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The happiest music on Earth?

Although the popularity of polka has waned in the last couple of decades, the genre is far from dead in the Northland. In fact, Duluthian Ray Ahlgren was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at last weekend's Polkafest -- an annual festiva...

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Although the popularity of polka has waned in the last couple of decades, the genre is far from dead in the Northland.

In fact, Duluthian Ray Ahlgren was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at last weekend's Polkafest -- an annual festival held at Ironworld in Chisholm. He explained that although there is a dedicated group of polka followers in the region, he has had to adapt his sound to survive.

"You can't play polkas all the time. You'll drown," he said Monday, still recovering from his "marathon weekend." (Ahlgren also performed at the festival, which had one of the biggest audiences he's played for since Governor Rudy Perpich's 1976 inauguration.) "... You have to play a variety of music -- a little of everything.

"Country music goes over big in this area."

Ahlgren got his start on the accordion at the grade school in Munger, where he was raised.

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"I got the basics of reading music -- what the music is all about," he said of those early lessons, mentioning that, for him, it was always all about the ol' squeezebox. "I just liked the sound of the accordion."

After that, Ahlgren started taking lessons from Phil Saporito, whom he called "one of the finest accordion players around this area at that time."

Around this time, the legendary (and prolific) Frankie Yankovic -- aka "America's Polka King" -- was "just coming into his prime." Ahlgren said he recalled seeing him perform at a number of locations around Duluth.

No matter where Yankovic played, though, it was always "packed wall to wall."

"You couldn't fall down if you had to," Ahlgren recalled.

During the peak of Ahlgren's polka career (when he wasn't playing music, Ahlgren was an auto body repairman), he was performing two to three nights a week with his three-piece band. But, as he pointed out, nothing's forever -- and polka's popularity soon "faded out."

"The trend turned to country/western and, of course, that wasn't my bag," he said. "We were losing our crowds and it didn't work out any longer, so that was the end of that."

These days Ahlgren takes the stage alone.

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Technology that came to prominence in the '80s allows Ahlgren to perform as a one-man band, with full accompaniment.

"I have no problem with (playing alone)," he said, "as long as the right connections are there."

Ladies and gentlemen, the Duluth Polka Dots!

Another Duluthian to receive the Polkafest Lifetime Achievement Award is Joe Czerniak, who has been playing music professionally since the age of 14. (He's now 83.)

"I always hope and think that it's coming back," he said with a smile.

Like Ahlgren, Czerniak was also at Polkafest this weekend, but the highlight for him wasn't just the music.

"On Sunday people that we played for up in Ironworld came up and told me I played for a wedding 40 years ago or something like that," he said.

Czerniak, a lifelong Duluthian born to Polish immigrants, got into music because of his father, who played violin and clarinet in "the old country." He first made a name for himself with the Duluth Polka Dots.

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The group, which he formed in 1939, has had many incarnations throughout the years; one lineup even included Czerniak's sons Bill and Greg. (Bill recently joined his father on the track "Silver Wedding Oberek," which was featured on the 2005 Rounder Records compilation "Minnesota All Stars.")

Now Czerniak performs with the Lake Superior Concertina Club, playing polkas, waltzes, country standards and big band numbers. He said he's been playing nursing homes for the past 24 years.

Czerniak didn't have much to say about modern music, but, outside of polka, he said he likes classical and, with a son living down in New Orleans, zydeco.

"I have a few (zydeco) songs that I can play," he said, "but you don't play those unless you get requests for that kind of music."

In addition to receiving Polkafest's coveted award, Czerniak has also been inducted into the World Concertina Hall of Fame and the Polka Music Hall of Fame. He's also a highly regarded concertina teacher.

"We don't get a lot of young people learning the instrument," he said, but noted that one of his current pupils is only 7 years old. "... I think it's more popular in southern Minnesota. They have more polka bands."

Czerniak said that, when it comes to the concertina, practice makes perfect.

"If you're a good ear player, and you can hear everything and play it in every key, you're doing pretty good," he said, "but that doesn't happen unless you have studied it."

As such, he had to get tough with some of his past pupils.

"I would always tell 'em, 'Don't come here unless you practiced your lesson.' I was kind of tough that way," he joked.

Roll out the barrel

Of course, Czerniak and Ahlgren aren't the only ones operating under the polka umbrella in the area. The Northland has a number of active groups -- including the Gary neighborhood's Singing Slovenes -- and there's even a KDAL (610 AM) radio program on Saturday mornings dedicated to the genre.

That show's host, Pat Cadigan, said he's been listening to polka his whole life. ("Hard to believe, but, yes, I have" is actually how the jovial radio personality put it.) He also recalled the genre's glory days, when Frankie Yankovic's 78s were played at the pavilion in Superior's Billings Park "at least 12 hours a day."

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