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The Interview: We Got Our Learn On About Polka

By Jocelyn Geboy in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 22, 2006 7:22PM

Chicago is known for many things -- deep dish pizza, gangsters, corrupt machine politics -- to name a few. One thing that we also have is the largest population of Polish people outside of Warsaw. Many people connect the polka with Poland, and we did too, until we talked with Eddie Blazonczyk, Jr. Eddie, and his band, the Versatones, are huge in the polka world, and he sat down to educate us on the real beginnings of polka, how it felt to be nominated for a Grammy this year, and more. Let's read, shall we?

Chicagoist: You'll have to excuse our ignorance of Polka. Some of our questions may seem simple, but we just ask to get information and because we're interested.

C: Is Polka a primarily Polish thing? Eastern European thing?
The Polka is truly an American thing. It probably came over in its earliest forms from Eastern European immigrants pre-WWII. From there, just as American mountain music evolved from the hills to Bluegrass or even to what we call today's Country music, the Polka has evolved as well into an American art form unlike anything in Europe today. The Polka is American.

2006_0217 versatones.jpg

C: What is the history of polka (in America/in Chicago -- as it's been in your life)?
Frank Yankovic, a Slovenian polka artist, was probably the first influential polka artist in America. He recorded for Columbia records and had huge jukebox hits with "Just Because", "Blue Skirt Waltz", and many others. He's responsible for putting polka on the map nationally.

In Chicago, in the 1950's an artist by the name of Lil Wally was big. He played a much more grass roots style of the polka, played off of many traditional folk songs the immigrants related to, and had a ton of charisma. Following his path and evolving the music further was Marion Lush, and eventually, my father, Eddie Blazonczyk Sr.

I was raised in a musical family (my father and his parents) and around the music business. My father had a polka band, a recording studio, record label, music school, publishing company, and was even a DJ on polka radio stations to further promote his music. I grew up in the middle of all this.

Read more about the Versatones and their recent Grammy nomination after the jump...

C: Can we make a ridiculous observation? As we listened to some your music, the horns and such reminded us of some of the music we've heard in many taquerias throughout this fine city. How can the music of Mexico and Poland be so similar?
Again, I try not to call this music of Poland. Our American Polka, is very much related to Cajun, Zydeco, Tex-Mex, Bluegrass, Celtic, Tejano, Cunjunto, Mexican Polkas, German/Dutchman Polkas, Slovenian Polkas and others. The Country music field is closely related as well. In fact, many polka artists cover country tunes as polkas and attract crossover audiences all the time. I often tell people that this is today's true alternative dance music!

C: Can you talk a little bit about your long history as a musician, and working with your dad? Was that sometimes a difficult experience? (Just working so close with your father...)
I really didn't begin playing the music until I was in my early teens. Many of the friends I had growing up were in the music field and began playing in small bands and I wanted to follow suit. It wasn't until years later that I got the call from my Dad to replace his retiring concertina player of 16 years. At the time I was in college and living and playing with a band in Baltimore. I moved back to Chicago, and joined the Versatones in 1989.

Working with my father was an honor. He's a Polka music icon and ambassador of the music. We shared a stage together for 11 years. The first two years were a bit difficult. I think as a parent, my father expected and wanted more than I was capable of giving at the time. Walking that fence of employer/parent was difficult. It definitely put a strain on our family relationship. After a couple years, I think I was closer to performing to his expectations and he was better about balancing the hats he was wearing. He's been retired now for 5 years and I can't tell you how much we miss him on stage.

C: What's the root or the origin of the word/name Versatone?
In the late 50's, the Sendra brothers had this polka band and entered them in a contest. They had no official name at the time. As legend has it, the Versatones were a band that dropped out or didn't show early in the contest, so they assumed their name. Later, they preceded the name with Versatile Versatones because all members of the band would change instruments throughout the night showing off their Versatility.

C: You were just nominated for a Grammy!!
We were honored to be nominated for the 17th time this year. We've been blessed. Unfortunately, we've only won the Grammy one time in 1986 for our recording "Another Polka Celebration". This was before I was with the Versatones. My father was still leading the band. Folks have been calling us the Susan Lucci of the polka category for some time now.

C: Did you go to the awards ceremony?
Yes, we always attend when we've been nominated.

C: Did the whole group go?
Depending on when the ceremony falls, most of the band tries to be there. Sometimes family and work schedules get in the way and this can't be possible, but everyone tries.

C: Who did you take with you?
I take my wife Cheryl with me and sometimes a small entourage of friends. You can only purchase two additional tickets per band member, so it limits how many we take along.

C: Your bio says you've been nominated for a Grammy 16 times by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science since the polka bracket first spun off from the folk category in 1985. Is being nominated old hat to you now?
We never take it for granted. You're voted on by your peers in the music industry and we're just honored every time they choose our recording as one of their favorites.

C: Are you allowed to go to the televised awards? We don't recall seeing the polkas listed when weI watched on TV.
The Polka Category is one of nearly 100 categories that receive awards at the pre-telecast in the afternoon. We're allowed to stay for the telecast immediately after and always do. Sometimes during the telecast they announce the winners of awards presented earlier in the day going in or out of commercial breaks.

C: According to your website, you and the Versatones seem to be on the go constantly. Do you guys get to spend enough time with your families!?
I grew up in a family where my father was always on the road. I'm used to it. My wife grew up on a farm where her dad was always home. She's not. I try to spend as much time with my children as possible and sometimes we take our families along to summer festivals that are family friendly. Our music is a labor of love and sometimes there are sacrifices that go along with that. I wish I could spend more time with my family.

Chicagoist local snapshot:

What is your favorite place to eat in the city?
I love traditional Mexican food. Too many places to mention.

What is your favorite thing to do when you're not gigging?
Watching our White Sox win!

What is the most underrated thing about Chicago?
Probably the music scene. This city is so diverse and musically talented, you can hear GREAT music of almost any kind at any time all around Chicago!

I've traveled to so many cities from east coast to west coast and Mexico to Canada, and I always love coming home to Chicago! There's no city I'd rather live in!

For more information on where the Versatones are playing, check out their website.