I met the newest member of the International Polka Association (IPA) Hall of Fame, Randy Koslosky, at a large bagel establishment east of Pittsburgh for lunch.
If you think of Gus Polinski, the “Polka King of the Midwest”—John Candy’s character in the movie Home Alone—when you hear the word “polka,” Koslosky will make you think again.
If you know how to look, Koslosky is easy to spot in a crowd because he moves faster than everyone else. He has never lost his youthful energy. In fact, it was as a member of the polka band Energy that he first received national attention in the polka community.
He formed Energy with his brother Bernie, and there has probably never been a more aptly named band. Their song “It’s a Great Day for Hockey” was played during intermission at Pittsburgh Penguin games during the 1993 season. The song has tremendous resonance in Pittsburgh because it was a tribute to former Penguins coach Bob Johnson who, after having won the Stanley Cup in June of 1991, died of brain cancer that November. “It’s a Great Day for Hockey” was his catch phrase.
But even in a sports-crazed city with deep ethnic roots like Pittsburgh, a polka legend with sports credibility can easily go unnoticed. Koslosky doesn’t attempt to stand out, either. He’s very fit. Short hair. Goatee. He was wearing work clothes—tie and long-sleeve dress shirt.
He has a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA, and has been a manager at a tech company for a number of years. He claims that most of his coworkers have no idea he plays in a polka band, but they may find out about his induction into the Hall of Fame, eventually.
It is more likely that Koslosky will run into someone he knows through Catholic circles. He and his wife Lisa have been so active in the diocese for so long that everyone knows them, but it is difficult to pin-point the first time you met them. It could have been through a Catholic homeschool group, 40 Days for Life, a theology of the body discussion group, natural family planning classes, or some other Catholic event.
Koslosky is also so humble about his music that even some of his friends don’t know of his status in the polka community. It is almost like he has a secret life. He couldn’t possibly have time to be writing songs and playing several gigs a month on top of his full-time job and parental duties. (Koslosky has written over 100 songs. Seventy of them have been recorded by the 20 or so bands Koslosky has been associated with through the years. As a studio musician he has appeared on more than 100 recordings with more than 50 bands.)
I ask how he’s doing, and he replies, “I’m still trying to catch up. We played a show in Detroit on Sunday. Luckily it was from 2:00 to 6:00. We went to mass Saturday night, drove to Detroit Sunday morning, played the show, and then drove home. We got home around midnight. My daughters came with me. We had a great time. They slept most of the way home.”
That is hardly anyone’s idea of a day of rest. Detroit is almost 300 miles from Pittsburgh, but his two teenage daughters sing and play violin and occasionally sit in with his main band—Henny and the Versa J’s. He doesn’t see traveling to a gig as a grind—rather it is a family adventure out on the open road. Meanwhile the rest of Pittsburgh is home watching the Steelers.
You have to wonder where he gets the energy. I suspect his parents would say he’s always been like that. But that natural energy has been transformed through years of study and devotion to Saint John Paul II.
Koslosky is not a John Paul II scholar. When discussing aspects of the Catholic faith, he’s apt to stop and say, “It’s just awesome,” and then pause for a few seconds to try to find the right words and then just shake his head. But those few seconds of silence still communicate a lot. What he doesn’t express in words comes out through his music—if not through the pores in his skin.
“A few weeks ago we played a gig at our parish, and afterwards a woman came up to us and told us that we made her year. I told the kids, ‘Do you realize the impact you had on someone’s life?’ There is great power in music and also a great opportunity to reach people,” Koslosky said.
Playing against the parody
In the landscape of American popular music that is increasingly divided into sub-genres, polka occupies a strange niche. It still has a core audience that supports dances, concerts, and music festivals across the country, but it is also the punch line of many jokes.
“I’m still sensitive to the people who only know the polka stereotype, but they think that they know what polkas really are,” Koslosky said. He pauses and adds charitably, “Polka is such a subculture that it is hard for people to know otherwise,” Koslosky said.
Polka may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the same could be said for bluegrass, jazz, or Spanish techno. It is just that other genres don’t have to compete with parodied version of themselves. (If polka fans could stop dancing and having a good time long enough to realize that they have been the victims of a cultural prejudice, polka could become a big hit on campus.)
In the meantime, what polka needs are ambassadors to keep the tradition alive and then expand it for a new generation. Since that is what Randy Koslosky does, it seems obvious that he would be inducted into the IPA Hall of Fame.
When Koslosky was told that he would be inducted into the IPA Hall of Fame, the first thing he did was call his first accordion teacher, a women now in her 80s, to thank her. She was the one who encouraged him to keep playing when he wanted to quit.
“A lot of people think that I learned polka from my parents, but it was actually my brother Bernie who started dragging the family to dances. My parents have always been very supportive—even buying a van so that we had a vehicle big enough to transport our equipment,” Koslosky said.
Henny and the Versa J’s
For Koslosky, polka and family are inseparable. In the late 1980s and early 90s, Koslosky played in the band Energy with his brother Bernie. They won the IPA album of the year award for “Pure Energy” in 1993.
In 1998 he joined Henny and the Versa J’s and has been the primary songwriter and arranger since. The Versa J’s are a polka institution founded by Henry “Henny” Jasiewicz in 1972. But calling the Versa J’s an “institution” doesn’t do them justice. In Henny’s hometown of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the month of May is Henny and the Versa J’s month.
