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Hawkeye Polkabration

'In Heaven There Is No Beer' or 'Victory Polka,' it's all good

Drum Major Quentin Marquez directs the Hawkeye Marching Band as they play the
The Gazette
Drum Major Quentin Marquez directs the Hawkeye Marching Band as they play the "Hawkeye Victory Polka" following their game at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, IN on Saturday, September 27, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Surely someone, somewhere knows why and when the Hawkeye Marching Band started playing the “Victory Polka” after football and men’s basketball victories.

If you make some calls and ask around, you’ll run into polka people. You’ll ask them about the “Victory Polka” and they will stop you mid-sentence.

“I’m not sure what song that is,” Dave Franklin said playfully, fully knowing where this was going. “Do you mean ‘In Heaven There Is No Beer?’”

Yes, that song. Franklin, who began playing polka music on the radio in Cedar Rapids for KCRG AM in 1961, is the host of “Sunday Morning Polka Show” on KMRY. He won’t acknowledge “Victory Polka.” He prefers the proper name of the long-standing polka anthem.

“Once in a while, I’ll play ‘In Heaven There Is No Beer’ and dedicate it to the city council in Iowa City,” Franklin said with a howl.

“In Heaven There Is No Beer,” “The Victory Polka,” whatever you want to call the happy polka tune that begins with a concert F note and sends the Iowa spirit squad into arm-in-arm twirls and has Hawkeye fans in Kinnick Stadium or Carver-Hawkeye Arena singing along, does come with a hint of uneasiness because, you know, the “beer” word.

“In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here . . .” the song begins. (“In Heaven There Is No Beer” has German roots and in German is called “Im Himmel Gibt’s Kein Bier.”)

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“That’s about the only line I know,” said Iowa center Austin Blythe, a former Williamsburg prep who grew up going to Iowa games at Kinnick. “I have no idea what it means.”

By the way, as a player, Blythe is up the tunnel and into the lockerroom. He doesn’t even get to hear it anymore.

“I hear those first two lines and then I’m like, ‘What are they singing now?’” he said. “I don’t know the rest of the song.”

Heaven/Victory has withstood some minor protesting. In 2001, the band was told not to sing the lyrics. It was only a temporary hiatus.

For a period of time, Hawkeye Marching Band members didn’t receive sheet music for the song and had to learn it by ear. Last year, L. Kevin Kastens, Marching Band Director, brought back the music.

“The university definitely embraces it,” said Ben Palazzolo, a sousaphone player in this year’s band. “Originally, it was played off memory, but now we have scores for the polka and during band camp we rehearse it along with the other stand tunes. I don’t think I’ve met a person who hates playing it. By far my favorite song.”

There is absolutely no guarantee you’ll hear the Heaven/Victory on Saturday. The No. 23 Hawkeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) face a resurgent Illinois team (4-1, 1-0), led by strong-armed quarterback Wes Lunt, a stingy defense and interim head coach Bill Cubit.

Understandably, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz kind of winced when this question came up. He did give it a courtesy.

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“Is that after the game, you mean?” Ferentz asked. “I hear it at our basketball games. I hear it and I know it’s a good thing.”

It means Iowa has won. The band turns their band hats (probably not called “band hats”) around and belt out the tune, which, they say, is easy to play.

“We loved it,” said Shannon Hanson, who played clarinet for HMB in the late ‘80s. “We turned our hats to the back and played our hearts out.”

It’s a celebration song. You hear it, it’s a good thing, you know, if you’re into the Hawkeyes.

“It’s just a fun song,” said Johnny Gilbert, the HMB drum major in 1984-85 and director of the alumni band. “It’s always played in the spirit of a Hawkeye victory. It’s not something we would ever play if we happened to lose, which happens on those very rare occasions.

“It was kind of a celebratory thing. It’s got a beat and you can dance to it. And dance to it, we did.”

Kastens believes the Heaven/Victory tradition started in the 1980s. Gilbert said he believed it started well before his drum majorship.

There’s another underlying question. Forget the “beer” part and consider why a polka? Why does the Hawkeye Marching Band celebrate victory with a polka.

Well, look around.

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Czechoslovakians began arriving in 1852 to work in local packing plants in Cedar Rapids. Iowa City has a considerable Czech heritage. Iowa has considerable central European roots. Cedar Rapids has “Czech Village,” “New Bohemia” and the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.

It’s not a stretch to believe that maybe the first HMB member to play that concert F and strike up Heaven/Victory was a Cedar Rapidian or Iowa Citian who had grandparents with polka in their blood. (Iowa athletics director Gary Barta is from Minneapolis and a full-blooded Bohemian who used to listen to his grandfather play the accordion. So, polka blood flows there.)

“I think you could make that argument,” Gilbert said. “With the ethnic traditions and heritages of eastern Iowa, it makes perfect sense for the Iowa band to be playing a polka.”

Polka music first started on the airwaves in Cedar Rapids in 1932, Franklin said (by the way, Franklin is a graduate of Cedar Rapids’ old Wilson High School, which he said was nicknamed “Czech Tech”). Leo Greco’s show “Variety Time” on 600 WMT-AM often featured polka and was on air from the 1970s through the 2000s.

Franklin’s show still is on the air. Every once in a while, he will get requests and the voice on the other end of the phone will sound young.

“Sometimes, I get a little bit brave and I ask, ‘How old are you?’” Franklin said. “The youngest answer I got was 23. It’s gone from 23 to 35 or so, really young people. I started asking, ‘Why is a person your age listening to polka music?’ Just out of curiosity.

“They always say they listened at their mom’s or grandparents’ house on Sunday morning. Now that they have their own place, it’s just tradition that they turn it on. I think that’s great.”

Not everyone involved is from here. Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard is from Nashville, Tenn., the country music capital of the world.

Let’s just say polka is a foreign concept for him.

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“I have no idea, is that a dance, I’m guessing? A dance?” Beathard said. “I can’t say I’ve ever done polka or whatever. I don’t know. Is it a thing up here? I’ll have to check that out.”

Franklin kicked in his radio voice for a second during this phone interview. You could tell his next words were going to sound great and ring out and punctuate things.

If you hold Heaven/Victory in any sort of regard, this makes some sort of sense. There’s heritage, there’s victory, there’s a little something for everyone.

“When victory is in hand and they know they’re going to win,” Franklin said, “they strike it up and have a good time.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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