Polish Village Music

Historic Polish-American recordings from Chicago and New York 1927 - 1933

Arhoolie Folklyric CD 7031

And still they come.  Yet another release of first generation immigrant music in the New World, this time featuring Poles based largely in and around Chicago.  Vibrant and exciting (with all the magnificent recent issues I'm rapidly running out of superlatives), the music exudes concentrated doses of infectious energy.

The notes call this CD a 'Re-issue', yet, sharing merely two tracks with its vinyl precursor (Folklyric 9026), this serves to immodestly self-underestimate its historical importance.  With nearly twice as many tracks, the scope has been broadened considerably.

Exciting is the adjective used to describe Orkiestra Majkuta, heard here on two selections, and they are not wrong.  One violin, though, is mixed so far forward as to virtually obscure both the second violin and clarinet.  Baczkowski Wiejska Orkiestra is the largest featured ensemble, but there is little attempt at exploiting the line-up of seven melody instruments.  In fact, only one of the clarinets appears to be playing a contrapuntal line.  Even in the smaller groups, it's often difficult to aurally distinguish separate melody lines amidst the fairly standard two or three violin plus clarinet format.

Stylistically, the fiddle players are pretty consistently clean in their execution, with more than a touch of the professional Eastern European gypsy technique present at times.  The player on Zlota Rybka sounds more like a conservatory trained musician - more 'urbane' as the notes have it - but then again so did Clark Kessinger, and he certainly wasn't (hear his entire recorded output on the brand new, and highly recommended, three volume set from Document).  Pijal Ojciec, Pije Ja features a clarinet played appealingly in that 'laughing' style favoured by certain musicians from New Orleans to the Middle East.

Karel Stoch's ensemble (right) has been well served by vinyl reissues, and now we find him brought into the modern technological format (the imminent obsolescence of the 79 minute CD format requires extensive discussion, but elsewhere).  Several well known photos of the band picture a cello, and the notes here also make that claim, but I find the deep rumbling tone indistinguishable from the larger bowed bass present on every other ensemble heard here.

Vocally, the style tends more towards the 'tradition' than the 'conservatory.' The self-accompanied singer Aleksander Brokowski is delightfully rough and ready, a Polish equivalent of Frank Quinn or Fiddling John Carson.  As with much folk music the world over, Ostatki Na Podhalu celebrates imbibing (vodka is the intoxicant here, but substitute cider, palm wine, ginger jake, tequila, moonshine, mountain dew, or any other ethnic variant you happen to be listening to at the time) and woven (no substitutes accepted).  Regarding the latter, the ironic comment is made that the girls have married rich men.  So, what else is new? Rjal Ojciec, Pije Ja echoes another common sentiment (viz.  the Skillett Lickers or Bo Carter): 'it's nobody's business' what the singer does.

Similarity of both music and dance types, whether arising independently or evolving via cross pollination, often enabled the same title to be released in series aimed at different ethnic groups.  Thus, for example, much of Pawlo Humeniuk's output appeared not only in the Ukrainian series but also in those aimed at sundry East European record buyers; while an ethnically homogeneous track by the Flanagan Brothers, from County Wexford, was issued for consumption by (among others) immigrant Italians and Poles.  Here, Tan Pod Krakowem Na Bloniach - evidently a bargain basement version of a longer ballad, sharing at least some motifs, as well as a cheery little tune, with The Twa Sisters - is Lemko-Ukranian in terms of dance form and rhythm, with little to identify it as specifically Polish.

Of musical highlights there are many, but a few soar above the universally high standard of excellence.  Tramla Polka, for instance, is reminiscent of the classic Goons number The Ying Tong Song.  In format it's a simple sixteen bar tune, but the manic near-falsetto scat vocal, whistling, laughter and perhaps (there's a language barrier) dance calls, allow it to transcend its inherent limitations and boredom factor.  Waclaw Turchanowicz has a fabulous fiddle style, featuring almost constant double stopping, so that it sounds more like a hurdy gurdy.  And it's easy to see from the exciting polka Na Boisku exactly why Frank Dukla's band was so popular.  His output features tonally clean and melodically exciting sound, dominated by a prominent bass player frantically bowing his instrument much more after the fashion of a cellist.

Dick Spottswood has really outshone himself with the notes, transcending even his usual high standards.  The headnotes to track 18, in particular, are spot-on perceptive.  On the discographical front, all known data are given except the issue numbers of the original 78 r.p.m.  discs.  If you own Spottswood's seven volume magnum opus, Ethnic Music on Records (and you should), you're in clover, if not, you're in something less appealing.  This recurring 'partial data only' philosophy held by many American reissue companies simply makes no sense.

The cover sports a wonderful archival photograph (digitally colourised) indicating, yet again, how flexible performers often were regarding instrumentation.  Never mind that saxophones were never part of the recording line-up during the period covered by this release (1927 to 1933).  Concertina, fiddle and sax sit in apparent perfect harmony as an accompaniment to social dancing on the occasion depicted (left).

A friend has been playing nothing else but this CD in her car for the past month. Buy this and find out why.

Keith Chandler - 21.7.97

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