How Volksmusik Became Polka Music

Christina Bishop
20 min readJun 3, 2021


The reason why Germans call their folk music Volksmusik is because it means People’s Music. In America, there are two divisions in music: country music, and one being Polka Music, the Country Music industry's way of saying that German, Austrian, Swiss, Polish, and Slovenian music is other than American music. Recently country music now faces the monsters it created that make diverse voices silenced and people unheard until now. Do country artists know that they stole from the jodelers whose voices were never heard until now; why did it take the death of Franzl Lang and innocent African American teens at the hands of police for Country Music to realize the robbery operation they have been doing for years?

Does the industry know about police violence being glorified in Country Music? Jonny Cash showed us the hypocrisy of Country Music as an industry when he released Folsom Prison which shows that prison harms white immigrants just as much as it does people of color.

Yet despite repulsion from the Country Music industry and even President Nixon; that album was revered more than the records and recordings of Elvis and The Beatles combined as the Best Folk album. There is a whole genre of old songs in German that lasts a long time: Ebergrune or Evergreen because a pine tree lasts a long time and remains strong through the seasons. What would Johny Cash say about a song like Beer for My Horses that glorifies and reminisces about when people would watch people be lynched from trees by policemen?

I guess he would not have anything nice to say to Toby Keith and probably call him a scab in Folk Music, but he would admire someone like Franzl Lang and his interpretation of the jodellied Der Konigsjodeler.

The song is about a king hiking through the woods when he hears a beautiful jodel. When he meets him he wants to offer him gold, diamonds, and silver and be the king's jodeler; however, the jodeler says to the king that he should be thankful for hearing his jodel for his home in his village where he learned to sing and jodel.

Jodeln is a difficult art form just like learning how to sing opera is a lifelong work for many singers; even some of the best singers have trouble with airas like Mozart’s Der Holle Racht (Struwwelpeter’s favorite aria) just like it would be hard to do the Ku-Ku Jodel out of the gate. It takes a lot of practice for someone to do the work Franzl does. Franzl Lang’s former job was as a tool and dye salesman and it started as a hobby and did performances at festivals, however, he took his jodeln across the world when he became a recording artist for Phillip Records. One that fascinated me and saddened me as a German-American was this recording, Im Urlaub im Der Bergen which has a very familiar melody to a country music standard She Taught Me How to Yodel which was first recorded in 1941, Franzl Langs recording by Phillips was released in 1955 which meant it’s recording date is earlier.

During the Cold War when American Soldiers were patrolling German and Russian airwaves; they would use recordings by Franzl Lang to distract Russian Hackers from obtaining American and German information. This was at a time when Germany was still divided by the Berlin Wall when that wall fell in 1989 the soldiers that returned home brought Franzl Langs records with them which brought on a Jodeln Renacance (’50–the ’90s) and a chance to exploit jodel records by the Polka Industry labeling various recordings into one or more records and labeling them as International recordings instead of fully giving credit to the artist or paying Phillips for using Franzl’s recording library.

What is the Polka Music Industry?

Although Polkas originated in different cultures in Europe; Polka Music for a long time in America was a label for music that was other than Jazz, Gospel, Country, and Classical. Even Klezmer music was put in the Jazz category because of its likeness to the genre; a genre that so infuriated Henry Ford that he started a campaign to have schools square dance without knowing its origin in both the Irish Jig and Schueplatter. One landler that found its way in both swing and square dancing is Der Bummel Peter based on a folk tune about St.Peter getting bored with guarding the gates of Heaven that he goes down to earth and flirts with women.

Schuhplattler is a dance with origins in the Alpine regions of Europe and its name means to slap the shoes or to slam the shoes. Some of the dances are based on occupations or conflicts between men and vary in acrobatics and different motions in the dance. One dance in Ostriol in Austria above the Italian Alps Der Hupfau has men imitate the millstone grinding hops while men take turns flipping and jumping on top of the wooden wheel representing the grinding of the hops.

Many German Immigrants were afraid of losing their cultural memory and heritage to people like Henry Ford and other industrialists who were anti-union, xenophobic, and against progressive reforms made by immigrants. When recorded music became available immigrants used it as a way to record their musical lifeline and traditions that they missed in their homeland. When a musician works very hard to be heard and practices to sound good for their love of music in German-speaking cultures, it is called musikraft. A Musikanten is someone who keeps working hard to master their musikraft.

