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Is it the last call for polka?

The Dreadnought’s Nick Smyth went from writing punk-polka anthem Polka Never Dies to a very insightful blog called Polka Might Actually Die a decade later.

Genre might die, according to Canadian musician and assistant philosophy professor

Stage is set for a Western Senators polka party at Danceland in Manitou Beach, Sask. (Jordan Rody)

Genres come and genres go.

Some, like the third wave of ska in the '90s, briefly took the world by storm. In the '70s, disco suffered a highly publicized demise, while other decades saw genres like emo and screamo peak with specific generations, then vanish quietly.

Polka, however, has lasted for decades. Gaining popularity after the Second World War due to its positive and happy nature, it is still warmly embraced in Saskatchewan.

There was a time when schools taught youth to play accordions, dance halls were packed nightly and entire communities grew from the sheer love of the music. Saskatchewan was such a hot bed for polka that in the mid- to late '90s it became the final destination for the last-ever tour of America's Polka King, alongside Sask.'s Western Senators and Canada's Polka King, Walter Ostanek.

By the end of the decade, polka and its large local fan base even had their own documentary, They Live to Polka.

The Western Senators in Regina while on tour with America's Polka King Frankie Yankovic in 1995. (Brian Sklar)

From punk to polka to politics

Today, as its fan base and popularity slowly diminishes, the future of the genre comes into question. Thankfully, new, young and exciting polka bands continue to perform and celebrate the genre across North America.

In Canada, The Dreadnoughts is one of the proudest groups still going. The band releases a unique hybrid of everything from punk to polka, klezmer to sea shanties.

The Dreadnoughts play a unique hybrid of everything from punk to polka, klezmer to sea shanties. (Basia Karpinski)

Lead singer and accordionist Nick Smyth went from writing the punk-centric polka anthem Polka Never Dies in 2011 to a recent insightful blog post called Polka Might Actually Die. In it, he asks if it is finally the last call for the genre.

According to Smyth, a sound that was once silly, fun, light-hearted and joyous is now in serious decline, and one of the main reasons for it is politics.

Celebrated punk and polka musician Nicholas Smyth from The Dreadnoughts worries if we don't do something now: Polka Might Actually Die. He's even written a blog with that title. CBC's Taron Cochrane joins host Shauna Powers to explore what it will take to keep the beloved genre alive and well.

"As a culture you have sort of a choice, a collective choice to make. Do you continue to allow our lives to get increasingly swallowed up by big tech and by people who make money off of our isolation or do you push back a little?" he asks. "To me, that's what makes polka the most radical choice. From my angle, its almost a punk rock decision to make."

DIY as a saving grace

Although Smyth's viewpoints are heavily rooted in his full-time career as an assistant philosophy professor, many of his ideas on how to save the genre aren't complex.

"In general, the world is becoming more isolated and has been for a long time, and you can't resist that," Smyth says. "But what you can do is get involved in your local community. You can join a band, you can start a band. Maybe you can get involved in organizing and talking to local halls and seeing if they'll host what you're doing."

Between Dreadnoughts album releases and tours, Smyth creates events and books shows with his new side-project Polka Time! The band takes a rowdy approach to traditional and familiar old-time polka songs and has brought in a crowd with ages ranging from eight to 80.

The band's inaugural event, the First Annual East Vancouver Polka Dance in 2018, was proof positive that the genre had sustainability and an opportunity for a bright future.

WATCH | The crowd fills the dance floor for Polka Time!

Just one more song

While Smyth believes that action and community will help keep the genre alive and well, Canada's King of Polka, Walter Ostanek, says it's never going to die. All it needs is some new hits, like Frankie Yankovic had in the '40s.

"It's like everything else. You can be a rock star, you can be a football star or a hockey star — you last so long and somebody else takes over," Ostanek said. 

"It's never going to die. It may never be as popular as it was, but it will still be there. And who knows? All you have to do is have one song that comes out like [Yankovic's] Just Because or Blue Skirt Waltz!"

Walter Ostanek is known as Canada's King of Polka. (CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Taron Cochrane

Senior Communications Officer

Taron Cochrane is a Senior Communications Officer with CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Saskatoon and CBC North. If it involves music, it probably interests him. Email taron.cochrane@cbc.ca

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