Various Artists

Polish Village Music

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In 1995, Arhoolie released Polish Village Music, a 25-track anthology of polkas, mazurkas, obereks, and other rural folk forms from northeastern central Europe recorded in North America during the years 1927-1933. It still stands as one of the very best samplers of traditional Polish dance music ever made available to the public in the digital format. There are a lot of treasures on this superb compilation. One of the most irresistible is "Diabel w Niewoli" ("Devil in Captivity" or "Devil in Jail"), a mazurka for solo accordion performed by Wladislaw Polak, who also sings a song describing a young man whose fondest wish is to examine elastic garters while they are being worn by an attractive female companion. "At Blonie Near Krakow" is a captivating oberek played by Stefan Skrabut & His Chlopska Orkiestra. The collection's insightful liner notes describe this as a "cheerfully infanticidal tune." The ensemble, recording under a pseudonym for greater appeal to the Polish-American public, was actually the Lemko-Ukranian Orchestra Bratia Holutiaky-Kuziany, with marvelous "oy-yoy-yoy" enhanced singing by Elena Marsecz and Teklia Diaczek. A dexterous squeeze box handler who sang in a funny, high-pitched voice without ever using any words, Bruno Rudzinski recorded his "Tramla Polka" and several other numbers on July 9, 1928 but none thereafter, as he sustained damage to his larynx during a mugging. In one of those multicultural chain reactions that make life so rewarding, in 1934, Tex Owens used Rudzinski's "Pawel Walc" as the basis for "Cattle Call," the song that would make Eddy Arnold famous during the '40s. "Last Evening in Podhale," a fine example of southeastern Polish goral or highland fiddling, is spun out by Karol Stoch's Original Highlander Music. This style is said to be endemic to that portion of the Tatra Mountains, and Stoch's recordings were the first to document it for the public. The notes tell us that "contemporary gorale still hold him in high regard". "Zlota Rybka" ("The Golden Fish") is a polka done up by Stanley Stasiak's Orchestra from Tarnow with vocal by Walus Mossakowski. Tarnow is in southern Poland between Krakow and Rzeszow. "Father Drinks and so Do I" was recorded in 1929 by the Orkiestra Wyskowskiego, a clarinet, violin, and string bass trio, and vocalist Frank P. Kawa. In 1932, violinist Wladislaw Dombkowski's Orchestra performed an oberek with a title that translates as "In the Bean Field." The song is sung by one Jan Kalwaic; Dombkowski's biggest hit would prove to be his "Helena Polka," which he introduced in 1930.

Performed here by singing squeeze box handler Aleksander Brokowski, "Cialy do Boxy" ("Charlie in Jail") is another polka that became enormously popular in the U.S. as variously "Charlie the Boxer," "Charlie Was a Boxer," and, best of all perhaps, "Charlie in the Box," a totally overlooked interpretation by Austrian/Slovakian/American clarinetist Jolly Jack Robel & His Radio Band, which has yet to resurface on CD or MP3. Brokowski brays like a donkey during his somewhat cynical-sounding vocal. During the years 1917-1930, Jan Wanat emitted a perfect stream of solo accordion records. He is heard on this collection with his Happy Quartet performing an oberek named "Stach," a common name that was often anglicized into Stanley as Poles immigrated to North America. In 1928, Jozef Brangel & the Village Orchestra recorded an "Oberek from Gorlice," at that time a rural community southeast of Krakow, not far from the Slovakian border. On the same day, clarinetist Piotr Kopacz and his little string band recorded a "Kicking Oberek," presumably at the same studio in Chicago. It is quite likely that Kopacz is the clarinetist heard with Brangel's group. Ignacy Podgorski, a music publisher, music shop owner, and violinist from Philadelphia, recorded a polka in 1933 entitled "Andzia Tended Peacocks" with vocal by Michal J. Kendra and a perky little ensemble of trumpet, clarinet, piano, and string bass. "I'm Not Afraid of the Uhlan" refers to cavalrymen who customarily carried sabers and lances. This polka was sung by a Chicago-based character billed as Jan Piwowarczyk (John the Drinker) with backing by the Orkiestra Jana Dranki. In connection with this particular recording, the excellent and informative liner notes by Richard K. Spottswood explain that "a particularly appealing feature of Polish village dance tunes is the melodic structure, which can shift between several keys, and between the major and the minor." Piwowarczyk also sings on "Bandits at the Inn" with the Makowska Orkiestra Dzialowego, a group from the village of Makow (due north of Krakow), operating under the direction of George Dzialowy. Waclaw Turchandowicz sings a rather misogynistic "Beggar's Song" that compares domestic discord with large-scale ethnic and national tensions which stemmed from the ever-changing boundary lines of the perpetually contested motherland: "My wife came from the German partition/I'm telling you, she is a witch/She always complains/that I came from the Russian partition/It's like Europe at home." A soldier's song entitled "The Magazine in Berne" sung by Adam Baczek has an opening verse that is virtually incomprehensible even to those who understand Polish; the main body of the lyrics consist of these sobering words: "Oy, I live, I live, I don't know what for/I was drafted, I don't know what for." Altogether, this album is a gold mine of great, old-fashioned Polish entertainment, and every single track is well-worth experiencing time and again. The records sold well in their day not least because retailers found them to be useful for demonstrating phonographs, as the rhythmic booming of the bowed string bass made quite an impression upon the listeners.

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