My Polonia: Re-Encountering Lawrence Welk
Growing up, I accepted somewhat grudgingly the Polish-American side of my family. Twenty-five years ago, radical developments in Poland and among Polish-Americans in Detroit stirred my interest and heart. Moving to a heavily Polish area of mid-Michigan in 2000 stimulated further re-examination. I even came to terms with the old TV bandleader, who helped to unpack the Polish side of me.
As a kid, the only thing I didn't like about my kind, elderly Wisconsin relatives was their racism and antisemitism. Before my parents’ marriage, a steely great aunt questioned my father "Are you SURE you're not Jewish?". Their own grandparents came to America's northern midwest to lumber, farm, build ships, and assemble automobiles. Among the nine kids of my grandmother's generation, the girls all went to work after high school so the boys could attend college. One stuck with the local paper company he entered after college long enough to retire as an executive of a papermaking conglomerate. Some, or their progeny, went on to long and distinguished military careers.
Mom wanted me raised a Catholic, and took me to catechism lessons ("Don't call it 'Sunday School on Saturday', that sounds Jewish") and Sunday Mass. I never saw her take the Catholic communion, for my mother had remarried, an act forbidden by the Church. Consequently, I am illegitimate in its eyes; there goes my career in the priesthood... My mother's fear of ostracism was so great, she avoided all but her closest relatives, her mother and a couple of aunts.
Though I was painfully aware of their put-downs of blacks and Asians, not until I was I an adult that I had any inkling that they carried their own shame or feelings of inadequacy. In 1995 I showed my favorite great aunt Flo (1903-97) an antholgy of short videos made by Silicon Valley second-graders in an after-school workshop that I taught. The kids, mostly white and Asian children of engineers and marketers, blithely improvised skits and shticks, and mugged confidently before the camera. Flo was amazed: "We would've just sat there, nothing to say. We were just dumb Polish kids."
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was never really aware of Hamtramck, the Polish enclave in Detroit about forty miles away, except when guys in my high school used it as a punchline to 1970s polack jokes, when white ethnics were fair game (much like sexist jokes about blondes have been in circulation since the 1990s). I was living in San Francisco when, in 1980 the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement began in the Gdansk shipyards. An ARTFORUM article by Lawrence Weschler examined the graphics, and symbolism that dated back to earlier uprisings in Poland in the 1970s and in 1956. It inspired me to organize a team of independent leftists--involved in labor organizing, Central American solidarity and anarchist publications--to paint a 6 x 15 foot portable mural about Poland’s struggle. We exhibited it in a neighborhood left bookstore and at a couple political events, to general indifference from the Polish and labor communities, and avoidance from San Francisco’s remaining Stalinist left.
On a trip back to Michigan, I saw the documentary "Poletown Lives" about the protests against the building of a new Dodge plant in a Polish Detroit neighborhood. There were protests and civil disobedience by the citizens, especially against the destruction of their church in the way of the new factory. I was inspired by the scenes of grandmothers--like my own, white-haired, pink-faced, in flowered dresses--being carried out of the church by police. Back in California, I sponsored a mid-day showing at the Roxie Cinema.
Poland after communism has become a conservative country, with abortion rights threatened by the hegemony of the Catholic church. One wonders if it has jettisoned its antisemitism, and I especially look for clues in instances in the arts. A feature on NPR in April, 2006 told how Jewishness is a fad among young Poles, with "Hava Nagila" and songs from "Fiddler on the Roof" sung in rock clubs. Is this genuine appreciation, or merely the fetishizing of alterity? There has been a belated translation of Art Spiegelman's MAUS into Polish, a long comic book where Poles are represented as pigs, Germans as cats and Jews as mice. There has been an artistic controversy over which nation--Poland or Israel--should own prewar murals by Bruno Schwartz, who died in a concentration camp. Was he Jewish, to be claimed as a part of the Jewish nation’s heritage, or essentially Polish, despite the unfortunate circumstances leading to his death? Polish-American academics (including the University of Michigan's Marysia Ostafin) have protested the murals proposed relocation to Israel, and defended Poland’s right to keep and exhibit the artworks as part of its cultural history. History rewrites an artist’s identity.
