Though a few Poles had arrived in Texas prior to the 1850s, the first major immigration from Poland occurred in 1854 when approximately 100 families from the Upper Silesia region traveled to South Texas and established Panna Maria, the oldest permanent Polish settlement in the United States. Eventually, pioneers formed other communities, including Bandera, the second oldest Polish settlement in the nation, as well as the South Texas towns of Cestohowa, St. Hedwig, Falls City, and Kosciusko. A sizeable Polish population also resided in San Antonio. A second major wave of Polish immigration to Texas occurred in the 1870s when settlers arrived throughout Central and Southeast Texas and established strongholds in Bremond, Anderson, Brenham, Chappell Hill, New Waverly, and Stoneham. By the early 1900s a growing Polish population also lived in Houston. Groups of Polish immigrants continued to arrive in Texas throughout the twentieth century especially after World War II and during the 1980s in the wake of the Solidarity Movement. Throughout the history of their immigration to Texas, Poles have brought with them their Catholic faith, cultural traditions, and music in the form of religious songs, folk tunes and dances (such as their most-loved dance, the oberek), and polka, as well as an appreciation for the Polish classical composers.
Polish music in Texas from the first settlers in Panna Maria in the 1850s up to the present day has been maintained primarily in church music. The daily Angelus is known in Polish as “Aniol Pański.” Its three verses about the blessed event when Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary are each followed by a refrain of the “Hail Mary,” all sung in a special chant. The “Aniol Pański” was also sung at the burial ceremonies in the cemetery following the traditional hymn “Witaj, Królowo nieba” (“Hail, Queen of Heaven”) asking Mary for comfort in our grief. In the early twenty-first century, “Witaj, Królowo nieba” was still sung in Panna Maria, especially at the death of older parishioners, as well as for funerals in Bremond and Houston.
Polish hymns handed down through the generations in Panna Maria reflect the major religious seasons that fall on the Catholic ecclesiastical calendar. The primary Polish hymn for Advent has been “Archaniol Boży Gabryel” (“Archangel of God, Gabriel”) telling of Gabriel’s appearance to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most of the Polish hymns that have survived occur at Christmas and are known as koledy. The Polish choir in Panna Maria maintains a large number of these hymns and performs them in church and at nursing homes in the area of Karnes and Wilson counties. Traditionally, the singing starts in church on Christmas Eve with “Wśród nocnej ciszy” (“In Midnight Stillness”). A Pasterka (Polish Shepherd’s Mass) is celebrated at midnight, and the singing starts a half-hour before midnight.
Since the 1970s another Pasterka for Karnes and Wilson County residents was added at 3 P.M. on the afternoon of Christmas Eve (December 24) so that parishioners of the Polish background from several area parishes could come to hear the koledy along with a Polish-language Mass. The afternoon Pasterka had been rotated among the Polish parishes in Karnes and Wilson counties, but since 2008 has occurred in Panna Maria. A countywide Polish choir sings for the event and for other select celebrations. Originally, Masses were celebrated in Latin with Polish and Latin hymns. In the early 2000s the Mass was celebrated in English with Polish hymns.
When Epiphany arrives, “Medrcy Świata Monarchowie,” a koleda about the Three Kings, and “Jakaz To Gwiazda” (“What Kind of Star”) are appropriate koledy to be sung.
During the Lenten season, the hymns are very mournful. “Stala Matka Bolésciwa” (“Stood the Sorrowful Mother”) was sung during the Stations of the Cross on Fridays in Lent. “Ludu, Mój Ludu” (“People, My People”) was sung by the men’s choir in Panna Maria. Throughout the 1950s the male choir in Panna Maria sang the Gospel according to St. Matthew in Polish on Palm Sunday. This was later recorded on cassette tape, and the singing can indeed be restored as the original handwritten notes for each part is in booklets handed down through the Labus family and preserved by the Panna Maria Historical Society. E. J. Moczygemba and Henry Dzuik were well-known organists in Panna Maria who played for the Polish men’s choir. “Ach, Mój Jezu” (“Oh, My Jesus”) and “Wisi na Krzyżu” (“Hanging on the Cross”) are two more popular hymns with mournful melodies. “Dobra Noc” (“Good Night”), sung to the head, hair, side, hands, back, heart, and feet of the Holy Body as well as to the Holy Cross and to the Holy Grave, is still known by a few and appropriately sung on Good Friday evening.
