The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

June 3, 2013

Passing down polka: Zibert father, son share memories over accordion

FRANKLIN, Kan. — Johnnie Zibert wonders what would have happened if his dad, John, had never walked into Hess Music Store in Pittsburg in about 1940 and laid down a hard-earned $25 for an accordion.

Certainly legions of area dance halls and festivals would not have swelled with the sounds of his beloved Slovenian polka music for more than 60 years, or would thousands of feet have stepped lightly around dance floors.

His son, Johnnie Joe Zibert, may never have formed a bond with his dad that is now the stuff of legends.

First instrument

The first John Zibert, a hard working deep-shaft coal miner who emigrated from Slovenia and settled at 50 Camp west of Arma, Kan., paid that $25 because he wanted his only child, Johnnie, to learn Slovenia's national instrument.

Johnnie was 10 years old.

"I still have the receipt. I keep it above my desk," said Zibert, now 83. He took lessons from a music professor in Pittsburg, and by the time he graduated from Arma High School in 1947, he was ready.

"I was about 17 years old, and Nick Vignatelli had a music hall right where the Franklin (Community) Center is now," he said. "That's the first real dance I played."

By night, he used the "squeezebox" to belt out tunes at area dance halls -- places such as the Trianon Ballroom in Croweburg, Kan., the Blue Goose and the Idle Hour in Frontenac, Kan., and the Gay Parita in Carona, Kan.

They all were built in in coal camps settled by immigrant coal miners and their families. On the weekends, they wanted to forget the hard days spent deep in the earth and enjoy the happy, upbeat music of their cultures.

"At that time, there was a lot of opportunity for young musicians to play around here, a lot of clubs. I always had a band," Zibert said. "We made pretty good money at that time, made $15 a piece a night. I thought I had a pocket full of money going to college when tuition was $45."

By day, he attended college in Pittsburg to learn drafting as a mechanical arts major, and he married his sweetheart, Luella, whom he met at a dance.

He began working for the growing McNally Manufacturing company headquartered in Pittsburg, travelling as a start-up man for coal plants across the U.S. But the accordion wasn't ever far from his mind.

"During that time, I spent a lot of time away from home, but whenever I was home on the weekends I tried to play," he said.

He also hoped that at least one of their three children, Johnnie Joe, Jim and Debbie, would take up the instrument.

It took awhile.

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