Don Hedeker, leader of the long-running Polkaholics and probably Chicago’s most vocal polka advocate, blames his obsession on a lack of closet space. For years Hedeker and his wife, Vera Gavrilovic, were devoted thrift shoppers, scouring the racks and bringing home armloads of clothing every weekend. By the mid-90s they realized they had to stop–there was nowhere to put vintage duds. But Hedeker missed scavenging, so he decided to concentrate on something he didn’t have to keep in a closet: old LPs. Soon his focus narrowed further. “I began to notice all of these polka records,” he says. “They cost only 25 cents each, so I started buying some of them.”
Hedeker’s mother was from the Crimea and his father was from Czechoslovakia, so he’d heard plenty of polka growing up. But he had no love for the stuff as a kid. “I wanted to be American,” he says. After listening to his purchases, though, Hedeker gingerly began exploring his roots. “I didn’t know much about it, but I felt like I should. I think everybody’s image of polka is what they might’ve seen on The Lawrence Welk Show or something else real corny. When I started getting these records it just opened my mind.”
Hedeker, who’s lived in Wicker Park since 1981, soon discovered that he was surrounded by polka history. American polka has left a scant paper trail, but he happened upon Polka Happiness, a 1992 book by ethnomusicologists Charlie and Angeliki Keil and photographer Dick Blau that focuses on Chicago. “Division Street used to be called Polish Broadway,” Hedeker says. “I didn’t know anything about this musical history right in my own backyard that really connected in a sense with my ethnic background.” He started tuning in to polka shows on AM radio every weekend; before long he was checking out live polka at banquet halls like Polonia and Stardust.
Hedeker was also into the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at the time. He admired the way they made the blues feel fresh again, and he noticed local musicians doing the same with country. Hedeker decided to rework polka along those lines. He was playing guitar in a pop-punk trio called the Bouncing Balls; before that he’d spent about a decade accompanying his ex-wife, performance poet Lydia Tomkiw, in the art-rock outfit Algebra Suicide. But as Hedeker puts it, “I had to face up to it–polka is my music, and I thought it would be fun to try to update it, so that’s how the Polkaholics came about.”
In the summer of 1997 Hedeker, former Handsome Family drummer Mike Werner, and former New Rob Robbies bassist George Kraynak tried their hand at polka-rock fusion. “The only song we knew was ‘Beer Barrel Polka,’ which we must’ve played ten times in a row,” Hedeker says. “I had a K-Tel collection of polka greats, so we tried to learn every song on the record. These were like the ‘Louie Louie’ and the ‘Wild Thing’ of polka.” They tried some rock tunes like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Brand New Cadillac,” but those didn’t mesh well with the two-beat polka rhythm, so instead they spiked the K-Tel songs with distorted guitar.
The Polkaholics’ first gigs were at clubs like Phyllis’ Musical Inn and Lounge Ax, but Hedeker wanted to play real polka bars too. In the spring of 1998 he contacted the Baby Doll Polka Club, a sleepy but well-known joint near Midway. “I thought they would throw us out the door,” says Hedeker. “But since their audience is older and doesn’t drink much, they were very receptive to the idea of having a young crowd that drank a lot.” The trio hired a school bus to transport its fans from Wicker Park to the Baby Doll; Hedeker says they had a crowd of about 50 that night. The Polkaholics now play the club two or three times a year.
Though he enjoys the approval of aficionados, Hedeker wants to get skeptics to check out his band (and kindred spirits like Texas’s Brave Combo, San Francisco’s Polkacide, and Manitowoc’s Happy Schnapps Combo). He’s even more excited about turning people on to classic Chicago acts like Li’l Wally, the Ampol Aires, and Li’l Richard & His Polka All-Stars. He organized a concert for Li’l Wally, a former Division Street mainstay who retired to Miami Beach in the 60s. Hedeker had sent Wally (born Walter Jagiello) a copy of Polka Scene Zine, a xeroxed publication Gavrilovic started in 1998 (it’s up to 24 issues now), and the two had begun a casual correspondence. In 1999 Hedeker booked a Polkaholics gig at Phyllis’ and Wally flew in for the occasion. “That summer was a crash course in learning as many of his songs as possible,” says Hedeker. “The gig was kind of a train wreck, but it was a great publicity stunt, if nothing else, and a lot of people got to come out and see him on his old stomping ground–both young rock fans and old-timers.”
In 2001 Hedeker was contacted by Christoph Wagner, a German journalist and record producer writing a piece about Chicago’s polka legacy for the British magazine fRoots. Hedeker took the writer on a tour of local bars and guided him through his collection of more than 500 records, which feature polka music played by Slovenians from Cleveland, Germans from Milwaukee, and Czechs from Texas. The German label Trikont tapped into Hedeker’s stacks for last year’s American Polka: Old Tunes & New Sounds, a 25-track compilation that includes everyone from classic star Frankie Yankovic to new-music accordionist Guy Klucevsek to the raucous Polish Muslims of Detroit.
The Polkaholics have a new CD–their third–a goofy collection called Polka Can’t Die, featuring good-time stompers like “May Miss a Note (But We Never Miss a Party)” and the yodeled Aerosmith cover “Dude Looks Like a Lady-hoo.” Hedeker is the only original member on the record. In 2001 Werner moved to Indiana; last year Kraynak and his wife relocated to Atlanta. (They’ve been replaced by Jackson Wilson and James Wallace, respectively.) But Hedeker, who turns 46 on Sunday, has no plans to quit soon–after all, many polka musicians remain active into their 70s. “We started this on a lark, with no thoughts of longevity,” he says, “but now I feel like I can play with this band forever.”
The Polkaholics play Friday, January 31, 8 PM, at the Baby Doll Polka Club, 6102 S. Central, and Saturday, February 1, 10 PM, at Quenchers Saloon, 2401 N. Western.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.