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Cross the Bridge: Polish​-​American Dances & Songs, Oct. 1923 - March 1931

by Canary Records



“Never before perhaps, except last year, did so many persons from Europe reach our shores to take their abode with us, at this advanced state of the season, as are now arriving. We regret that it is so. Hundreds, perhaps we might say thousands of them, will be encumbrances on us during the ensuing winter; for many tens of thousands of our own people, accustomed to sustain themselves by their labor, will be out of employment, unless some extraordinary event shall take place.

We have always until just now greeted the stranger on his arrival here with pleasure. There was room enough for all that would come, and industry was a sure road to a comfortable living, if not to independence and wealth. We were glad of the addition which they made to our population, and of the impulse which they gave to the capacity of production, thus advancing our country to its weight and power and extent of resources which the patriot delights to anticipate, but which also every one desired to see realized. Now, however, our population in most of the maritime districts and in some parts of the interior seems too thick - there are too many mouths to consume what the hands can find business to do; and that hitherto sure refuge of the industrious foreign immigrant, the western country, is overstocked by domestic emigration. Certainly, the present system cannot last long…”
from the Niles Weekly Register, Baltimore, Maryland, September 18, 1819.

The large wave of Polish-speaking immigrants who arrived in the last decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century joined an earlier and smaller group who had arrived in early and mid-19th century. Both groups arrived from a territory that had been partitioned between three empires - the Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian - since the 17th century. The majority of the earlier group tended to be gentry from the north, closer culturally to Germany, and joined agrarian America; the latter wave tended to be poorer, from the south, culturally tied both to Bohemia and the Carpathian district of Galicia now divided between Poland, Slovakia, and the Ukraine. They tended toward the industrial hubs of Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Just as Sicilians, Neopolitans, and Abruzzians, bound together by church and language, came to identify as Italian-Americans, so also did Polonian-Americans from diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds, even as they were lumped together with other Central and Eastern Europeans by the existing population generically as “Hunkies” and “Polacks.”

Columbia Records began marketing recordings made in Warsaw ca. 1904-05 to the Polish immigrants shortly after their first releases for the German, Italian, Czech, and Hungarian immigrant markets, and by 1907 they were recording Polish immigrants at their New York studios. As both immigration and record production expanded over several decades, by 1940 2.5 million Americans had Polish as their mother tongue (just behind 5 million German and 3.75 million Italian), music researcher Pekka Gronow estimates that Columbia and Victor combined issued 1,1416 discs in Polish between 1923 and 1952 (compared to 1,263 in German and 1,929 in Italian). Add to that the proliferation of sheet-music publishing and music schools (particularly in Chicago and Philadelphia) by and for Polish-American musicians during the same period, and the demand for music among first- and second-generation Poles in the U.S. clear, ranging from religious music, urban brass bands, the wiejska rural string bands, accordion-playing songsters, and a massive proliferation of comedy and theatrical records.

Hybridization begun in the 1920s among Polish immigrants with other ethnic groups and with mainstream American popular music, followed by a proliferation of accordion music generally in the U.S. during the 1930s and 40s lead to a diminution of the older styles and a broad American distaste for “polka music,” as it was eventually categorized. A broad disinterest in “ethnic” immigrant musics in the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century has lead to a situation where little of the early 20th century Polish-American material has been widely reissued. (Those interested should certainly listen to Dick Spottswood’s 1995 CD Polish Village Music: Historic Polish-American Recordings 1927-33 on the Arhoolie label and the previous Canary releases The Widow’s Joy and I Wouldn’t Sell You to Anyone, the latter two of which integrate Polish performers with others from Eastern Europe.)

There is also something about the “merry” quality of much of the Polish-American recorded material that can be distasteful to some contemporary listeners. I would, however, advise listeners unaccustomed to the quality of joyfulness among immigrant performers to consider the labor involved in happiness. Forget the plastered-on grins of Lawrence Welk’s band, that mask of inauthenticity, and look deep into the sound. In your mind’s eye, it isn’t smiling faces you’ll see but bodies becoming weightless and breathing hard as they hurl around in an attempt to escape Earth’s gravitational pull or, deeper still, a heart wanting, trying to feel itself bursting with life and the laughter that lives at the core of all creation.


released June 14, 2021

Recording dates via Richard Spottswood and the Database of American Historical Recordings:
1. Feb. 20, 1930
2. Jan. 2, 1928
3. July 1926
4. ca. Nov. 1928
5. July 1926
6. March 26, 1931
7. ca. May 1928
8. April 29, 1927
9. June 20, 1927
10. ca. Oct. 1923
11. ca. Nov. 1928
12. ca. Aug. 1928
13. Feb. 2, 1927
14. Feb. 1926
15. May 20, 1927
16. June 10, 1927
17. ca. Jan. 1927

Recording locations:
Camden NJ 1, 6
Chicago IL 3. 9, 11, 14, 15, 17
New York NY 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 16

5 Also issued as Scandanavian
9 Also issued as Lithuanian

Cover image: Ignacy Podgorski, Philadelphia PA ca. 1934.

Transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski


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early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

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