Keith G. Stras is on a mission to save polka, which is to say he has his work cut out for him. The demographic outlook for the music is bleak: young people are not embracing polka, and as for the old guard, Stras doesn't mince words. "You go to a local affair in Chicago," he says, "and you look around the room, you ask yourself, 'What's gonna happen in five years?' These suckers are all gonna be gone."
Stras has been a presenter of polka on radio and TV for more than 25 years, but at 41 he's a youngster by the standards of the polka scene. He's not entirely sure why people his age and younger are so polkaphobic. "The only thing we can blame that on is society and the way things are done today versus how they were done in the 50s, 60s, and even the early 70s," he says. "My own daughter, even at eight years old--it's not that easy to talk them into going someplace. They'd rather go with their friends somewhere, they'd rather play Nintendo, they'd rather watch a video." There's no kids-these-days rancor in Stras's voice--things are the way they are. Anyway, he's scored one small victory for polka on the home front: For the past two years his daughter Shelby, the eight-year-old, has been his enthusiastic cohost on Polka Sessions, a Sunday morning broadcast on WPNA (1040 AM) that originates from the dining room of the Stras home in Elgin. Currently Shelby's two favorite musicians are tween queen Hilary Duff and concertina colossus Jimmy Sturr, 13-time winner of the Grammy for best polka recording.
On the air at WPNA since 1991, Stras has a loyal audience and likes to share fan mail with them. On a recent program three correspondents in a row mentioned that they'd just gotten out of the hospital. And the program has begun to attract a particular class of sponsors. After spinning platters by Eddie Blazonczyk's Versatones and the Casinos--both 50s legends on Chicago's Bel-Aire label--Stras reads a message from one of them: "You know, in life there are many events that we plan for. Your funeral should be one of those events. The advantage of preplanning helps people make difficult decisions without grieving the immediate loss of a loved one..."
Raised in a Polish-Italian family in Schaumburg, Stras first heard polka at the age of 13 and immediately took to it. It wasn't a matter of ethnic pride--to him, polka was simply music you couldn't feel bad listening to--though he soon learned that it was nearly impossible to divest it of ethnic associations. After he began spinning polka records on his high school's radio station, he says, his name changed overnight to "that Polack Stras." He also realized he was out of step with his peers. "They'd say, 'Why don't he play that grandmother shit somewhere else?'" Stras says.
Earlier this year Stras was tapped as a founding member of the North American Polka Alliance, a body of musicians, DJs, record producers, and concert promoters with a vested interest in preserving the genre. The group is the brainchild of Ken Irwin, president of the Massachusetts-based roots label Rounder Records. Fifteen years ago, Irwin helped found the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance, a networking and advocacy group dedicated to the preservation of folk forms. At a Folk Alliance conference in Nashville this past February, he called for the creation of a similar lobby for polka. The new group, which held meetings in nine states in July, is presently dedicated to the business of exchanging phone numbers and talking shop. In the long run, Irwin hopes the alliance will help break down the provincialism that separates the various regional polka communities. "There are some radio shows and organizations that look at a particular style in an almost religious way," says Irwin. "If it stays just in the ethnic communities while future generations become more homogenized, the next generation grows up never learning the language. I think there's a way to keep the community together in the face of that ongoing process."
The Chicago polka scene is a case in point. Except for radical reinterpreters of the tradition like polka rockers the Polkaholics, polka here rarely departs from one of two strictly defined styles, honky and push. Honky, pioneered by bandleader Walter "Li'l Wally" Jagiello in the 50s and 60s, is based on a 2/4 beat and an exuberant concertina sound; push, associated with Eddie Blazonczyk, is brassier and more syncopated.
On his radio show Stras likes to intersperse standard push and honky cuts with newer, less traditional stuff by polka-inflected fusion bands like Brave Combo and Freeze Dried, but he says that his listeners will only follow him so far. "I spin the other stuff, but it's not what we here in Chicago are used to," he says.
Jimmy Sturr, who's recorded with Charlie Daniels and Willie Nelson, puts it more bluntly: "I get a lot of criticism from the Chicago people telling me, 'You're too country.'" Polka audiences in Texas and Wisconsin are far more accepting of new and different styles, he says, and polka music's odds of survival look much better when you look past the city limits: polka festivals in places like Frankenmuth, Michigan, and Ocean City, Maryland, draw thousands of fans every summer.
Eddie Blazonczyk Jr., who's taken over his father's role as front man for the Versatones, agrees. "The people who say it's dying are the people who say there were lounges all over town playing polkas seven days a week. Now it's in the church festivals and folk festivals. It hasn't died. It's just changed form."
Even if rumors of the death of polka have been exaggerated, that still leaves honky and push facing the threat of extinction. Stras is doing his best to preserve the local musical traditions: In 2000 he started his own label, K&C Recordings, dedicated to rereleasing classic Chicago polka albums and capturing live performances by current bands like the Ampol-Aires and Stas Golonka & the Chicago Masters. But he also hopes Chicago polka will adapt. "Of course it's important to keep our roots," he says. "But to be accepted by a wider fan base, you have to get away from that. Like country music--they're singing about what's going on in today's society. I don't know if you can adapt a polka song to a lot of those themes. But that's the road you have to go down."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni, Benenati Photography.