Steve Harris ’71 is on a mission to preserve polka’s musical heritage, and he is entrusting Bowling Green State University Libraries to help him do it.
In 2015, Harris, the president of Music Publishers of America (MPA), donated two copies of the thousands of selections in his company’s polka music collection – originally published by the Vitak-Elsnic Company – to the Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives at BGSU’s Wm. T. Jerome Library.
Recently, Harris has also made provisions in his estate planning to ensure that the entirety of the company, plus a significant cash bequest, will flow into BGSU’s Polka Preservation Fund at some point in the future to help preserve and promote this invaluable collection.
“Steve has been an extraordinary donor to the library,” said Susannah Cleveland, head of the Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives. “With his 2015 gift of sheet music, he helped us to make sure that this music that is so crucial to the culture of our region can be preserved and made accessible to scholars. His most recent gift will help us make a long-term commitment to this collection, this music and this culture.”
“I know the university and I share the same goal to preserve this part of our musical heritage,” said Harris, who grew up with this genre like so many others in rural middle America, especially those with Eastern European heritage. Although polka originated in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, it spread through neighboring Eastern European countries and was carried to America via waves of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The vast majority of the composers and arrangers of the music in the collection were people who either themselves immigrated to this country or were the children of immigrants – Czech, Polish, Lithuanian, German,” Harris explained. “The music is part of a broader immigrant experience. It really represents an important part of the whole European immigrant experience from the 1880s to the 1950s.”
The music is in Harris’ blood. His parents played in a polka band with several family members, and Harris even graced the stage with them at the early age of 11. He has carried on the family tradition, releasing three albums of polka music from MPA’s collection. The latest release just this month was performed by Harris’ own Vitak-Elsnic Tribute Band. Musicians in addition to Harris include his two brothers, a cousin and long-time friends who are all born and raised in northwest Ohio. The album, appropriately entitled Made in Ohio, is available through MPA or digitally through iTunes and Google Play.
“The idea is to keep the music alive and reintroduce the genre to a different, younger generation of people and also to update and refresh the originals,” Harris said.
Harris’ recent gift to BGSU will help support ongoing cataloguing, processing, promotion and preservation of the collection materials donated in 2015.
“It will give us the ability to support additional access to and outreach for the collection and also to acquire and process related materials, support scholars in their research and program activities around polka,” Cleveland said.
In addition, the funds will help sustain promotional and outreach efforts in collaboration with area ensembles, as well as student travel to perform pieces from the collection or present on polka topics at conferences. It also will help with the additional acquisition of related polka materials and reference resources.
In addition to the sheet music MPA acquired from the Vitak-Elsnic Company, a venerable music publishing company in the polka music industry, Harris plans to donate the company’s business records for historical reference. He hopes BGSU is able to acquire artifacts and music published by other companies as well.
“Already with the initial donation, BGSU indisputably has the world’s largest collection of American polka music,” Harris said. “I’m confident the university can continue to build on its budding reputation as the world’s leading repository of polka music and related artifacts.”
Harris is thrilled that BGSU was so gracious and excited in accepting the collection, and he is working closely with the Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives on a plan to promote the vitality of polka in the modern age.
“He has been an active partner in helping us to think of ways to increase outreach to the community around polka, an area that was new to us,” Cleveland said. “His generosity and attention to detail have made him an ideal partner in this initiative, and we feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him.”
Harris, meanwhile, is happy about the chance to reconnect with his alma mater.
“Over the intervening period when I was working in Columbus and later in the D.C. and New York areas, I didn’t get a chance to spend a whole lot of time at the university,” said Harris. “In the last couple of years, due to all the activity related to the collection as well as our band, I’ve come back regularly to the university.”
“As an alumnus, I’m very pleased and impressed to see what’s happening not only from the capital campaign and replacing some of the older buildings and making them more functional and attractive, but the university’s approach to its higher education mission. I’m very impressed with what I see all around, and I know the Vitak-Elsnic collection has found a good home.”