Welk Held the Key
Home on a Saturday night last winter, my wife and I--typical boomer cocooners--hadn't rented a video from the shop down the block. We turned on the PBS station in hopes of a Ken Burns historical documentary, or fulminating political talking heads like "The McLaughlin Group". Instead, to my intial horror, we found Lawrence Welk. My God, that roll-out-the-barrel hooplah was dated even thirty-five years ago. Yet upon this viewing, what struck me the most is the generationally-defined ethnicity of Welk, introducing each act with a noticeable immigrant's accent.
In the early 1970s there was nothing less hip to American youth than Lawrence Welk. Even my mom (fifteen years younger than my father) found it cornball and square. To teenagers, it was everything that the MC5, Stooges and Alice Cooper had supposedly blown away. When we are smart and nerdy kids and adolescents, we define ourselves by what we are not. That is why a decade ago "Beavis and Butthead" struck such a resonant chord, for they attempted to distance themselves from--and position themselves above--hegemonic pop culture while remaining so fascinated by it. Beavis and Butthead tried to be hipper than the rock imagery that transfixed them--the dilemma men look back on, remember and wince.
In 1983 the San Francisco Chronicle writer Gerald Nachman examined the Welk phenomena. Welk was "Mothers' Boy", strutting before a "national audience of happy squares". He demonstrated humility, would grin through an accordion solo or acknowledge applause before a song with a heavily accented "Than-a-you, but iss not gunna be all tat good". He noted that Welk defied time and fashion with the same gray double-breasted suit for three decades. "Welk knows his place (Fargo, North Dakota, circa 1938)" as a small-town bandleader and "reminder of a Gentler Time (or recreator of one)". During the show, which Californian Nachman called "The Middle-American Bandstand", Welk would dance the polka, whirling around with "gray-haired groupies".
Other ethnicities are present on Welk's show, including the occasional black performer, but don't shape the heavily Slavic cultural landscape to any degree. There was a tap-dance virtuouso, a style also practiced by whites in the early- to mid-twentieth century but fast disappearing from mainstream television by the seventies. There were occasionally black singers, whose style was notably European-American. Pop historians of the 1960s often forget that one of the decade’s most financially successful vocal acts was the Fifth Dimension, five smooth-voiced African American singers covering songs by Lauro Nyro, and Geoff McDermott's rock show tunes from the musical "Hair".
"That '70s Show", set in Wisconsin and which presents a caricature of much of this author's teenage years in Michigan, now appears weirdly aligned with the Welk Show. The schmaltz of a Welk polka is not that distant from theatricality of Roxy Music, David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Procol Harum which my teenage crew embraced. As Detroit rock ballrooms welcomed these acts, staid midwesterners often have a yen for Barnumesque razzle-dazzle. Charles Finney’s 1930s novella The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao presents a farm town transformed by a psychologically penetrating circus. A circus museum attracts visitors to Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Nachman wrote in 1983 "I expect to turn on a TV in 2001 and see Welk doing a medly of Punk favorites." Though the '60s counterculture claimed to embrace "freaks", Punk of the ‘70s offered more freedom of musical expression. In San Francisco, polka was reinvigorated by Polkacide (the "one and only hardcore polka band"), and Detroit had the rudely-named Polish Muslims. Yet the polka is still played respectfully by young midwestern performers too. A recent Mid-Michigan newsletter showed and listed teenage and twentysomething polka bands, playing music to which their parents and grandparents can also merrily dance.
In Welk's Badger State, the Old World Wisconsin historical park in the town of Eagle includes a Norwegian log cabin, a Finnish dairy farm, and a Danish farmstead, for the northern midwest was initally settled by Germans, Scandanavians and Slavs. When we first moved to Michigan, someone explained to us that Bay City's multiculturalism consisted of different middle-European neighborhoods centered around individual Catholic churches and parishes. Taking roll, I found students' names stocked with consonants jostling against each other.
My relationship to Lawrence Welk, and the American Polishness he represents, changed from 1971 to 1981 to 2006. Moving from California to the midwest in 2000 may have been a transition out of an extended adolescence, which I began to deal with crossing Welk's country. I felt unsure of how to read (or negotiate whiteness in) the midwest, or its own social changes. For someone who had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 22 years, a Cracker Barrel restaurant outside of Omaha was peculiar. When our car ran out of gas in Iowa, a friendly woman saw me walking with the can and gave me a ride to the station and back...but sped away when she saw my wife is black. I can't gauge to what degree my attraction to 1960s/1970s American black culture--Motown! James Brown!--was because it was the hippest, coolest, sexiest and most vibrant at the time, or if it spoke to one who never felt an ethnic "insider", with a secure identity in the bosom of a happy family.
