By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
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.
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.
Next in line
Johnnie Joe, now 57 and a Joplin resident, received an old accordion from his dad when he was about 20 years old. Like his dad, he had graduated from Arma High School and worked at McNally's as a draftsman for coal mining equipment.
"I traveled a lot, same as my dad, and then had an opportunity to work for the Grand River Dam Authority in Pryor, Okla.," the younger Zibert said. "I was busy with work, raising kids, marriage. I didn't have the time for polka, for the accordion."
But as he approached age 30, he reflected on the significance of the instrument that at one time "was in every home in every little town," he said.
"Growing up in 50 Camp, we lived a block away from Club 50," Johnnie Joe said. "As a kid I could lay in bed with the windows open -- we had no air conditioning -- and listen to that music and the rhythms. I could tell when someone went in or out. The door opened and the music got louder or softer."
"And I'd tag along with my parents to the Hilltop, the Tower Ballroom, the Blue Moon. I remembered those days well."
One day on a streetcorner in Oklahoma, he saw a picture on the side of a building of a man with an accordion advertising lessons, and that sealed the deal.
"I didn't tell my parents, but I started learning," the younger Zibert said. "My whole goal, when I first started, was I wanted to be able to get on that stage with my dad and at least play one song. I didn't tell anybody back home. But I practiced -- boy I practiced every day."
When he was ready, he showed up at the Idle Hour when his dad was playing.
"I said I wanted to play a song with him. I think he about fell over."
Johnnie was nervous -- "I was shaking like a leaf" -- but he made it through that first tune. He soon was asked to join a band in need of an accordion player in Tulsa, Okla., and crisscrossed the nation for 20 years playing at dances.
But it's playing with his dad that he cherishes most. They play at the Idle Hour on the fourth Friday of every month, the Big Brutus Polka Festival and the Little Balkans Folklife Festival every year, in Franklin for special events and the Ernte Fest in Freistatt each fall.
Although polka is popular elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad, it's declining a bit in the Midwest. Johnnie admits his son may be "the end of the line" for his family. Johnnie Joe has two daughters, neither of whom are particularly interested in taking it up, although a young granddaughter in California plays a bit.
But the fact that he has gotten to play with his son all these years, he said, has been life-changing.
"Not many people get to play music with their son," the elder Zibert said. "It's quite an honor. There's nothing better than music. I've met more people through my life, made many good friends strictly through playing the accordion -- it's something they can't take away from you."
They also have recently traveled a few times back to the old country, where Johnnie got to pick up an accordion and play with relatives.
"It was touching, very touching," he said. "It made the world seem a lot smaller."
And two years ago, the younger Zibert arranged with Second City Recording Studio in Airport Drive to make a CD of the pair playing their favorite polka tunes.
"It was on my bucket list, and I think it was for Dad, too," he said.
The word polka comes from the Czech word "plka" meaning "little half," a reference to the short half-steps featured in the dance. The word's familiar form has been influenced by the similarity to the Czech word polka, meaning Polish woman.