Perhaps the longest Polish hymn still sung in Panna Maria is the “Gorzkie Żale” (“Bitter Sorrows”). Polish choir members have kept this traditional hymn on Good Friday, and the song takes forty minutes to complete all sections. After an introductory hymn and a reading of the first set of intentions, the hymn proceeds in three parts and two more readings of intentions. The parts include performances of the “Lament Duszy” (“The Soul’s Lament”) and “Rozmowa Duszy z Matka Bolesna” (“Mary’s Dialog with the Soul”). The melodies for Part II and III are the same as for Part I, but the words are different. All this ends with “Ktorys Cierpial Za Nas Rany” (“Through Your Wounds and Sacred Passion”), a short prayer sung three times. “Gorzkie Żale” is also sung every Friday during Lent in Bremond at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
For Easter, there are hymns such as “Wstal Pan Chrystus” (“Christ the Lord Arose”).
Several hymns are sung throughout the year. For the Holy Eucharist, the most well-known is “Bądźże Pozdrowiona, Hostio Żywa” (“Be Praised, Living Host”). There are several hymns for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the most well-known is “Serdeczna Matko” (“Beloved Mother”). A prayer sung for rain or other needs is “Krolu, Boze Abrahama” (“King, God of Abraham”). The old Polish hymns usually consisted of two melody parts, and the melodies for some of these old hymns derived from the rhythms of certain old Polish dances, particularly the Chodzony or Polonaise and the Kujawiak.
Polish Texans can sing “Sto Lat” (“100 Years”) for birthdays or other special occasions, a long-held tradition in Bremond, but apparently passed down to Panna Maria residents by more recent immigrants from Poland.
During the second and much larger wave of Polish immigration to Texas in the 1870s, the settlers were mostly of peasant stock and had very few possessions. They settled a region northwest of Houston primarily in the counties of Washington, Grimes, Burleson, and Robertson. Their music has been passed down orally from generation to generation—a tradition that has prevailed into the early twenty-first century. The music of these peasant Poles typically consisted of a fiddle, a bowed bass, and an occasional clarinet. Later, guitars, drums, and accordions were introduced. The accordion was most likely introduced from the Czech influence in Texas, as it was not accepted as a Polish instrument at the time of the 1870s Texas migration.
The Poles brought their own particular style of Polish music and dance to this area and claimed that the polka dance itself, for example, was actually of Polish origin that was made popular by the Czechs. Polish lore holds that a Czech traveling through a Polish village saw the dance being performed by a Polish girl and called the dance Polka, a Polish term that literally translates as “Polish Woman.” The fiddle remained the centerpiece in Polish polkas.
Music was played at all weddings and family gatherings, and this tradition continues today. Until the 1980s formal recordings of this music were not considered a necessity as it was not looked upon as a marketing tool. Only when the tradition started weakening did certain musicians take it upon themselves to “document” the age-old tunes.
Two distinct styles of popular Polish music exist in Texas. They reflect regional differences that came to America with the Polish settlers. Poles in the Chappell Hill/Brenham area had a rhythmic sawing style that created strong rhythms, while a more melodic sound dominated the Bremond area, the largest Polish settlement in Texas.
Because of the distance and separation of Texas from the northern states, the instrumentation and sound of Polish music in Texas did not Americanize as it did in Chicago and New York. In fact, many Texas Poles shunned the idea of horns in Texas Polish bands, because they felt that it “Czechanized” the music. That is not to say that Texas Poles did not enjoy and support the dominant Czech sound found in Texas. The Poles were simply proud of their own heritage.
The South Texas Polish/International Folk Dancers/Singers folk group studies Polish folk songs, including the dances and folk songs that did not get passed down through the years. “Szla Dziewecka Do Laseczka” (“The Girl Went to the Forest”) is a typical Silesian folk song. Silesia (Slask) is the region near the southern part of Poland from which the first Polish settlers came to Texas.
