Someone Else's Chicago

By Carlo Rotella
Sunday, March 7, 2004

As I drive a rental car toward the Loop on the expressway from O'Hare Airport, every hometown instinct is telling me that in half an hour I can be sitting on a bar stool at Legends, the club in the South Loop owned by Chicago's premier virtuoso of the blues guitar, Buddy Guy. I know exactly how it will be: peaceful in the indoor twilight, the dwindling change from my first twenty growing damp on the bar, bent notes from a guitar playing slow blues getting me right there under the heart. Later on I will call people I grew up with, and we'll go south or north to another blues club and so on into the night. The routine has not changed much since my high school years, significant portions of which I misspent at Guy's old place on the South Side, the Checkerboard Lounge. When I come back to Chicago I usually end up in a blues club.

I am, of course, not alone in this habit. The blues business, having gradually relocated in the last 40 years from the working-class neighborhoods of the South Side and West Side to the redeveloped North Side and downtown, has become part of Chicago's official culture, especially its tourist industry. The city increasingly seems like a giant theme park designed to shunt visiting fun-seekers along a path of least resistance from airport to hotel to blues club, guided every step of the way by brand managers reminding them that they're in the Home of the Blues. Many locals feel that Chicago blues lost its way and its heart, collapsing into an unending series of blazing guitar solos that never fail to wow the non-cognoscenti, when it made a devil's bargain to capture the tourist audience that now largely supports live blues in the city. Some of this criticism amounts to no more than bluesier-than-thou snobbery supercharged by the usual foolishness about music and race, but it's also undeniably true that, on the whole, Chicago blues has grown more predictable and less musically vital as it has settled into its role as the city's official theme music.

In the blues clubs, they're playing "Sweet Home Chicago" yet again, the guitar player's taking yet another extended grimacing solo, the snugly seated audience is congratulating itself on having found its way to a real Chicago blues experience -- it's all enough to make even the most devoted blues fan wonder what else may be out there in his home town, enough to inspire me to remove myself with a painful jerk from the path of least resistance and deny myself a visit to Legends. There has to be more to Chicago than Chicago blues.

I figure there is nothing unbluesier than polka, the primal 2/4 chug that came out of Eastern Europe to take the 19th century by storm (one-two-three and, one-two-three and, as Anna explains to the King of Siam). Seeking out polka will take me into Polish and Mexican music scenes and neighborhoods that I do not know at all, turning me into a tourist in my own city. In the Chicago in which I grew up, the South Side in the 1970s, the tavern musicians played blues on the electric guitar, and the jukeboxes were flush with the voices of Z.Z. Hill, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass. Nobody in my Chicago would ever get into a barroom fight over, say, the relative merits of Li'l Wally Jagiello and Frankie Yankovic. But there are Chicagos other than mine out there, resonant with the sound of the accordion, the anti-guitar, instrument of taverns with sawdust on the floors and atmospheres ripe with the cooking, accents and music of faraway places. I assume that in exploring these other Chicagos I can take a break from guitar heroes and guitar solos, too, since somewhere I have imbibed the notion that polka is usually played on an accordion and never on a guitar. This conventional wisdom is not always accurate, it turns out, but that's part of what I stand to learn.

Which all explains why, as Friday afternoon fades into evening, I find myself dancing strenuously with a woman many years my senior named Irene.

I am at the Baby Doll Polka Club, almost as far out on the Southwest Side as you can go and still be in Chicago proper. Across the street from the club looms the forbidding wall that encloses Midway Airport -- the city's mom-and-pop airport, dwarfed by O'Hare. Planes take off and land with a swelling roar, leaving a tang of jet fuel in the air. A traveler could plausibly stop over at the Baby Doll for a drink and a polka on the way to and from the airport, which would make for happy travelers. The Baby Doll has a reputation as a welcoming party place where hard-core polka types and curious first-timers can both have fun.

