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All Hail, “the Beer Barrel Polka!”

April 8, 2013
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Here is a rough-draft of a section of my Accordion History book in honour of today’s anniversary of the day the light-hearted if frantic “Beer Barrel Polka” hit #1 on the pop-charts as a distraction in the otherwise tumultuous and rather disturbing year of 1939.

Please pardon our mess as this is still being worked on obviously.

a broken 3-row bayan keyboard, in 3-D!

(in 3-D! gotta go find my red/blue glasses)

If you asked my children’s great-grandmother for a tune, she will most assuredly have sung The Beer Barrel Polka.   She probably learned it from radio or the local juke box when she was a teenager as it surged across North America in 1939 during the Depression.  Despite the ubiquitous antiquity [(who doesn’t know this tune?)], it didn’t have its origin in folk music – Jaromir Vejvoda wrote it as a pop tune for his dad’s brass-band near Prague in 1927.  It was published with Czech words as Skoda Laska, “Unrequited Love,” and then spread through Europe under different translations until accordion-band leader Will Glahe laid down an instrumental version, with his accordion, lead sax, and a Hawaiian style slide-guitar solo, and that version led a successful German-invasion of the North American pop-charts, selling around a million records and another million copies of sheet-music in the next five years.

Hasty English lyrics were handed to the up and coming Andrews Sisters, whose vocal-driven cover[ barrelled up the charts?] [rolled their Beer Barrel version] [to conquer the charts ]as well that same summer of ’39.  The Andrews’ “Roll out the Barrel” version lacked accordions, but with “sisters group” harmonies swiped from New Orleans’ innovative Boswell Sisters, it lifted spirits (in several senses) as the Depression headed towards war.

With the B.B. Polka came new “international” style polka-bands to play it.  Some stayed rooted in ethnic communities and others branched out to play more mainstream events.  Some like Adoph Hofner in Texas combined polkas with western music to form Czech-language western swing (and to confound neophyte modern music critics like myself.)

It was a curious time in popular music, when genres were in flux and being born.  Elijah Wald notes,  “When The Los Angeles Times did a feature on the Hillbilly music boom in 1940, it singled out The Beer Barrel Polka as the biggest hit in the genre.”  Glahé’s original instrumental seems like a stylistic anomaly with it’s saxophone, accordion and guitar solos, but together they fed into the European immigrant influence on the Western Swing branch of what was later called Country music.[ Was this all a quote?] [How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, Elijah Wald, Oxford University Press, 2009 (140-141)]

Record companies were in dire-straights with both the Depression and radio leading many of their audience to stop buying records.  Roll out the Barrel recharged the industry, quite literally saving it with the upbeat polka and by the new jukebox.  [Some reports have it that this one song did more to save the recording industry than any other.  ///ref?///]As one Spokane jukebox operator said, “I have been using this platter more than a month and many times it collected as many nickels as all the other records on the machine together.  I have had them wear out in two days.”(Passion for Polka: Old-Time Ethnic Music in America: Victor Greene, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992. 130)

Not all accordionists were happy with the success of their instrumental[ “ethnic”] brethren.  Some, like Pietro Deiro, protested against Beer Barrel and other popular polkas as “inferior.”  They pinned their hope on raising the accordion up to rank with “serious” instruments, with the side-goal of selling their own published arrangements and compositions, which of course fit their definition of “quality.”  But their tastes did not translate to the popular audience plugging jukeboxes, who fell for the polka hard, and when they were done, moved on to other non-serious things.

As the polka-fad faded, The Beer Barrel Polka remained as part of the obligatory popular-accordion repertory.  Dick Contino played it when Ed Sullivan took his show over to Russia in 1959 at the Cold War’s (and the accordion’s) height.  In later years after its triumphs were forgotten, the BBP became a cliche without a history.  If you pulled out an accordion, it was the dumb-song people always jokingly asked you to play.  Little did they – or you–  know, that it had dominated [been on top of ]the pop-charts when your great grandmother was young.

 

PS.  Speaking of inescapable repertoire, I assumed that an accordion-themed musical greeting-card I received would play the B.B. Polka, but when I opened it “the Chicken Dance” cheeped out.  This rootless “folk” tune was actually written by a German oom-pah band in the 1950s, and later hit the pop charts as “The Birdy Song” for the Tweets in 1980.  It has won polls as “the most annoying song of all time.”  The Teletubbies theme came a close second.  The Chicken Dance ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/848510.stm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chicken_Dance  (Not to be confused with the almost equally annoying “Chicken Song” by the British comedy puppets Spitting Image.) 

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