Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Viking Accordion Band!

Somewhere out there is a polka fan that thinks of the Viking Accordion Band as "classic".  Note there are 8 members but only 4 accordions, a testament that more accordions only means more accompaniment. the group was founded in 1929 by Leighton "Skipper" Berg shortly after being laid off from his retail job. In other words, the great depression directly caused the formation of the Viking Accordion Band.

First Berg joined two friends as a trio, playing parties and small gigs. Then in 1930 picked up four more members (all Scandinavian) with an eye on a regular radio gig. They played out around the region: WDGY, WOI, WMT, and WNAX to name a few. WOI-AM in Ames Iowa was almost 250 miles round trip. Some bands would squawk at that gig today.

They were unusual among polka bands for being "multi-ethnic."  The band members were of almost exclusively Scandinavian descent. But their set list was comprised of every kind of Polka you can shake your Lederhosen at: Czech, Scandinavian, German, Bohemian... even Italian and Irish selections. Over time the band ditched their Lederhosen and Nordic repertoire and switched to tuxedos like a ballroom dance band. It was classy and neutral and got them into more venues. They spelled out that strangely progressive cultural mission on a post card:
"The band with music of folk songs and old world melodies, distinctively styled for your personal pleasure, completes its sixth year of weekly broadcasts over WOI.  We want you to continue being a regular Viking listener.  Wire in and let us play your personal requests. Be sure to refer us to your local dance manager."
The band went on to record for Melotone, Brunswick, Perfect, Vocalion, Decca and Columbia to name a few. The band continued on successfully until the draft in WWII claimed a few too many key members requiring a break.  But the problem persisted. After WWII Berg went through musicians like tissue paper. Somewhat amusingly he regularly posed the job openings in Billboard Magazine through 1956. Below is a sampling.. there are dozens more:

Clarinet, 1942
Piano, October 1946
Clarinet , February 1947
Clarinet, August 1947
Clarinet and Sax, May 1948

Clarinet, August 1949
Trumpet, September 1949

Trumpet, January 1950 

Brass Bass, October 1950 (also ran in November)

Clarinet, March 1951
Trumpet, October 1952
Accordionist, May 1955 (also ran in June)

Sax & Clarinet, April 1956

Berg polka'd on into the late 1950s. In 1992 he wrote the history of his Vikings, producing a a 145-page book  entitled the Viking Accordion  Band Reflects Colorful  History. His praises are sun in books like Polkabilly by James Leary, and A Passion for Polka by Victor Greene. Their significance to American polka is hard to over-state.