Bonnie and Al Lindborg keep the polka tradition alive with the Al Lindborg Band, playing at the Northwest Montana Polka Festival in Kalispell.
Blame it on Weird Al Yankovic. On most of his 17 albums, Yankovic has had one medley in which he strings together several pop hits over a polka tune, taking the lyrics to songs like 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” absurdly out of context.
In the process, Yankovic has become the musician perhaps most responsible for perpetuating the notion that polka is a joke. But, in fact, polka has survived since planting its roots in the mid-19th century, has been a Grammy category since 1985, and is still played by contemporary bands such as Brave Combo, who appeared on “The Simpsons” in 2004 (in animated avatar form, of course).
Polka also happens to be the focus of the third annual three-day Northwest Montana Polka Festival starting Friday, July 20, in Kalispell. Polson residents Al and Bonnie Lindborg founded and continue to organize the festival, and also form the core of the Al Lindborg Band, which plays polka, among several other genres, and provides half the music for the festival. It’s become the Lindborg’s burden, somewhat accidentally, to carry the polka torch in western Montana.
It all started in the couple’s basement, which serves as their practice space. There are three accordions, including one with an onboard digital effects processor that allows it to sound like a banjo, saxophone, vibes or 319 other instruments. There’s also a vintage Hammond B-3 organ, a piano, photos of the various bands Al and Bonnie have played in, and lots of polka-related knickknacks, including an accordion-playing leprechaun.
Bonnie, a spry 66-year-old with bright red hair, has the looks of a Nashville country music star. Al, on the other hand, is a nondescript 72-year-old and lifelong musician who shuns the spotlight; he keeps his eyes closed tight whenever he plays his squeezebox.
“I like to hunt and fish, and music falls into the same category for me,” Al says.
Both Al and Bonnie repeatedly describe polka as “a happy music.”
“The people that entertain themselves with it and go to the dances and festivals, they’re just happy people, friendly people,” Al says.
Al and Bonnie discovered polka in the early 1980s, when they first moved to Sheridan, Wyo. At the time, Al played big band jazz on his Hammond B-3, and Bonnie sang 1950s rock and roll standards.
“I didn’t even know what polka was,” Bonnie says.
But they soon discovered that polka was the dominant music in Sheridan, which had a large ethnic Polish population, and decided to form a polka band. By 1985, the couple had organized a polka festival in Sheridan, which they say went on for 15 years, attracting about 1,500 attendees at its peak.
During the mid-’80s, polka was experiencing a resurgence. That’s when the Grammys started to recognize it as a stand-alone category, and the inaugural winner in 1985 was Frankie Yankovic (no relation to Weird Al, though Al does play on a song on one of Frankie’s last albums, 1996’s Songs of the Polka King, Vol. 1). When they weren’t managing their own festival, the Lindborgs capitalized on polka popularity by playing year-round in numerous regional festivals across the West.
“You could drive almost anywhere on a weekend and find a polka festival,” says Bonnie.
Around the same time, the Lindborg’s began working as Frankie Yankovic’s backing band when he toured in their area.
These days, however, Al and Bonnie admit that polka may be on the decline. Since the 1980s, the regional festivals, including the one they started in Sheridan, have mostly disappeared, and Frankie Yankovic died in 1998.
“Hopefully it’s not fading, because it’s a happy thing” says Al. “But sometimes you think it is.”
But there’s apparently still some local interest left. Al and Bonnie began playing a mixture of Latin, big band, oldies, country and polka around the Flathead shortly after arriving in 2001, and they say it wasn’t long before people began asking them to set up a polka festival here.
“People were pressuring us,” Bonnie says, laughing.
“There’s a lot of people living in the Kalispell area, and throughout the Flathead Valley, that are from the Dakotas and the eastern part of Montana…and that’s the music a lot of them grew up with,” Al adds, attempting to explain the demand.
But Al and Bonnie note that most of the die-hard attendees who campaigned for the festival are of the World War II generation.
“We’re starting to get a few young people into it, but not many,” Al says.
They’re not exactly sure why polka hasn’t caught on with a new generation, although Bonnie suspects it’s because people don’t care to dance as much, and polka is primarily music for cutting a rug. But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Al and Bonnie organized the festival to celebrate the genre among like-minded fans, regardless of what the larger musical world thinks, and they’ll continue as long as a few hundred polka fans continue to turn out.
But if there is a possible bump in popularity on the horizon, it’s this: Weird Al Yankovic and his catalog of polka medleys will stop in Bozeman Sept. 9, perhaps inspiring a few younger Montanans to pick up the old genre.
The Northwest Montana Polka Festival runs Friday, July 20, through Sunday, July 22, at the Eagle’s Lodge, 37 1st Avenue, in downtown Kalispell. $10 for single-day admission, $18 for two days or $25 for three. Call 883-6151 for a complete schedule.