A Q&A with a 94-year-old polka legend
Polka, a festive style of German dance tune, is one of Door County’s most popular live-music genres, and Jerry Voelker is the county’s resident polka legend. He’s been playing the accordion with the Jolly Gents for more than 50 years and is still going strong. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Emma Chamley (EC): When did you start playing polka music?
Jerry Voelker (JV): I was 8 years old. I wanted a piano accordion, and my dad – up in Klondike, Wisconsin, north of Green Bay, where we lived on the family farm – sold a cow for $85 and bought me a 48 bass piano accordion. He bought it from a man named Leo Valenta, who played with the Dick Rodgers Band at Kelly Lake up there, and Leo would come over and give me lessons.
EC: So there was a big polka community where you grew up?
JV: In that day it was unbelievable. I started the band 54 years ago – next year it’ll be 55. I think for the first seven years, we did about 145 jobs a year. We traveled to seven states and were very happy.
EC: Where else did you travel?
JV: Well, the whole band, we went to Europe in the ’90s to play at the Hofbräuhaus in Germany. Six of us: my mom and dad, and my two sons. One of my sons played trumpet, and the other one at that time played piano. I’ve also played in China, Russia, Hawaii. On cruise ships, in Mexico, all over.
EC: What’s your favorite place you’ve ever played?
JV: My favorite place I’ve ever played? Oh, I couldn’t even tell you.
EC: The Hofbräuhaus has to be a pretty cool experience, right?
JV: It was unbelievable. There’s two floors, and we played upstairs, on a big stage with a dance floor. I still have this huge mug we drank out of that I brought home. This mug could fit three 12-ounce bottles of beer in it.
EC: What do you think makes people love polka so much?
JV: It’s upbeat. We do funerals, which I really don’t look forward to at all. In the winter, my wife and I are in Florida, and this March I got a call that a dear friend of ours had died. So my wife, Rosie, and I flew back, and I called the boys in the band to do his funeral mass.
The priest was not for it when we started, but when we got done he said it was fantastic. We had three other people come up and say, “When we die, we want you to play our funeral.” I said to these gals, “Are you healthy?” They said yes, and I said, “Keep it that way.”
EC: I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a polka funeral!
JV: We do church masses all the time. We do “How Great Thou Art” with our two great trumpet players. When it comes to the final stanzas, they come in. Oh, if that doesn’t make you go and shiver. I’ve had people come up after crying their eyes out at how beautiful it was.
At the end of one funeral we did, the preacher said, “Now everybody, from the front to the back of the church, Jerry’s playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” with the band, and we’re gonna dance down the aisle to the back of the church, where the cafeteria is for you to have lunch.” We played that thing through twice!
EC: How long have you lived in Door County?
JV: Way back in the day, we lived in Green Bay, and I worked at the paper mill. I worked 41 years there in the machine shop, and believe me, they took care of this old man.
We moved here full time 24 years ago. Now we live on the south side of Clark Lake, and it’s heaven. The places I’ve been, nothing beats Door County, Wisconsin. When we used to play weddings in Chicago, I couldn’t wait to get back here.
EC: What are some of your favorite memories from 54 years of polka playing?
JV: We always – well, not always, but most of the time – had a wedding on Saturdays in Chicago. We’d get done, and then we’d drive up and go to Veterans Park in Milwaukee by the airport. There was a tavern there, and we’d set up and play until 3:30 in the morning. We’d go to our room, and the sun would be coming up.
We just loved to play all over. We used to take busloads, like three or four busloads, up to northern Michigan from Green Bay, and we made a weekend trip of playing up there. Once we played at a polka festival on Mackinac Island, where we met polka legends Myron Floren and Jimmy Sturr. We had lots of good times.
EC: You play the accordion in the band, but what other instruments do you play?
JV: In high school I played the tuba, and then the trumpet. The piano accordion, of course, but not any wind instruments.
EC: Where’s your favorite place to perform in Door County?
JV: In Door County I’ve got several, but the Hügel Haus in Ellison Bay. It’s German; they have the German beer on tap and brats. If the Lord blesses us with good weather, there’s a stage and tables outside. We get people cranked up to sing, dance, drink beer, eat brats and pretzels. That’s a pretty good life.