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Morning Sun
  • TRUE STORIES: Roll out the barrel

  • Memorial Day, after lunching on Dickie Pallucca’s bowtie pasta with clams, rigatoni, spare ribs and salad, I lazed and visited on Fred and Judy Spigarelli’s Italianate garden patio while old world accordion music wafted through the yard.

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  • Memorial Day, after lunching on Dickie Pallucca’s bowtie pasta with clams, rigatoni, spare ribs and salad, I lazed and visited on Fred and Judy Spigarelli’s Italianate garden patio while old world accordion music wafted through the yard.
    Slovenian, Italian, and French gypsy accordion music to be exact.
    The player was Gene Corsini, who started learning the accordion in the early 1950s at age 10. He began with Emil Bogatay, who made house calls, and moved on to study with Jules Crosetto in Frontenac.
    Gene told me he gave it up for Little League baseball at age 12 or 13 and didn’t start again until he was in his 40s, when his older cousin, Jack Gerant, gave him his accordion at a family reunion and told him to keep it until he started playing again.
    After retiring from TWA 13 years ago, he started again in earnest and began going over to 50 Camp to see Johnnie Zibert to talk accordion, share music, and sometimes play with him and his son, Johnnie Joe.
    The day before I’d been over at Franklin with brother Bill, in their open-air community park near the Miners Hall Museum, watching polka dancers stutter step, stroll, waltz and twirl to the music of the Zibert’s accordions.
    Halfway through the first set, Bill requested “Beer Barrel Polka”. The Zibert’s rousing rendition got many in the crowd smiling, clapping and singing as well as dancing.
    Polka came to southeast Kansas with the central Europeans who settled here at turn of the century. Parishes and community gathering places became cultural and entertainment centers as polka dances were held there as well as at immigrant and union halls throughout the area.
    When Johnnie Joe leaned in and played runs on his accordion alongside his father, he reminded me of a rock and roll musician — tight lipped and passionate, feeling the music and the magic of the accordion connection with his father.
    Early accordions were button-operated, with diatonic tonality capable of only major scales. These were often called button boxes or cheese boxes. Chromatic and piano models, with greater ranges and key mechanisms, were prevalent by 1900.
    Accordionists were in demand among ethnic groups for weddings, dances, and parties. Some groups added banjo, bass, horns, woodwinds and drums, and by 1920, the first polka bands appeared.
    In southeast Kansas you could hear accordion polka at the Rose Bowl, Sitters, the Blue Goose, Club 50, Vignatelli’s, the Idle Hour, the Blue Moon, the Gay Parita, the Hilltop Club, the Tower Ballroom and more. Not to mention community halls and lodges from Franklin to Kansas City.
    Many polka varieties have developed over the years, influenced by the ethnic mix of each geographical area, and indeed, of each of the musicians in each polka band.
    Page 2 of 2 - Each nationality brought its own musical style, but most bands were talented enough to play for different audiences. Czechs and Germans preferred rousing oom-pah beats; Slovenians, smooth, gliding renditions; Italians staccato rhythms.
    On a national level, bandleader Lawrence Welk brought his own German and Russian musical tradition into the mix while the incomparable Frankie Yankovic his Slovenian heritage.
    No matter the variation, the accordion was the mainstay.
    And, to be sure, there are just as many varieties of polka dancing as polka playing styles.
    At Franklin I saw couples who danced perfectly erect while others leaned in out; dancers who kept their arms stationary and others who pumped them up and down; dancers who hopped and skipped to the music on their tip toes and those who slid low and methodical across the concrete floor.
    And, last but not least, a classic twosome that did something of a twirling, Texas two-step, promenade polka as they circled the floor.
    A gusting Kansas wind blew through the shelter and cooled the dancers much the same as it would have in one of the air domes or pavilions hereabouts in the early part of the 20th century.
    Also carried the music out of the shelter and across the prairie.
    Polka music. Played on the accordion.
     
    J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Counseling Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net.
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