Is strong ethnicity progressive within a tolerant pluralistic society? The multicultural salad-bowl metaphor, with distinct tastes, replaced the previous melting pot, where all were boiled down into blandness. Stalin's Soviet Union showcased tightly controlled ethnic expressions; apartheid South Africa celebrated the difference of its African tribal peoples to imply they could never share modern political rights. Civil rights, and many labor rights, were won in the United States when marginalized ethnicities took collective action. In the 1990s, scholars (including Bad Subjects Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray) began to interrogate mainstream America whiteness with the thoroughness others have plumbed ethnicities of alterity. In this century, it is the frontiers, the interfaces, multivalent and provisional identities, the race mixing and ethnic mashups that are most exciting. When I'd mentioned writing on Welk, parallel to some work on Detroit and Motown, one Bad Subject asked if Berry Gordy enjoyed the polka. The interaction between Polish- and African-American communities and their creativity in Detroit would be promising area to research. I’ve seen black teenagers enjoying the carnival rides at Bay City's Saint Stanislaus Festival, but never (across invisible borders and boundaries?) in the polka tent.
Nachman numbered Lawrence Welk, whose show debuted in 1955, among clever long-running TV amateurs like Ed Sullivan or Julia Child, who all defied critics' incomprehension. Lawrence Welk's small-town grownups' Saturday night can be compared to the urbanist showman of Sundays, Ed Sullivan, a presenter of polyethnic, multigenerational entertainment. I still find it a bit odd and unsettling to see Sunday evening prime time, once devoted to wholesome Sullivan and Walt Disney, unpacking sex crimes against children on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit".
Sullivan was an Irish-American newspaper columnist with a Jewish wife, who delighted in New York City as a crossroads of his own eclectic interests. He appreciated young comedians Richard Pryor and George Carlin, seasoned Borscht Belt ones Myron Cohen and Jack Carter, and old black Chitlin Circuit jokesters Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham. He gave us aging Paris chanteuse Edith Piaf (via Telstar satellite!), California rock bands like the Jefferson Airplane and Steppenwolf, Motown acts the Supremes and the Temptations, Italian chidren’s puppetry, opera singers and cantors and the Russian Army Chorus. Sullivan was big city, Welk was small town. Sullivan was novelty in variety, Welk was novelty in reassurance. Sullivan was east coast, Welk was farm-belt midwest. Sullivan's show intended to attract an audience six to ninety-six. Welk was directed towards the sixty- and seventy-year-olds of his day.
I am primarily an urbanist like Ed Sullivan. As long as fundamentalist Christians don't bully anyone out of the public square, I believe the United States' ethnic mix should be celebrated more, not less: everybody should get major saint's days, Jewish holidays, Ramadan, Wiccan festivals and more off from work. Secularity is just, but insufficiently festive.
“Sound like you’re living in Little Polonia” said my Wisconsin cousin Stan--who's about my age--when I described the names on local businesses. I like the advantages of my small midwestern city, its leafy streets of solid old homes, its old-fashioned chattiness in business exchanges. A neighbor brought over home-baked cookies when we moved in. I’ve been asked to serve on local Cultural Plan committees and to show my artwork. Everyone has been civil to us, and if we sometimes get stares in restaurants, it may be as a mixed couple, or because they think a tall, stout, longhaired guy is funny-looking.
So I'm finally also willing to acknowledge the Lawrence Welk within. Marked with my time and place, inclusive and expansively friendly, valuing those good parts of small-town America that are being lost to the factory-closing and farm-eating meatgrinder of globalist capitalism. As I play my sprightly tune, I vont evabuddy to haf a goot time.
Mike Mosher is Associate Professor of Art/Communication Multimedia at Saginaw Valley State University. Among other things, Mike has written in Bad Subjects of his Michigan Punk "MicroGeneration" and of local healing that “Metastisizes Like Teen Spirit”.
The author thanks Chrysanthe Johnson Mosher for editorial suggestions.