Rocking the Roots: Jim Manheim spins polka, country & bluegrass on WCBN
Jim Manheim has the unique distinction of hosting both one of WCBN's most popular shows -- and, arguably, one of its most obscure. Since 1989 Manheim has co-hosted The Down Home Show, a classic country music program that often raises the most or second-most money during station fundraisers (WCBN's closest equivalent to more traditional listenership metrics). He also co-hosts a popular bluegrass program, Bill Monroe for Breakfast. But in three stints from 1996 to 1999, 2008 to 2011, and 2014 to the present, Manheim has also regularly graced WCBN's airwaves with the Drivetime Polka Party.
Currently airing Wednesdays at 6:30 pm, the Drivetime Polka Party is a joyful and educational trip through the once popular, now largely forgotten art form of polka. While the music itself doesn't fit into today's sonic landscape, it's still difficult to resist its buoyant rhythms and surprisingly wild sense of experimentation. (For one particularly mystifying example that caught this writer's ear on a recent Polka Party, check out this hillbilly-polka crossbreed cover of "Hot Rod Lincoln" by Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra.)
Manheim is a charming and engaging guide throughout this weekly journey, projecting a light-hearted, good-humored personality that matches the music (and is inspired by Buffalo, N.Y., polka DJs). He's also a treasure trove of information, providing background on each song while also placing it in the broader historical context of the genre. We chatted with Manheim on why he started the show, what keeps him coming back to the polka genre, and what his plans are for his WCBN shows as he mulls a move to Indonesia.
Q: How did the Drivetime Polka Party get started?
A: It was originally students who suggested it. I got a bunch of polka records from this old store in Toledo. This old factory worker named Frank had accumulated about a million vinyl records in all genres in his house, and then in a storefront in Polish Village in Toledo right at Central and Lagrange, and started selling them off when he retired. Why did I do it? When I was in college I read a book called Polka Happiness by Charles Kyle, who was one of the Marxist scholars who can actually write without sounding like you're completely using academic jargon. He wrote a book about polka and that struck me.
Also, there were all these records there and a lot of them were on major labels like RCA or Columbia. In 1960, this was a huge genre. Then it just completely disappeared, and that always intrigues me, especially around here. If you scratch the surface of someone whose family has lived here for several generations, you find polka music.
Q: Do you have any of that heritage in your family?
A: Not really. Country, yes. My mother -- although she doesn't listen to [polka], she does find that she enjoys my show when she listens to it -- is a Southerner and has Southern roots. My dad was a Jew turned Unitarian from New York. So none whatsoever.
Q: How many of these polka records did you accumulate?
A: I probably have a couple hundred down there. It's interesting that not much of it, even now, is online. But some of it is. The new records are online, which are mostly from Buffalo. If you're in Buffalo, Dyngus Day is the Monday after Easter. Tune in to the public radio station in Buffalo. It's still there. Northeast Ohio and Cleveland have a certain amount of it. Chicago used to be No. 1. It's less than it used to, but it's still there. But in Buffalo it's flourishing. Toledo still has a certain amount.
Q: So what do you find you actually enjoy about the music itself?
A: [The songs] are extremely different, one from another, depending on what you're talking about. Some of it is highly arranged. There's this guy named Li'l Wally from Chicago, who is widely considered the greatest figure in the tradition, who's very loose. He's got a lot of whistles and clapping on the backbeat. It's sort of like the rock 'n' roll of polka to the big band of the other stuff. I enjoy that stuff. I try to set it against the old Eastern style, which has these big-band arrangements. I find it simple and heartfelt. I like music that is simple but distinctive. I'm not much of a rock 'n' roller, but if you ask me to pick a rock 'n' roll band it's ZZ Top because they're straightforward.
What was it that people liked about it? That question interests me. I also think the greatest moment on that show was when one of the students said, "You made me see it's like techno." And I had never actually said that, but that was like the underlying idea of it. Polka was the first dance craze. It came along in 1848, which was the revolutionary year in central Europe. One way of looking at the whole history of popular music since then is that it is a series of these music forms that are dances that have this mechanistic quality that both reflects that aspect of society and finds a way of living with it. It raises those questions for me and it's fun. I guess I would leave it at that.
Q: What other feedback have you received on the show?
A: It does find its audience. It's funny. There are a few drunk old Poles who call in. There are people who listen to it for fun once in a while. People seem to like it. People who have it in their families like it. I don't know who all is listening to it out there, but some people are.
Q: It is such a unique and esoteric project. What brought you back to it two different times?
A: That's a good question. Sometimes it's just that there's a half-hour slot that needs filling. In the summer, sometimes they need people, and I've actually done it for an hour or paired it with forms of Mexican dance music which are very closely related to it. It works real well with banda and Norteño music and Duranguense music. I sort of put on this act. It brings out a different side of my personality. Even on the country show, I'm very quiet and intellectual in my approach to it. But on the polka show, I'm doing it at a high pitch. And I'm actually imitating these guys that I would hear on the radio in Buffalo when I do that. So I'm sort of re-creating something that's gone, but I also believe it's relevant to how music is developing today.
Q: Tell me about the radio personalities in Buffalo.
A: There's a couple of them. There used to be a guy on Saturday night on NPR. I think that one is not on anymore. But they also have drivetime polkas from five to seven on an AM radio station weekdays, and I'm taking something from that. I always listen when I go through there to get the latest.
Q: What are you taking from them? How would you describe it?
A: That's a good question. A lot of the people who still do it are older, so they're not exactly high-energy, but there is a high-energy aspect to it that I'm trying to capture. This is something that Charles Kyle's book goes into. There is a vision of community that is captured on those radio shows. It is as local as you can get. There's this label from Van Wert, Ohio. It does not get much more local than that. That all interests me. The guys in Buffalo are talking about very local stuff and I try to emulate that.
Q: When were you hearing those guys? Did you grow up in that area?
A: No, my mom lives in Vermont and she's very old, so I go up there pretty often. I often stay overnight there and get chicken wings, but I tend to hear it when I'm going through there. I grew up in Toledo and was vaguely aware of it, but I wouldn't say I was going out to see it.
Q: So do you still collect polka records?
A: People give them to me. If I find a stash of them somewhere, they do turn up at Salvation Army. They're one generation away, so it's a very common thing to find good ones at Salvation Army or whatever. And if I do, I'll buy them.
Q: So your friends kind of know you as the polka guy?
A: Yeah. People are aware that I'm doing it. Other people at the station certainly are. It's not the greatest collection around, but it's probably larger than other ones in town.
Q: So as you're contemplating the move to Indonesia, how do you feel about leaving this and your other WCBN projects behind?
A: Well, you have to try something new sometimes. It's not happening immediately. As I say, I'd love to find somebody that could keep it going. We'll see what happens. Who knows? Maybe I can get on the radio over there on some Sunday night and do American roots.
Q: I was going to ask you that, if there's any interest or any outlet for these types of music over there that you're aware of.
A: There's certainly not polka, and not really bluegrass either. There are a few Indonesian-language country acts, and they are aware of the hits. I think some of them got into it when Taylor Swift was country because she was enormously popular and still is. They prefer English pop and to a degree American pop, although they don't quite get black music. Some of them do. You'll meet someone who gets the major expression of 50 Cent or whatever. But the thing that fascinated me about Indonesia is that they know all kinds of music. They can absorb absolutely anything. So if I could find a place to do a show, yeah, it would be a blast.
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
Jim Manheim's "Drivetime Polka Party" airs Wednesdays at 6:30 pm on WCBN. Check out a list of all Manheim's broadcasts at wcbn.org.