Polish groups that migrated to Texas after World War II or during the 1980s after Solidarity are much closer to certain folk songs or popular Polish songs and can be heard singing in their homes or at Polish-American centers like the one in San Antonio. One of those songs, “W Poniedzialek Rano” (“On Monday Morning”) goes through the weekdays with father and child (the singer) mowing, raking, drying, pitching, stacking, and hauling the hay. On Sunday morning, the father and child rest while the krowi (cows) eat the hay. The Bremond version of this tune has the father and son drinking up their profits on Saturday and crying on Sunday.
Many songs for Polish folk dance music were brought into Texas on records, cassette tapes, and later on CDs by Panna Maria historian Elaine Dolores Moczygemba from her Polish folk dance studies, beginning about 1970 onward; they were not handed down through the generations. Typical Silesian dances would include Trojak, a dance for three. Silesian dances were often named after farm animals or work: Kozak (goat), Kokotek (little rooster), Golabek (little pigeon/little dove), Gasior (gander), or Kaczok (drake). The predecessor to the Polonaise was the Chodzony (walking dance) and a Silesian version is Chodzony Slaski.
Notable Polish-Texan musicians have promoted their Polish heritage during the last century. Faustyn Langowski, on clarinet and saxophone, has earned the reputation as one of the premier sidemen in Texas polka. The Bremond native grew up with several generations of musicians in his family. Not only was he well-versed in Texas Polish music, but he was equally deft in mainstream popular music of country, big band, and Dixieland. He performed at the inaugural balls of both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Fiddler Daniel Cendalski has been performing for more than sixty years and, like Langowski, comes from several generations of Polish musicians. The Texas Polka Music Association awarded Steve Okonski a Lifetime Award as an early “pioneer in performance of Polish music in Texas.” Okonski, a fiddler for more than seventy years, performed old-time Polish traditional fiddle-based music throughout Texas at weddings, family reunions, and community events. John Louis Meleski (1897–1968), born in Chappell Hill in Washington County, played fiddle with his band the White Eagles at weddings and other social events around Houston for many years. His son Florian and granddaughter Barbara carried on the family’s musical legacy. Meleski’s young accordion player, Sigmund Jozwiak (1925–2009), became a bandleader in his own right and received a Lifetime Award in 1996 as an early “pioneer in performing Polish music.” The accordionist had a major impact on the preservation of Polish music for future generations.
During the late twentieth century and into the early twenty-first century, fiddler Brian Marshall has been a major proponent of Texas Polish band music. Marshall hails from Houston but has family roots in Bremond, and, with his band, the Tex-Slavik Playboys, has carried on the legacy of Texas Polish polka and dance music.
Two organizations in Texas focus on the classical music from Poland. The Fryderyk Chopin Society of Texas in Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley and the Chopin Society of Houston are named for the great Polish composer of the Romantic Era. The Houston group stages the annual Polish Music Festival in Houston with performances that include not only the compositions of Chopin, but also Ignacy Jan Paderewski, and others.
A number of festivals also celebrate the Polish music heritage in Texas, including the Bluebonnet Festival in Chappell Hill, Houston Polish Festival, Homecoming Bazaar at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Stoneham, Polish Heritage Festival in Brenham, Polski Dzien Festival in Bremond, and numerous other church homecomings and picnics. Polish music can be heard on more than twenty radio stations across the state. Polish dance groups are active in Houston, Austin, and Dallas. San Antonio is home to the Mazurka Polish Dancers and the South Texas Polish Dancers. Visitors can enjoy Polish music and dancing along with Polish foods at the annual Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio.
Prior to 1980 there were only nine recordings in existence representing the Texas Polish style of polka—six cuts by Steve Okonski and three others by Randy and the Rockets with well-liked fiddler Pete Kwiatkowski. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, many recordings were made that document the old tunes and represent the distinct styles of Polish music in Texas. Releases, including CDs by Brian Marshall and His Tex-Slavik Playboys, have introduced Texas Polish music to new generations—both Poles and non-Poles. It should be noted that one would be hard-pressed to find the traditional fiddle-driven style of Polish music that is enjoyed in Texas today, even if he or she were to travel to Poland in search of it. This antiquated music, representing a past time, lived on in the 2000s. The tunes and musical style of Texas Polish music are unique.