Yong adults learning from middle-aged musicians in a group where they play together is nothing new for Germans. It always has been done; even musicians who are hobbyists become better and need a community of musicians, which is how bands and Volkmusik groups first start. Some even have their first job be something other than a musikant; a law student like Martin Brugger of Ursprung Buam, a Professor of Music like Josef Kern of Kern Buam, and Reinhold Willingnshofer of Die Stoakogler was a manager on a farm.

Reinhold learned the clarinet using a fingering chart before he got lessons. Imagine a clarinet in your band that sounds this good.

Most of the American Wind Band Movement was founded by Germans to teach a preserve their musical heritage so they would not lose their culture and form lasting bonds with other immigrants who also played music other than the traditional marches, waltzes, and Tanz Musik. Some played circus marches and ragtime, and some combined vaudeville with showcasing instruments from Alpine culture such as the alphorn, zither, holzchet g’lachner (an ancestor to today's xylophones), alpine bells, and the hackbret (a hammered dulcimer). Yet they had to stay in their community because of prohibitionists who damaged and harmed German businesses and burned German-language books like Der Struwwelpeter and Max und Mortz. Only to replace them with propaganda and posters like The Drunkards Progress.

Imagine this hanging in your classroom…

In German-speaking cultures having your group perform in a brew hall or Brauhaus was a rite of passage for Musikaten which is why there are so many songs of phrase about these hallowed halls in songs like Im Mucnichen Seht am Hoffenbraus, Die Kuffsteinleid, and Schrutzenlisal about a waitress who served Jaggermenn (Hunters) during Schruzenfest. In some collage ballads way back then (the 1900s) when a song mentioned hallowed halls, it was usually a bar or tavern where a collage group of musicians and singers would perform; in the famous Wiffenpoof Song, they mention the tables down in Mory’s to the place where Louie dwells.

The man in the top hat is Louie Linder the owner of Mory’s Temple Tavern in 1912

Some college songs had to change lyrics because of the Volstead Act, which not only outlawed drinking but also outlawed references to drinking in many songs sung at colleges and in German and Irish communities. The phrase Patty Wagon was used by both German and Irish immigrants as slander to police who would wait outside of bars and taverns and when patrons came out they would beat and arrest immigrants who had never committed a crime. This is why unions and groups like the Kopling Society were founded to protect immigrant workers from being thrown in jail for just going to the bar and being a part of their culture. They also protected the German public traditions such as Kichtag and Schutzenfest from being the targets of state government xenophobia and violence.

If you as a brewer cannot trust the police to protect your business then you have to have all eyes on all members of your community. Many Germans were illegal immigrants and migrants because of the mistrust of the police and their government before the rise of the Third Riche only for them to face the same mistrust in America. The richer a city was in Germany like Berlin, which meant that police could be bribed by wealthy members of the fascist parties. In America, some teetotalers with positions in the state government bribed police to search and destroy German businesses.

Harold Loeffelmacher playing his tuba on The Larence Welk Show

For German Musikant like the Six Fat Dutchmen of Minnesota, it meant a shift from traditional German Baeirgatens to Dance Halls, from traditional German dress to swing band uniforms, and a transition in sounding more like swing music than Tanzlmusic. Fortunately, their leader kept playing the instrument he loved so much the tuba. This music became so popular that it gave the Country Music Industry at the time something to profit from and also exploit for their gain. Thus you have the term Polka being used by the music industry to separate Country and Bluegrass from music made by immigrants meant for immigrant people.

How to Steal a Profit?

Exploitation was easy, but its backlash was too hard to deal with when German music popped up in Mexican genres such as La Banda and Marachi which were popular among migrant workers who sang ballads about young boys being shot by police, robbers who gave to the poor farmers, and songs of farmers leaving their families and never coming back.

German and Austrian music has a tradition of ballads and leiders that are not written down by composers like Schubert but are in the community and are there for singing about emotional subjects; these are known as Volksleider. One, in particular, that became popular with immigrants was the Leid Muss I denn.

Muss i denn, muss i denn
zum Städtele hinaus, Städtele hinaus,
Und du, mein Schatz, bleibst hier?
Wenn i komm’, wenn i komm’,
wenn i wiedrum komm’, wiedrum komm’,
Kehr’ i ein, mein Schatz, bei dir.
Kann i glei net allweil bei dir sein,
Han i doch mein Freud’ an dir!
Wenn i komm’, wenn i komm’,
wenn i wiedrum komm’, wiedrum komm’,
Kehr’ i ein, mein Schatz, bei dir.

