By Gary E. McKee
From November 2015 issue of Texas Polka News
“The next song goes out to Bennie and Kathy Bronikowski: The Chappell Hill Special.” This dedication is a regular at many polka dances, however few dancers understand the significance of the song. The song gives a nod to the town of Chappell Hill, one of the approximately dozen Polish settlements in Texas, located between Brenham and Hempstead, Texas.
In the mid-1800s Polish immigrants began to arrive in Texas. The primary areas of settlement were Panna Maria (southeast of San Antonio), Brenham, Bremond, and Chappell Hill to name a few. They brought their Catholic religion, culture, and music to the new world. Their Polish music, which is string-instrument based, has been handed down orally from generation to generation.
The original music typically consisted of a fiddle, a bowed bass, and an occasional clarinet. As time went by guitars, drums, and accordions were added. Brass horns were never fully accepted into Polish music as the popular feeling was that it Czechanized the music. This isn’t a negative comment on Czech music, it’s just that horns were not popular in the old country and they were protecting their roots.
The Polish Oberek is a traditional dance that can only be described as a real fast waltz with a lotta foot-stepping in a highly spirited fashion.
As with all music there are regional interpretations influenced by geography and politics both in the old country and new world. There are basically two flavors of Polish music in Texas. One is the Chappell Hill type, which infuses a rhythmic sound into the mix. The other is the Bremond style, which reflects the music that would be found in the villages of central and southern Poland.
A master of both flavors, Brian Marshall’s fiddle whips up a dance crowd with its distinct sound. What is constant in Polish music is the presence of a fiddle (or two or three) in Polish polkas. Brian commented, “All Poles play a fiddle, but some shouldn’t.”
Tradition dictated that a fiddler was hired for entertainment at functions and it was up to the fiddler to provide accompaniment.
Brian’s father was a guitar player in a band in the 1950s and ’60s that played mostly Country & Western music, but would bust into Polish music when the crowd was right.
His grandfather, Ed Marshall, was a fiddler in the 1940s and ’50s, but was equally well known for his stage presence as a Druszba (emcee) at Polish weddings and public events.
It's a Family Tradition
In the tradition of a family band, Brian’s two teenaged sons, Jakub and Michal, have been performing with their father for years on clarinet and fiddle. At the Polish Festival in Bremond (June 26-27, 2015), Brian’s cousin, Ronnie Kasowski played guitar, and his son Jake, was thumping the bass fiddle. On drums was Chuck Bolin, who is married to a cousin, so it was truly a family band. Thank you Brian Marszalek (Marshall) for posting and sharing information on your heritage.
Brian has performed all over the U.S. including the Lincoln Center in New York, National Folk Festivals in Maine and Massachusetts, the Festival of Americana fiddle tunes in Washington, to name a just a few. He is now signed with Arhoolie Records, a music label that specializes in American masters of roots music.
Brian will conduct a workshop and perform Polish fiddle music at the 2nd Annual Festival of Texas Fiddling on November 7th. This festival is an opportunity to see multiple styles of music performed on the same instrument.