Song Spotlight: “Beer Barrel Polka”

Photo via Heather / CC-BY-SA-3.0

  • Mood: Giddy
  • Themes: Drinking Beer, Dancing, Having Fun
  • Tempo: Upbeat
  • Genre/style: Polka

Quick question: Which country does the “Beer Barrel Polka” come from?

Answer: Czechoslovakia. You’ll be forgiven, though, if you thought it came from somewhere else.

The “Beer Barrel Polka” is the first polka song I ever learned, and it’s the most familiar polka among my clients here in Kansas City. The polka is a dance that originated in the mid-19th century in Bohemia. The dance gained popularity quickly and soon spread all over the world, from Poland to Paris to Peru. The dance gained a resurgence in popularity during and after World War II, when immigrants from Eastern Europe flooded the United States.

The “Beer Barrel Polka” is one of the songs that became popular during this resurgence of “polkamania.” The music was composed by Czech musician Jaromír Vejvoda in 1927 and first arranged by Eduard Ingriš, with the title Modřanská polka (“Polka of Modřany”). The first lyrics appeared seven years later, by Václav Zeman who retitled the song Škoda lásky (“Wasted Love”), and by 1939, “Beer Barrel Polka”, as recorded by Will Glahé, reached #1 on the Hit Parade. The song has since been recreated in many other languages and was popular with soldiers during World War II across the world, no matter their alliances. Even today, the song remains popular, especially in the state of Wisconsin, where it has been played during the seventh inning stretch at Milwaukee Brewers baseball games, at numerous University of Wisconsin sporting events, as well as Green Bay Packers home games, and Milwaukee Panthers basketball games.

What makes a tune like this so popular? I can’t say I know for sure, but I have a few suspicions:

1. The raucous sound. I would almost call it goofy, but that might be evidence of my generational bias. Polkas are typically in 2/4 meter, and they tend to be quick. It’s the sound of fun, of a party, and certainly the English lyrics describe a particularly wild affair.

2. The drive to dance. Polkas are for dancing, and the relentless perkiness of polka music makes sitting still rather challenging. Even if you can’t get up and dance like Lawrence Welk does in this video, you can hardly help tapping your toes. And moving to music feels good.

3. The cultural ties. Various immigrant groups have claimed “Beer Barrel Polka” as one of their own cultural touchstones, and hearing the accordion and tuba play this song brings you back into the fold, even if your family has been thoroughly Americanized for years.

I’ve been playing recordings and singing “Beer Barrel Polka” frequently in the last few weeks, in celebration of Oktoberfest. You can use this song, too! Here are a few ideas:

  • Play a recording to spark memories for people of Eastern European origin. You might not even know a senior has roots in Eastern Europe until you play this song!
  • Show a video or photograph of people in traditional dress, dancing the polka. I like this Lawrence Welk clip, but examples abound on YouTube.
  • Discuss topics related to the song. You might ask, are you a beer drinker? Do you like dancing? Have you ever danced the polka? When did you learn it? Have you ever been to Oktoberfest?
  • Move to this song. You might have seniors that feel compelled to get up and DANCE the polka, but even if they don’t (or can’t), you can still move to the music. With a group of seniors, try demonstrating various movements (clapping, tapping toes, stretching up and down) for them to follow. For folks that need more of a challenge, use movement patterns (such as clap-clap-pat-pat).

Do you know and love this polka classic? What’s your favorite way to enjoy this song? Please share in the comments section!

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

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6 thoughts on “Song Spotlight: “Beer Barrel Polka”

  1. Ann Becker-Schutte (@DrBeckerSchutte) says:

    Rachelle,

    Thanks for the memories. My family has strong German roots, and polkas have been a part of many of our family wedding celebrations. I vividly remember dancing with my grandfather to a polka at a wedding reception, and it’s still a favorite dance with my dad.

    Warmly,
    Ann

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