The song is about a journeyman who must go into town on his Wanderjahre and his wife is begging him not to go for fear of losing him. He says to her that although there are pretty girls in the town, he will never leave her or abandon her for another woman; and that when he comes back they will harvest grapes together for wine. His wife is his sweetheart and will always love her. The song also reflects a sense of homesickness that German Americans felt called Heimweh and would describe the song as Sehnsuchtsvoller which means always longing. However, if we know anything about the journeys of heroes and heroines in Grimm’s Tales the road is always filled with monsters and people who are monsters.

This is why Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs were so appealing to both Germans and German-Americans who were leaving fascist Germany to come to a haven of freedom and hope. Someday My Prince Will Come was a song of hope and a promise that one day a good person will save people from fascism. However, what people do not know is that the person who sang this memorable song was also the daughter of immigrants from Italy who never got credit because Disney did not want to ruin the magic. Her name was Adriana Caselotti and got the job when she responded to a phone call from Disney in the voice every child has grown up with including myself.

One of the most frightening scenes in the film is when she is picking flowers in the woods and talking to a little bluebird who is branching for the first time. A shadow creeps up on her and she turns around with a scream!

“I can’t…” a voice utters as a blade falls onto the ground and we hear a sob. That sob comes from the Huntsmen who were told in the original Scheewitchen by the Brothers Grimm to bring back her heart and lungs so the queen could stew and eat them. In agony and fear, he tells her to run away into the dark woods filled with monsters that look like tree bark and floating logs. She keeps running until she falls on the forest floor to cry until she finds her way to the cottage.

The film and the story are the feminine versions of Joseph Campbell's concept of The Hero’s Journey which male figures had dominated until Snow White. Yet many of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm were told by older women to protect their daughters from the monsters of the world and the people who are monsters. This is why German psychologists of the Frankfurt am Main (Struwwelpeter’s home) School of Psychology saw Disney as the Devil himself preying on children's fears and desires for profit.

Also, the devil himself pops up in a lot of the Grimm’s tales such as Hans and the Three Golden Hairs, in the original Snow Queen by Hans Christan Anderson it's a devil who makes a mirror that makes everything beautiful look ugly and when he tries to take the mirror up to heaven it smashes into bits. If you try to make heaven on earth you end up with nasty consequences, even if it’s the happiest place on earth. When Disney had a union strike in the 40s it looked like the man fighting the monsters was becoming a monster himself fighting policies long fought by German-American immigrants. The man whose movie fought fascism over in Germany was becoming the fascist.

Even the Polka and Country music industry exploits the rags-to-riches model of storytelling to sell more records and hide their past of xenophobia and racism. Dolly Pardon’s song Coat of Many Colors is a song about finding beauty even through poverty experienced by people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains and so does Coal Miner's Daughter by Loretta Lynn. For the Polka Music Industry, their rags to riches were in a man named Larence Welk.

That Wundeful Man…

Some German-Americans say that he is a wunderful guy; however, ask a real German or Austrian musikant and they will tell you that Larence Welk is no more a tool than Rogers and Hamerstine when they did The Sound of Music which did more harm to the Von Trapp family than good. Also, they will tell you and talk to you about a show called Musikantenstadl which started real Volksmusik and Schlager musikant and spoke and sang the mother tongue, unlike the all-English-speaking Lawrence Welk Show.

They also had a group led by a Slovenian musikant named Slavko Avsenik whose songs would form a new genre of Volksmusik called Oberkraner, named for the upper mountain range of Solvenia. They became so popular that the theme of the show became their song Trompenecho or Na Golici in Slovenian before being replaced by Stadlzeit after the death of host Karl Monk.

Now because of the internet and YouTube people can watch clips and Musikantsadl in its entirety, but imagine being a German-American around a time when even after the Second World War there was still hostility towards German culture and music. A new stereotype emerged after the war known as Gemuklichkite which is a passive-aggressive statement towards German-Americans who want their music, clothing, traditions, language, and food to be honored and respected properly.

Clothing in German culture conveys a message of who that person is, their status, and their family; if I were to wear a Drindl someday because I’m German-American I would put the bow in the front which means I’m a virgin and don’t want men to mess with me. I would not wear the hut because I’m a woman. The Hut also has a message with the feathers on it; the first bird a hunter shoots becomes part of their Jaggerhut as a symbol of honoring the beauty of that bird. Groups like Kern Buam wear the Steirhut which is given to and worn by musikanten who are honorable like their father Adolf Kern; and when he died it was Josef, Hubert, and Sep Kern’s turn to lead the group.

When television was in its early years in America there were shows for Country Music that seemed inclusive on the service level like Hee Haw and Grand Ole Opry but were very ignorant and imperialist when it came to addressing the xenophobic and racist history in the industry and tended to make America folksy and appealing to the industry. Except for Jonny Cash whose own show invited folk singers and rock singers who blended rock and folk.

