Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hop and pray

The accordion. A much maligned instrument. In working-class Philly in the '50s, however, it was the affordable introduction to the world of music. I learned music theory and dexterity on the keyboard by playing Clarinet Polka and zillions of Polish folk dances in small books with pictures of men in handlebar moustaches on the covers. Polkas and obereks had plenty of sixteenth and thirty-second notes. If you could master them, you could tackle just about any other piece of music, including classical. Years later, this led to the pinnacle of success: playing Pachelbel's Canon in D at my daughter's wedding. I kid you not. I'm sure Pachelbel was smiling - it was quite a unique moment.

I found this photo in my archived picture album. It was taken about ten years ago. There was less of me then. I haven't played the old squeezebox in a couple years. It's sitting in Jenn's house right now. The case is providing a good resting place for her home phone.

Why am I writing about my old accordion? Because the music of my past is still with me, bred in the bones. My musical dad and uncles and cousins are all gone but the happy sounds of music I grew up with are still very much alive.

That's why I jumped at the chance to take my granddaughter, Sophie, to a polka mass this past weekend. It was held under the wooden beams of a park pavilion in a nearby town. Wielding two umbrellas against a summer thunderstorm, Soph and I sloshed in and claimed a picnic bench as our church pew.

Nothing like a Polish-American event - accordions, drums, and communion wafers surrounded by an American flag, potted geraniums, and a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign hung high. I'd like to think that Jesus would have felt right at home. He hung out with crowds like these, real people who work hard and pray hard. People who know what it's like to sweat and get their hands dirty. Simple values, simple lives. I mean this in a good way. I came from people like these.

It was touching to see old and young singing along to the slower songs and faster polkas. I couldn't keep still. Sophie was in awe. I cried. We danced our way out after singing America the Beautiful and listening to the Polish national anthem. When the old folks sang the anthem, I heard my own grandmother's voice again, remembering how she used to break into song when I was a kid. Summer days, hot kitchens, a tall glass pitcher of beer on her dining-room table, and babci singing.

Sophie loves to sing, just like her great-great-grandmother. And she loves to listen to my polka tapes when we ride in the car. It's a welcome alternative to the world of Disney. Sophie loves Pachelbel's Canon too.

Na zdrowie.