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The Bill Naizer Brass Band, Granger, Texas, ca. 1935. The 1930s was the heyday of Czech music. Dance orchestras played traditional waltzes and polkas, and marching bands played for outdoor festivals. Photograph by Jno. P. Trlica, Studio, Granger, Texas. UTSA Libraries Special Collections, No. 97-493.
CZECH MUSIC. The musical traditions of Czech Texans have long been considered one of the most important and enduring aspects of Czech culture in the state. The themes that distinguish the music as unique are commonly shared by all Czechs, regardless of their religious and ethnic differences, and can easily be traced back in lyrics and style to Bohemia and Moravia, the ancestral homes of most Czech Texans. The "high" musical culture of the Czech homelands found its largest audience among certain Czech communities in the northern United States, but it never reached the same degree of popularity among Czech Texans as did traditional and folk music. However, touring Czech musicians playing the works of composers Antonin Dvořak (1841–1904), Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), and Leoš Janaček (1854–1928) have found large and enthusiastic audiences in larger Texas cities. Even classical and operatic Czech works often are based on folk music traditions and themes.
For Czechs in Texas, as in other places, folk music was a crucial part of their ethnic and national identity and of their daily lives. Not simply a form of entertainment to be passively enjoyed, it was an activity that invited the participation of all. Family gatherings, social visits, and fraternal meetings all occasioned singing, and in Czech Texas communities, Saturday nights were filled with dancing and Sunday mornings with hymns. Traditional songs ranged from the melancholy A ja sam (I Alone) to the drunken Nemelem, nemelem (We Are Not Milling). The most popular Czech songs in Texas were the Czech waltz Louka Zelena (Green Meadow) as well as songs celebrating love and the beauty of nature such as Okolo Libice (Around Libice), Na Bilej Hore (On White Mountain), and Pod dubem, za dubem (Over the Oak, Under the Oak). When played instrumentally, most of these tunes require only common instruments such as clarinets, accordions, and horns, but traditional instruments such as the cymbal (a Czech dulcimer native to Moravia), or the flastinet (a Czech import, which requires a skilled player to turn a crank and produce sound by allowing air to enter and blow past reeds) were utilized occasionally.
Dances were first held among the immigrants in private houses, but once fraternal halls such as those belonging to the SPJST were built, large-scale community dances on Saturday evenings or on special occasions became the norm. Since beer often was not allowed in the hall, men would divide their time between outside drinking and inside dancing, while the women sat on benches around the dance floor chatting and waiting to be asked to dance. The usual entertainment for these occasions included "orchestras" playing traditional Czech tunes, such as waltzes and polkas. These same groups often would be expanded and organized into a more military, marching-band style when playing at larger, outdoor celebrations. The beseda, literally "social gathering," was a dance performed at such special events and festivals. Resembling an American square dance, it involved a number of couples dancing in formation, with hands usually kept on the hips, using polka and waltz steps.
Until the 1950s and 1960s, when rock-and-roll and country influences began to erode traditional themes, folk music survived as the most popular form of music within the Czech communities. In the 1930s, the heyday of Czech music, scores of Czech bands could be found playing in the state on any given Saturday night. The Majek Orchestra could be heard on a station broadcast from Cameron, and the Joe Merlick Orchestra was heard in Fort Worth on KFJZ. Between 1935 and 1940, the polka program Adolph and the Boys, sponsored by Gold Chain Flour, was broadcast from Schulenburg on weekend mornings. For years, the Lee Roy Matocha Czech Hour was broadcast three times weekly from KVLG–AM in La Grange. The most popular of the Texas Czech bands was the Baca Band of Fayetteville. It was founded in 1892 by Frank Baca. He died in 1907, but other family members kept the band together and touring throughout the state and even in other parts of the country. Adolph Hofner, who grew up in an ethnic Czech family in San Antonio, is generally recognized as having introduced the Czech polka into Western Swing music.
Czech Texans continue to celebrate their musical heritage through a variety of festivals and activities, such as the annual National Polka Festival in Ennis, the South Texas Polka and Sausage Fest in Hallettsville, and Westfest in West. Fayette County, with the highest concentration of ethnic Czechs in Texas, hosts several events each year. Other Texas communities, including Praha and Shiner, still attract sizable crowds to various Czech musical and religious celebrations.
Clinton Machann and James W. Mendl, Krásná Ameríka: A Study of the Texas Czechs, 1851–1939 (Austin, Eakin Press, 1983).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Brandy Schnautz, "Czech Music," accessed April 29, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xbcay.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on December 14, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.