Exploring polka roots in New Ulm

NEW ULM An impromptu 10-person polka band of regional performers was pulled together for a special Monday performance at the B&L Bar for a professor of ethnic music history and his pupil for their research into the roots of New Ulm’s concertina and polka music history.

The band, which was organized by local historian Denny Warta for the event, performed on tuba, banjo and concertina to a crowd of more than 30 people who enjoyed singing along in the parts of the songs.

The group played songs ranging from “Essig Polka” to “Alte Alte Waltz.” Many of the performers played without music sheets, keeping in time with all the other performers based solely on memory.

Approximately three years ago, Dr. Rudolf Pietsch, who teaches in Austria at the renowned University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, was documenting the history of folk and polka music that immigrated to the United States form Europe when he first learned of New Ulm. He was told he needed to visit the town if he wanted to truly understand the history of polka in America.

He returned this week to continue his research, accompanying his student and friend Marie Tress Stickler. She is focusing her master’s thesis on the history of polka in New Ulm, as well as the folk music in the Midwest.

Pietsch will depart today to return to Austria. Stickler will remain in town for a month to do research.

The music in New Ulm is much more pronounced and intimately connected to the town’s history than most places she has encountered, Stickler said.

Her research will focus on listening and recording the different music by players in the region, then doing a follow-up interview with the performers on their approach. She said New Ulm is musically exciting to her because the unique ways its music changed and developed in town based on the people that played it. She said that makes it the only kind of its particular strand of polka music in the world.

Stickler said she would also like to see if she can determine why so many renowned and award winning musicians have been spawned out of New Ulm and the surrounding region.

When asked what she wants to accomplish with her thesis, she said she hopes to make people back in Europe aware of the “unique treasure” of distinct folk music alive in New Ulm. She plans to send a copy of her thesis, which will be accompanied by some video, back to New Ulm when she completes it.

(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at jmoniz@nujournal.com)

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