Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Polka

Stearns County is a German Catholic stronghold, and for at least 150 years, the polka has reigned. As I've written before, even those who grew up poor on farms grew up with an accordion in the house, and maybe also a concertina. Everyone knew a couple dozen polkas, and that's what they did at the barn dances and the school dances. My strongest exposure to these polka bands has been at the annual Polka Mass at local festivals. The polka Mass is an outdoor Mass conducted on two flatbed trucks pushed together (the local trucking company well advertised on the cabs). Onto this area is crowded a makeshift altar, a podium for an ambo, a small table with the necessities for Communion, some folding chairs for the officiants and servers, and about a dozen musicians.

Instead of the usual liturgical hymns and songs, we are treated to polkas with religious lyrics. It is a rolicking good time, and even a bit irreverent, but it feels good. I had a bit of a transformative experience at my first polka Mass, in Cold Spring, where more than 1,000 people generally attend. To see the large grounds filled with people, sitting silently on boards laid on concrete blocks, their own lawn chairs, or blankets on the ground, including many families filling a large hill at the very back, gave me the closest vision I've ever had to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. The place was completely quiet and reverent, as we went through the Mass together. That day the priest wore aviator sunglasses (it was very hot and sunny) and the altar was covered with a bright, Guatemalan woven cloth.

Last night we went to the annual festival, but I already knew there wouldn't be a polka band. Last year the leader of the polka band, our Sister Margaret Maus's brother, died suddenly in June, and the polka band disbanded. Things around here are rather fragile that way. Instead there was a bluegrass band, with just as many singers but not nearly as many instruments, and no accordions. Every tune felt like "Do Lord Remember Me" with different words, although we also sang "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away." Of course, most of those polkas sound remarkably alike.

St. Joseph had a large folk band at their outdoor Mass this summer as well, though they haven't been regularly holding Polka Masses. I think it's a sign of the times, as old timey and bluegrass music is in with the younger musicians around town. A group of musicians at our church have a band called Random Road that plays at the local coffee shop and Fisher's Club, the local set-up club co-owned by Garrison Keillor.

The day before the St. Boniface Festival, however, was the monastery's annual Donor Appreciation Event. We had our usual band, who call themselves "The Central Minnesota Unorganized Musicians Organization." You're never sure what combination will show up, and this year they had a dulcimer player and a lap steel guitar player as well (in the photo he's the guy in the blue shirt). And not one but two accordions. One was Sister Ellen Cotone, who we know will not be able to do this much longer because of her failing memory. Each year she is able to come and play is a miraculous gift.

It was a gorgeous day, cool and sunny, and in fact it was a gorgeous evening at the bluegrass Mass as well. I enjoyed both and the privilege of so much good music in my town. Later they were going to set off fireworks, which reminded me of standing with Doug on my birthday on the bridge of the Guthrie drinking champagne. There were fireworks off in the distance, and he asked me if it was some kind of holiday. "That's probably some parish festival," I said. "All summer long these small towns have their festivals, with a Mass and food and games, a parade and fireworks." I hope it keeps up until I am old and gray, even if the music changes.

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