In Germany, a new genre emerged from this called Schlager which means ballad music which began with a choir director who deserves all the credit named Edith Moller who was introduced by a poem called Mein Vater war A Wandermann. That song is now known as The Happy Wanderer and was sung by her choir at a time in Britain and America when there was still hostility towards German people and German music and was number two on the Top Record Charts in both countries and was covered by so many artists and choirs around the world. Yet when the English lyrics were published it was labeled as a German Folk Song and gave her no credit for adapting the poem into the song we know today. Her choir was also made up of war orphans which makes this labeling so cruel and heartless.

Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann
Und mir steckt’s auch im Blut
D’rum wand’re ich froh so lang ich kann
Und schwenke meinen Hut!

It also established a rebirth in Volksmusik and a group known as the Wandervogel who presided over the Hippie movement of the ’60s by walking in the woods as a protest to industrialism and capitalism and its damaging effects on the poor and middle class, meaning that these folk revivalist musikant were the first squatters.

Folk music and its origins were a huge subject explored by the Hippie movement in both countries yet their studies were ignored at the time because of how big Country Music and the exploitative Polka Industry were in the ’50s and ’60s when folk theory and folk music history was being recorded on tapes as field recordings and record collecting from Appalachian and African-American Gospel and blues artist.

Jazz and folk seemed foreign to classical study until the ’50s and 60’s when people wanted to know the origin of Rock, Pop, and Country music. The Happy Wanderer is not the only victim hidden by Country music’s xenophobia; people know about The Sound of Music but never heard recordings from the actual Von Trapp family who inspired the musical we German-Americans now both love and hate.

Every evening before dinner they would sing a song of a phrase before eating, and after they would play traditional music and jodelleider until they played themselves out. When Germany invaded Austria it came at a bad time when their daughter was dating a young man who was Jewish, and when their visas expired after performing at a music festival in Salzberg. So they fled to Italy and then America where a talent agent changed their name from Von Trapp to the Trapp Family Singers. Yet when Roger and Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music no proceeds were given to them, and when the actual Maria von Trapp met Julie Andrews she tried to teach her how to do traditional jodeling.

Notice Julie is doing the middle harmony while Maria does the lead jodel, this is because in traditional jodeling the lead can go…




And then the middle and last harmonies go next until the lead stops singing. This is because many jodelleiders were songs of phrase and prayer led by a man or woman who leads first or leads with the group. In some churches in Germany and Austria, there is an open hole in the church ceiling called a Heiliggeisltoch so that when a very loud choir of jodelers sing it can be heard through the whole village so they know when certain services begin and end.

At the end of the day, they were touring folk artists no different than the artists who combined rock and folk music to showcase it all at a place called Woodstock. Even British groups learned about the origins of rock and pop music in America better than people in America. They knew that like German-Americans; African-American music was separated and segregated from upper-class markets until British musicians learned about artists like Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton through Race Records just like how the Country Music industry before labeled Volksmusik, Polka Music.

Even the Rolling Stones based their work off of Union protest songs written by immigrants; I Can’t Get No Satisfaction is a metal version of Solidarity Forever with distortion, cord changes reflecting rage and anger, and extra lyrics adding more power and rage over capitalism. Black Sabbath probably took inspiration from Schubert's lieder Der Erlkronig about a father and son riding through the night being chased by a Dark Elfking when they wrote Paranoid and made an album in the same name. At the end of Der Erlkonig, the father arrives home only to realize his child is dead which sounds like metal before metal was a thing in the 1800s.

Baritone Dietrich Fisher Deustkau
Black Sabath’s Paranoid

When both Folk-Rock and Polka Music were being heavily over-marketed to an older generation of White Upper-Class Americans is when young people took to Hevey Metal just like when the movement known to many Germans as Sturm und Drang took over at a time when young Germans became angry with the rich upper classes and their degradation of traditional rural culture, music, and folk stories.

Whereas Folk-Rock and Polka Music were about listening to your parents and doing the same dance over and over again; Hevey Metal and Sturm und Drang were the opposite and had themes of darkness, fear, death, and doing horrible things with horrible consequences. In Weber’s Oprea Der Freischutz Kaspar must go to the grave of the Black Huntsman Samuel, who made a deal with the devil to be the best hunter and shooter; and bring him back to life for advice to help Max the hero of the opera, get seven bullets that never miss their mark. “SO IT BE-BY THE GATES OF HELL-TOMORROW HE OR YOU!” he shouts bellow the deaths of hell. These bullets also have a curse on them to target Max’s beloved Agathe, the chosen target. This is just the beginning of the ghoulish and fighting Wolf’s Glen scene of Act Two.

