What’s in a polka? Life | SummitDaily.com

What’s in a polka? Life

Polka Joe Hanek draws a crowd Saturday at Breckenridge's Oktoberfest celebration, performing the Beer Barrell Waltz for onlookers. Hanek is a life-long polka lover and was inducted into Michigan's Polka Hall of Fame in 1996.

BRECKENRIDGE – Joe Hanek can’t hear, but he doesn’t have to to play his beloved polka music, because it comes from the heart.

It’s hard to get someone to explain their life’s work, their passion – the question “Why?” never occurs to them. So, to understand how a man comes to play, sing and dance to polka music all his life, for eight decades, you have to listen to his stories.

And Hanek tells a lot of stories.

Smiling wide beneath the brim of his Bavarian felt hat festooned with pins and feathers, he will tell you about learning to play harmonica at the age of 8. Hanek will describe growing up, the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, in Flint, Mich. He will tell you about learning to play the trumpet a year later, and then playing in his father’s polka band the year after that. One begins to understand: Polka is in his blood.

But it is more than that. As he smiles and talks, he keeps a hand on your shoulder, keeping you close and saying what we all know, that life has rough spots and brings you down. To survive, you have to have something to bring you up.

For him, the low spots have been many. The musician lost most of his hearing – and his friends – in combat on Iwo Jima in World War II. In 1946, with a new wife and children, Hanek was in a car accident after leaving a polka gig. The accident cut his lip and ended his trumpet playing. In 1972, he lost his wife, Doris, to cancer.

Hanek played on. He didn’t have to hear, he knew his music so well. Forget the trumpet; he learned to play the accordion. And it has kept him company and worn him out on the dance floor for the past 30 years.

“Music is the best therapy in the world,” Hanek said Saturday, sipping a Heffeweisen on Main Street during Breckenridge’s Oktoberfest.

In the Florida Keys, where he now resides, he plays at retirement homes to share that healing power. “And it works. You should see it.”

Everyone should listen and dance to polka, to hear Hanek tell it.

The dance is European in origin. It came out of Austria and Czechoslovakia (pol-ka translates as half-note in Czech, a reference to the timing and rhythm of the music). But look at the early American West, he said. All those immigrants, they danced the waltz, a tempo still heard in country music, and they danced polka.

“And, why?” Hanek asked rhetorically. “Because it makes them happy. And that’s what I do. I play and I sing, I tell jokes, and people dance. They laugh and smile. And that makes me feel good.”

Family and friends confirmed that Hanek has the same affect on his audience. He played for 57 years with his father’s band, and more with his own. He traveled the world – not just to Germany and Austria, but to Argentina, Australia and on numerous cruise ships. He once led 57,000 people in the chicken dance in Frankenmuth, Mich.

In 1996, Hanek’s reputation in the polka world succeeded in winning him another honor – induction into the state of Michigan’s Polka Hall of Fame. His father is also honored there.

Oktoberfest-goers will have little trouble spotting Hanek as the festival continues today. He’ll be the one with the shirt that says, “Polka Joe,” with the accordion case nearby emblazoned with, “May all your troubles be small and all your sausages be long.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.

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