Polka music and dance came to Texas with immigrants from Eastern Europe, principally the Czech, German, and Polish cultures. The exact origins of polka are debatable. The Czechs claim credit for inventing the dance about 1830 in a village near Prague. The Czech term pulka means “half-step,” characteristic of the 2/4 time of the lively dance. The Poles state that the Czechs adopted the dance after observing a Polish girl performing it in a Polish village and named the dance Polka—a Polish word that literally translates as “Polish woman.” Nevertheless, the dance soon became popular in Prague and later met with favorable applause in Paris in the 1840s. As polka’s popularity spread across Europe, this set the stage for waves of immigrants to bring it to Texas. Coming in search of a new life and land to homestead and farm, Czech, Polish, Slovenian, and German immigrants popularized the music and dance in their homes and festivals.
A large Czech population settled the rich farm lands in the central regions of the state. They brought with them their love of music in general and polka in particular. They formed organizations such as SPJST (Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas), Sokol, and KJT (Katolická Jednota Texaská or Czech Catholic Union) which helped to maintain their heritage while also providing socialization, insurance, and promotion of strong minds and bodies. These organizations and the halls that they built became natural venues for dances, providing a forum for preserving and advancing polka music and dance. The Czechs were largely Catholic, and the church communities they established were important to polka preservation. The Czech influence extends along the IH 10 corridor connecting Houston and Seguin, stretching north to Dallas and south to Victoria. The Czech heritage still dominates polka music in Texas.
German immigrants settled throughout Central Texas. Like their Czech neighbors, the Germans banded together for their common good. They formed vereins (associations) to promote their general welfare. These associations also became centers for the preservation of polka music, and German artisans built a number of interesting dance halls around the state. New Braunfels has remained a center for German-heritage polka.
In the mid-1850s Polish immigrants came to South Texas and established Panna Maria—the first permanent Polish settlement in America. The Poles also brought their particular style of polka music and dance to an area to the northwest of Houston, primarily Washington, Grimes, and Burleson counties. They formed local organizations, allying themselves with the Polish National Alliance, and built halls in some locations, but the music was preserved mainly within the families and played a major role in events such as weddings and anniversaries. While the accordion ultimately emerged as the lead instrument for Czech and German polka, the fiddle remained a centerpiece in Polish music.
The three primary polka cultures in Texas (Czech, German, and Polish) brought with them their traditional costumes, a part of their heritage. These costumes are sometimes seen at major festivals and dances, helping to keep the traditions and the ethnic folk dances alive.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the polka of the Czech, Polish, and especially the German cultures also influenced Tejano musicians in South Texas as well as their musical counterparts in northern Mexico. Accordionists such as Narciso Martínez, Santiago Jiménez, Sr., and later Valerio Longoria incorporated polka into their own styles into a new musical form—conjunto.
Throughout the history of polka in Texas, a number of bands, many of them of Czech heritage, have promoted and carried on the legacy of polka. The Baca Band of Fayetteville was founded by patriarch Frank Baca in 1892 and continued through three generations into the twenty-first century. The Leo Majek Orchestra, based in Corpus Christi, has continued for more than 100 years through four generations. The Patek Orchestra, originally founded by John Patek, Sr., in Shiner between 1910 and 1920, performed through most of the twentieth century. The Vrazels’ Polka Band from Buckholts, Texas, performed for over fifty years, and co-leader Alfred Vrazel still hosted his longest-running polka radio show in 2011. Lee Roy Matocha (the “Fayetteville Flash”) played for over fifty years, leading his own polka orchestra for more than three decades, and promoting polka music through his radio programs on many stations in Texas. The Jodie Mikula Orchestra of Ennis and Harry Czarnek’s Texas Dutchmen contributed greatly to the development and preservation of Texas polka music. The Tony Janak band has entertained for fifty years.
The legendary Hi-Toppers from New Braunfels performed for almost forty years. Ray Krenek, a multi-instrumentalist whose talents included playing the dulcimer, and the Krenek family made music throughout Texas for many years. Texas music legend Adolph Hofner was a well-known proponent of polka (with his Moulton roots), and he continued playing polka music even as he helped popularize western swing.
Many other notable musicians have contributed to the state’s polka tradition. Texas polka musician Leonard “Doc” Darilek of Moulton played his trumpet for audiences for more than seventy-five years. Faustyn Langowski, a musician of Polish ancestry from Bremond, Texas, had a long career on clarinet and sax as one of the premier sidemen in Texas polka. Daniel Cendalski has performed on fiddle for more than sixty years and comes from several generations of fiddle players going back to their native Poland.
In the early twenty-first century, there were at least fifty polka bands in Texas. The majority of the ensembles were of the Czech heritage, and these bands existed throughout Central Texas. Most of the German bands were centered in the New Braunfels area. Brian Marshall and the Tex-Slavik Playboys have documented and preserved Texas Polish music. The Sound Connection from Houston represented Slovenian music. While most groups are based in Central and South Texas, the popular modern polka ensemble Brave Combo hails from Denton in North Texas.
Throughout the years, organizations, publications, and numerous events have helped carry on the legacy of polka in the state. The Texas Polka News, one of the premier polka newspapers in the United States, was founded by bandleader and disc jockey Julius Tupa. The monthly periodical features articles on polka music and dance as well as information on related events in Texas and out of state. Tupa also established the Texas Polka Music Association in 1991. It carried out its mission to “preserve and promote polka music in Texas by recognizing those persons and organizations that had made substantial contributions to Texas polka music” through an annual awards ceremony including the coveted Lifetime Awards. Recipients included John Baca, Adolph Hofner, Valerio Longoria, Jodie Mikula, Alfred Vrazel, Leonard Darilek, Ben Oldag, and others. Fittingly, the last recipient was Tupa himself in 1998. After his death in 2002, his wife continued publishing The Texas Polka News with the help of pro-bono writer John Rivard until she sold the periodical to Theresa Cernoch Parker in 2014. Texas Chapter 1 of the Polka Lovers Klub of America also produced a biannual newsletter—Polka Notes.
Two Texas chapters of the Polka Lovers Klub of America consist of more than 900 members who promote polka through dance groups, parades, performances at nursing homes, and other activities. Active dance clubs in such towns as Sealy, Wallis, Rosenberg, New Braunfels, Yoakum, and DaCosta also preserve polka dancing.
Central and South Texas radio stations out of Cameron, El Campo, Elgin, Fredericksburg, Hallettsville, La Grange, Schulenburg, Kenedy, Yoakum, and other communities regularly broadcast polka programs.
Polka lovers can enjoy music and dancing at a number of festivals across Texas. Annual celebrations include the Czech Heritage Festival in Corpus Christi, Hallettsville Polka and Sausage Fest, National Polka Festival in Ennis, Westfest in West, Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg, and Wurstfest in New Braunfels. There are many more. Church picnics also help to preserve and promote polka music and dance in Texas. Polka bands are hired to entertain the crowds and play for the dancers.
A movement to preserve the history of Texas polka music led to establishing the Texas Polka Music Museum, which opened in Schulenburg in 2010.