Grkman’s Band Keeps Polka Jumping

Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on November 5, 2000

When youre weary and troubles weigh you down, do what Joe Grkman Sr. does: grab a partner and dance a polka.

The sprightly beat of Slovenian folk music and the strains of the button box accordion will break up the clouds as almost nothing else can. Its hard to be depressed when youre stepping to Roll Out the Buttons and Grandpas Coal Mining Song.

Its a happy music for a happy people, Grkman says.

In Pennsylvanias polka world, the 75-year-old Grkman (pronounced Gerkman)founder and oldest member of the Joe Grkman Bandis something of a superstar. The band, which includes three generations of Grkmans living in and around Yukon (pop. 1,200), has recorded six albums of original Cleveland-style Slovenian music and traditional folk songs. Brought to America by immigrants after World War II, its distinctive for its Anglicized lyrics and American beat. Its called Cleveland-style because many Slovenians settled in eastern Ohio.

Formed in 1967, the Grkman band has played everything from weddings and family parties to a concert at the Kennedy Center, where they represented Pennsylvania in concerts featuring one act from each of the 50 states. In 1995, Grkman was inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame, sponsored by the American-Slovenian Polka Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio.

We wanted to identify anyone who has made a significant achievement in Cleveland-style Slovenian folk music, and Joe Grkman has delighted audiences for years with his unique renditions, says Fred Kuhar, Hall of Fame president.

In 1997 and 1998, Grkman received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, recognizing his achievements in cultural preservation.

I never thought I would get this far, says Grkman, a man of few words. He lets his music do most of the talking.

The youngest of six children born to an immigrant coal miner, Grkman was bashful except when it came to music. As a teenager, a neighbor and local polka celebrity would take him to nearby Greensburg to listen as he played the accordion on his radio show. The young man longed for a spiffy instrument, but couldnt afford one. Instead of hitting the music circuit, he followed his fathers footsteps into the mines.

All I thought about was music, Grkman remembers. I used to hum songs while I was working.

In 1948, he married a Slovenian immigrant girl named Elsie Lazar, whom he walked 15 miles to visit. A few months later, another dream came true: he bought his first accordion. A mine strike gave Grkman time to learn to play, and before long folks were inviting him to entertain.

He had no trouble getting invited to play; more Slovenians live in western Pennsylvania than any other part of the state, and its sometimes dubbed the Polka Belt. Usually he wasnt paid, but that didnt matter.

It was my enjoyment just to be among them, he says.

Grkman labored in the mines until 1982, but his real vocation was music. Wherever you found Slovenians having a good time, he was playing songs his parents had taught him.

People identified with more than just the songs, says Joe Grkman Jr., a band member and high school teacher. They identified with the idea of being proud of ones heritage and proud of ones family.

Polka got a boost when Frank Yankovich, the Polka King, brought the music into the mainstream for a while. That interest inspired Grkman to create his band with two nephews and his sons, Joe Jr. and Steve, on button boxes, a slightly smaller version of the accordion, with buttons instead of piano keys. The band went full tilt through the 70s, playing throughout the United States and Europe and recording four albums.

By the early 80s, though, things quieted down. The generation of immigrants who had brought Slovenian music to America were fading away, and a new American style had all but erased ethnic music. The Grkmans played weddings and special events, but band members also wanted to spend less time traveling and more with their families.

Then in the 1990s, young people discovered global music, opening doors for a renewed appreciation of polka. In 1990, the Gkrman Bands recording, Heavy Button Music, was so successful it prompted Grkmania The Button Box Polka Craze. Fortunes soared even higher when they performed on a Grammy Award-nominated album, Putting It All Together, with Walter Ostanek and Friends.

Grkman insists hes not ready to give up the band any time soon. He exercises, eats healthfully, and practices music to stay in top form.

If I keep feeling the way I do now, Im going to keep going, he says. I really enjoy being out among the people. It would be hard to give this up.