Knowing a little bit of Henny’s biography is helpful to understanding Koslosky. Henry “Henny” Jasiewicz started playing publicly in 1954 at the age of nine. The band was called the Bell Hop Orchestra. It was formed by Leo Gibala with his four children—all under the age of 12. He asked Henny’s father if Henny would like to join the band. They became a local sensation for the next 15 years, recording albums and appearing on TV and radio. Henny’s father and later his sister Dee Dee were also involved with the Bell Hops. In fact, Henny’s father was inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame in 1991 for his contributions to polka. Henny joined his father in 2011.
(You may wonder, “Does everyone who plays an accordion or in a polka band get inducted into the IPA Hall of Fame?” The answer is “no.” Frankie Yankovic (no relation to Weird Al) and Li’l Wally Jagiello were the first inductees in 1969—the Babe Ruth and Willie Mays of polka. Jagiello developed the Chicago style of polka that Koslosky’s band plays. What about Lawrence Welk? He was inducted in 1994—after Henny’s father. Welk’s music isn’t the best introduction to polka. Lenny Gomulka & Chicago Push, Knewz, and John Gora and Gorale are more representative and they are available on Spotify. (The Versa J’s are not on Spotify, but they are all over YouTube.)
When the Bell Hops disbanded in the early 1970s, Henny formed the Versa J’s. The band’s 2004 album Come on Over was nominated for a Grammy. It also won the IPA album and song of the year awards. At the time, the Versa J’s included Henny’s sister, Dee Dee Ogrodny, her husband Stas, their son Ryan on violin, Henny’s son Butchie on drums. The album showcases Ryan Ogrodny on violin—not even 20 years old, but he had been playing with the band since he was two years old. His violin/fiddle gives the album a strong country feel. Ryan Ogrodny moved to Nashville in 2007 and now goes by Ryan Joseph. He plays fiddle and mandolin for country star Alan Jackson, among others. In other words, the Jasiewicz clan is quite capable of producing elite musicians.
We Are Family
Family is a big part of polka. Koslosky co-wrote a song called “We Are Family” for the Polka Family Band with Hank Guzewich, a member of the band. It was the album’s title track, and it won the IPA album and song of the year awards in 1991. The album was also nominated for a Grammy in 1992. For the past 25 years, it has been one of the most popular songs in polka.
Koslosky continues to push the polka-as-family concept to the next level. At polka festivals, he has been organizing Pro-Am Jams.
“We put together a group of old pros and then we bring in some kids. We will either take music that they already know and build a polka around it, or we will simplify some of the parts to existing songs so that they can play along at whatever level they are at so that all the different levels can play together. It is a way to pass the baton to a younger generation and educate in the classic polka literature,” Koslosky said.
More than other forms of popular music, polka is open to children playing with adults. It serves as a reminder of the ancient tradition that playing music was something that a family could do together and did do together for thousands of years. The Pro-Am Jams ties this together with the jam sessions that occur at polka festivals already, where anyone is welcome to join in.
In addition to the Versa J’s, Koslosky plays regularly with another polka band based in Pittsburgh, the Mon Valley Push. He also has his own “family band” which consists of him on accordion, his friend on trumpet, and seven kids—teenagers and younger. The kids are Koslosky’s two daughters, four nieces and nephews, and his friend’s son on drums. They play at parish festivals, retirement parties, graduation parties, senior centers, nursing homes, and other venues.
Around the holidays they go “carol bombing.” Koslosky gets the band together and any other friends who are interested and start hitting the strip malls. They walk in, say “Merry Christmas,” and start playing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Feliz Navidad.” A random explosion of joy inside a multi-national coffee establishment. Then they are off to the next stop.
At other events, they play polka standards, such as “Who Stole the Kishka?” and other popular tunes that go through a process Koslosky calls “polkifying,” such as “Tequila.” They also do straight up pop songs such as “Tiny Bubbles” and “Cups (You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone)” from the movie Pitch Perfect—a must for a band with four teenage girls.
“If you want to do so something new, ‘I say bring it on. We’ll mix it with tradition and make something new.’ I tell the kids, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have something your high school friends would like?’” Koslosky said.
Keeping it “real”
It is interesting that popular music has to be “authentic,” but authentic for who? Just the young and looking for love?
Polka is more freedom to work from a wider canvas of “authentic” experience.
“When I write I try to be joyful and uplifting, and I’m grateful to my Catholic faith to inform that and to up hold the goodness of marriage. And who writes songs for an older generation? If I can write something that is affirming to a couple who has been married for a long time, it won’t be on commercial radio, but it is still out there,” Koslosky said.
Unsurprisingly, given the ethnic background of polka fans, many of them are Catholic.
“At polka festivals, it is not uncommon to see three generations of a family there, and every generation enjoys the festival in their own way. Also, Sunday Mass at the polka festival is usually the most well-attended event of the weekend. A person organizing a polka festival would never think of not having Mass available,” Koslosky said.
In 2009 the Grammys decided to drop the polka category claiming “to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape.” In other words, they declared polka to be no longer relevant.
Koslosky just shrugs. “People like to list Grammy next to their name, but a lot of the awards don’t reflect what may be the best of what is going on in the culture,” he says. “Different awards have different voters and different preferences.”
In retrospect, you have to wonder how much effort the Grammy judges were putting into the polka category. For the 24 years of its existence, Jimmy Sturr won the Polka Grammy 17 times. Only four other artists won the award. Two of the other award winners, Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones and Walter Ostanek were both nominated 17 times. (Did they just keep resubmitting the same form every year?)
Koslosky is not about the awards and recognition anyway.
“Hey, Jimmy Sturr recorded one of my songs last year,” Koslosky says proudly. Polka is family. Success for one member of the family is success for everyone.
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