There is no live music this early on a Friday. Inside, it is calm and dim; the decor is Early Midwestern Chalet, the jukebox well stocked with tunes by Frankie Yankovic, Eddie Korosa, Eddie Korosa Jr. and his Boys From Illinois, Brave Combo, and the Polkaholics. Irene Korosa -- former wife of the late Eddie Sr., mother of Eddie Jr., proprietor of the Baby Doll, and at the moment bartender as well -- offers only general advice to first-time dancers of the polka. She says, "It's peppy, happy music," and refuses to get much more specific than that. Don Hedeker, leader of the Polkaholics and my guide for this afternoon's tour of polka joints, leans in to volunteer some additional detail: "Follow the drum, change your feet with each beat, watch other people, and remember: Polka people are not gonna have any bad feelings if you don't do it right. There are no wrong steps."

I get to test out the efficacy of their advice when Irene gives me a lesson. We have the Baby Doll's small but fabulously lit dance floor to ourselves. A few bemused patrons look on from their bar stools; they have to wait until she's done with me before they can have another drink. Light on her feet, surprisingly strong, Irene back-leads me with great kindness and firmness. I can fox-trot and waltz a little, but I have never tried to polka, and I am not doing very well until I remember that I always did best in French class when I consciously tried to talk like Pepe Le Pew. When I start performing what feels to me like a broad parody of what she wants, politely manhandling her in half-circles and throwing in a periodic lurching hop, she beams and says, "Better!"

Back at the bar, we fall to talking about the lost golden age of polka in Chicago. "This place is nice," Irene says, "but you should have seen the original Baby Doll. We opened it in 1954, at 73rd and Western. It held 500, we had music six nights a week, we had a hundred tables, the bar sat a hundred -- it was the longest bar in Chicago. Eight waitresses, six bartenders, two bouncers, we had a radio show, a TV show. Everybody played there. Li'l Wally, Frankie Yankovic, Marion Lush, my husband. Yankovic was the king" -- of the Slovenian-rooted, accordion-centered Cleveland style of polka -- "and my husband was the prince." But the age of kings and princes did not last. Tastes changed, and younger people fell away from their parents' and grandparents' traditions, the crowds abated, the neighborhood changed. "I sold it in 1980," she says. "Already it was a slow time for polkas. I bought this place in 1981." People come in here all the time, she says, and tell her that their parents or grandparents met at the old Baby Doll.

I have been hearing versions of Irene's story all afternoon. The Baby Doll is my last stop on a swing through the West Side. Don Hedeker has already taken me to a senior citizens' polka dance at the Polish Highlanders banquet hall on Archer Avenue; the International Polka Hall of Fame (where one dusty framed document proclaims, "Whereas the people of Minnesota enjoy polka music all seasons of the year . . .") at Polonia Banquets, another hall on Archer; and the combination liquor store/music store/recording studio of Eddie Blazonczyk Jr., scion of one of Chicago's leading polka families. At each stop, everybody has been talking about a shrinking and aging fan base, reduced circumstances, failed attempts at crossover into the mainstream, golden age and decline.

Everybody, that is, except Hedeker, a devoted student of Chicago polka and the lead singer and guitar player of the city's only self-avowed punk polka band. (See? You go in search of something new and you learn that there's such a thing as punk polka.) The Polkaholics' feedback-rich power-trio sound can shock traditional sensibilities, but their self-evident respect for polka usually wins over even the most skeptical crowds. Hedeker, an optimistic visionary, aspires to bring together the participatory vigor of the polka scene and the novelty-seeking energy of the rock scene. If the blues can become tourist music, and if lounge music can become cool again, why can't polka -- aerobic, nonjudgmental, beery -- find a new audience as well? "We play rock clubs," he says, "but we also play gigs with regular polka bands at polka clubs, and people like it."

Hedeker's band explicitly shuns the accordion, but he may be the perfect guide for my purposes. A gently fanatical fellow in his mid-forties with extensive sideburns and impeccable taste in thrift-shop clothing, he presents a ripe combination of local elements. The son of immigrants from Czechoslovakia and the Crimea, he grew up in Gladstone Park on the Northwest Side, made his way through the public schools to the University of Chicago on the South Side, and is now a professor of statistics specializing in longitudinal data analysis at the University of Illinois-Chicago, which lies just southwest of the Loop. He did not grow up on polka -- "a little oompah music and Lawrence Welk on TV, that was my knowledge of it" -- and he took up the guitar rather than the accordion, but after many years of playing in rock bands he started coming across polka records during his visits to thrift shops.

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