he was only eight years old, Wally scrapped his junk business and took to singing in the park as often as he could. Couples began booking him for weddings. At night he would sneak out of his house to see hot polka bands playing on Division Street. "I was booked like crazy," he recollects. "At that time I was still going to grammar school. I had so much money in my pocket that my mom accused me of stealing it." By the time he was fifteen years old, he was on Polish Broadway, leading his own group. He never bothered with high school.

Wally played raw, almost improvisational songs and sang them with unbridled passion. His was a new way of doing things, and listeners found it irresistibly appealing. The dominant American polka of the Forties was a very fast prance popularized by Frankie Yankovic, among others. Wally thought this "Eastern-style" polka failed to meet the audience's needs. So he slowed down the tempo. In Polka Happiness he explained why:

You see, a polka was never supposed to be played fast. If you play it fast, you modernize it. I went to Europe, all different villages. I never heard a fast polka there. So why should I hear a fast polka here? My beat is more ethnic. People didn't used to understand that, but now they do. When I first began, DJs would send my records back and say there was something wrong. They were used to that other style, the Eastern style. They used to tell me this is too slow. I used to tell them it was ideal. Actually, it's not slow. It's a bouncy beat, but not fast. If you eat food, you chew it. What are you gonna get out of it if you just swallow it? You'll go to the washroom because it'll block you up. Same thing with this. Sure, certain people can do it, but they have to be geniuses. They have to rehearse. Eastern style may be musicians' music, but I don't play for musicians, I play for the public. The public wants to hear melody, lyrics. They want to hear a song with a simple, real pretty story behind it that they can dance to. Real bouncy.

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