BGSU Alumnus Donates Polka Collection

BGSU alumnus Steven Harris ’71 has an affinity for polka music. He grew up in northwest Ohio listening to the music and playing it in his family’s band. His interest in the central European-born music was further ingrained during his BGSU study abroad experience in Salzburg, Austria, over 40 years ago.

Today, as president of Music Publishers of America (MPA), he is on a mission to preserve and propagate the central European ethnic music known to most as polka music.

To that end, MPA recently donated 24 boxes — 3,000 individual pieces — of polka charts, folios and sheet music to the BGSU Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives in Wm. T. Jerome Library. The collection came from his company’s acquisition of the assets of the Vitak-Elsnic (V-E) Company, a venerable music publishing company in the polka music industry. V-E had its origins in Cincinnati and was co-founded by Louis Vitak, a Bohemian (Czech) immigrant to Ohio in the 1890s.

According to Harris, “American polka music was the glue that held immigrant communities together. V-E music was played from the plains of the Dakotas to the steel mills of Pennsylvania to the hill country of Texas.”  Polka music was played by major bands and recorded by some of the country’s leading artists, with its heyday in the 1920-1950 period. Clevelander Frank Yankovic, the “Polka King,” had million-seller records in the 1940s and 1950s.

The collection, now at BGSU, includes band and orchestra arrangements as well as those for accordion, piano and concertina. Within the collection are hundreds of still-valid copyrights on V-E owned original compositions and arrangements, along with sales records from the 1960s to the 1980s. MPA has also agreed to make available to researchers more detailed V-E business correspondence and copyright information.

These will become a rich resource for researchers and music aficionados to study and learn about this style of music, said Susannah Cleveland, head of the Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives.

“Our long-term vision is to get it cataloged and ready to invite researchers to come and explore the materials,” Cleveland said. “We will figure ways to fund ongoing, intellectual engagement with the materials, as well as musical engagement.”

“The partnership with BGSU and its music library is important to the preservation of this music,” Harris said. “We want to introduce this great music to new generations in new ways, but it is also important to protect and preserve a vital component of America’s musical heritage.”

The University Libraries will host a reception dedicating the collection of the Vitak-Elsnic Polka Collection by Music Publishers of America.  The reception, which will welcome special guests MPA President Steve Harris and Grammy-nominated musician and producer Alex Meixner, will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m.  Oct. 19, in the Pallister Conference Room in the Jerome Library. Seating is limited.  For assistance related to special accommodations or to RSVP for the event, which is free and open to the public, contact Susannah Cleveland at clevels@bgsu.edu.