Sturm and Dram came about. The upper-class Germans had to reject the folk culture they knew because other people considered their folk music, dance, and customs to be low-brow if they wanted to do business with Britain and France which was also full of anti-German sentiment even before the First World War. Many of the tropes in anti-German propaganda in America came from France. They also rejected and frowned upon Bavarian Folk Theater and found amusement in a stock character called Hanswurst which mocked Bavarians. This angered members of the Sturm und Dram so much that they burned effagies of the stock character in public view. In Hevey Metal’s case, it was Twisted Sister’s Disco Sucks and Were Not Gona Take It that not only defined metal but anger towards how the artist in both genres was being exploited by the record industry including Country Music and Folk Rock.

Disco was meant to tear down the foundation of Indie Rock artists so they could profit off of other artists' recordings. And Der Freischulz was Webers way of saying… Hanswurst Stinks.

Conclusion and Reclaiming of Volksmusik in America.

This is the first Volksmusik album I got in Frankenmuth, Michigan

Now with the tools and technology of the internet, what was once lost to many German-Americans can be found. Yet despite all new knowledge and access to knowledge about the genre, there is a language barrier because of the damage assimilation did to German dialects in the Midwest which have now ended up in various accents. Acidemia and documentaries like Ken Burns's Country Music do not talk about the damage xenophobia in the industry has done to German-American and German-speaking musicians.

In his previous documentary Jazz, Bradon Marcailis talked about how racism, anti-Semitism, and white privilege should always be a topic when talking about Jazz. Jazz’s roots are in Gospel and Blues but also because Germans and German Americans in the North were part of the abolition movement to end slavery and along with teaching slaves how to read and write like Fredrick Douglas, music and dance were also taught and improvised to help them gain the tools to the path of freedom and defending their freedoms.

At the end of the Civil War, General Grant met Otto von Bismark and was surprised to see that they were way ahead of America; no child labor, emphasis on clean water and food, sanitation in factories and streets, children and mothers in political art, and when he met him they spoke both German and English. Otto thought Grant was young for a man who fought many horrible battles for Germany too fought battles with Napolian and other countries who put their politics and wealth before the well-being of people.

Without their meeting, Christmas would not be considered a national holiday, the Great Migration and the prosperity that came with it for African Americans would not be worth it, and the fight for unions, social well-being, and progression. The German word for labor union Gewerkschaft means Good Working Shaft because the union movement helps hold businesses accountable and helps the industry work better to support its people so it does not make the same harmful mistakes again that harm people; much like a good working part of a machine helps the whole machine work.

My state Michigan is home to many labor movements and strikes that changed industry and humanity; we need to fight for folk music of all kinds to be taught alongside classical and jazz music because it’s the foundation of all genres in America. Jazz has the same rhythmic foundation as Volksmusik; I play the tuba which is the downbeat, drums establish the tempo, guitar, and accordion are the upbeat, and cords. In early jazz music, there are many commonalities between both genres.

If folk music is to be taught we must tell the students the context and history of the people who share and write the songs and melodies. The people whose voices were silent and whose names were not recognized because they are German, Austrian, Swiss, Polish, Chezh, Slovenian, or German-speaking must be honored and archived along with new voices in Volksmusik who are now on iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora. After the death of Jodeler, Franzl Lang, people all over began posting films and recordings of his songs so that he would not die in the minds of German Americans. Yet his songs have not been on streaming platforms despite his newfound popularity online.

Our music education system does not belong to Wee Sing, DCI, BOA, or any industry or cooperation of public broadcasting for it to be bowdlerized and tainted with Nationalism and Exceptionalism to please people in power or any industry with a history of racism or xenophobia. If we want to learn the history of our music we must learn about the horrible things to make our lives better for all people. If there is no one to teach folk music academically or in schools then we can never learn jazz or classical music with a good context because a lot of classical composers improvised folk music and even used folk instruments like the zither in Tale from the Vienna Woods by Richard Strauss.

How can we understand Gershwin without an understanding of Klezmer? How can one understand why Metal became so popular without talking about Strum und Dram in Germany? How do we understand Spike Jones's music without talking about Tirolian Minstrels and Bavarian Theater later going into radio in the 1920s? Without folk music how can we be free as musicians subjected to judgment and ostracization if we don’t have a degree on our wall that says we are who we are? Good musicians do not have degrees they have the persistence and courage to be good musicians for all people and that includes musikanten like me.



Christina Bishop

Tuba player, creator of Struwwelkinder and The Flying Circus Orchestra