Port Richmond: Award-Winning, Polish-American String Band
Founded in 1933 by Joseph Jankowski, the Polish American String Band has been entertaining audiences, both young and old, for decades with its traditional, powerful polka sound. Headquartered on the corner of East Westmoreland and Salmon streets, the band upholds the Slavic heritage of its members in the predominately Polish neighborhood of Port Richmond.
Membership in the band was once restricted to those of Slavic decent or origin living in the neighborhood. In time, the membership policy changed and the band opened its doors to a diversity of people. Although the membership is no longer exclusively Polish, the band’s music continues to reflect the Polish heritage.
More than 100 members, all volunteers varying in age, background and occupation, live and work in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania. Today, the youngest member is a freshman college student who joined the band when he started freshman year of high school. The oldest member is 71 years old and has been a member of the band for 58 years. From lawyers to college students, all the members share a love for music, entertainment and tradition.
Former president of the Polish American String Band of five years, Brian Rutledge, explained how important tradition is in the band and how deep it runs. Rutledge said that when it comes to the band, family tradition is just as valued as the musical aspect. His first and only son-in-law started as a band mate and friend who eventually married his daughter. His son-in-law is now the president of the band.
“This is a father-son tradition,” Rutledge said. “We’re all family in this band.”
The band’s most anticipated and highlighted performance takes place at the Philadelphia New Year’s Day Mummers Parade, but the band plays throughout the year at various locations to raise funds for its colorful and intricate costumes and other expenses. These performances occur on St. Patrick’s Day, at Richmond’s Easter Parade, Port Richmond’s Memorial Day celebration, the two-day Polish festival held in Atlantic City, the Summer Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, Fourth of July celebrations at various sites, at the string band weekend at the New Jersey shore, the Polish festival in Doylestown, Pa. and at the Philadelphia Pulaski Day Parade.
“They’ve been around for years and years,” said Dawn Bautista, a local resident and attendee of this year’s Memorial Day Parade. “The band comes in the summer to the park and puts everyone in a good mood.”
During the band’s 78 years, it always has kept a close bond with St. Adalbert’s, located at the corner of Allegheny Avenue and Thompson Street. Every New Year’s Day morning, a special invocation is given by the pastor of the church to the members of the band. The invocation customarily takes place at the club headquarters before the band’s exit for Broad Street for the Mummers Parade. A section of a stained glass window on the front door of St. Adalbert’s displays a mural that honors the band’s 1981 first-prize theme of Toyland Comes Alive.
“They still come to the Polish church, St. Adalbert’s, every once and awhile,” said Mary Krenski, mother of Bautista. “They’re the best, they’re Polish!”
Another bond that has stayed constant throughout the years is the band’s strong and supportive relationship with the Port Richmond community. Funds from street collections and from concerts in the Campbell Square Park help to pay for the band’s expenses. Rutledge explained that starting next week, the band will march in different sections of the neighborhood for six weeks to collect funds from residents. He said it’s tradition in the community and many members of the community come outside their homes to donate. The donations contribute to a big part of the band’s budget.
In response to the overwhelming support from local residents of Port Richmond, band members continue to uphold the principles of the band’s founders by giving back to the community. The band has made it a tradition to perform in the neighborhood after appearing before the judges on New Year’s Day by marching on Allegheny Avenue toward its clubhouse to rejoice in the New Year with the residents.
The Polish American String Band has been a consistent award winner in the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade in Philadelphia winning 11 first prizes and 14 second prizes. Out of approximately 20 bands, the Polish American String Band has been in the top five 44 times and in the top ten 71 times.
Over the years, the band has played at performances throughout the United States. It has performed many times in pre-game entertainment for the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and 76ers and even for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s birthday party in Boston. Representing the state of Pennsylvania in 1959, the band went to a parade in Cuba and won first prize. In 1990, the band went on a two-week concert tour of its ancestral homeland of Poland, playing in Warsaw, Gdynia, Gdansk, Torun, Krakow and Czestochowa. In 1998, the band took a trip to Vatican City and had the privilege of playing for the 20th papal anniversary of Pope John Paul II. During the same trip, the band also toured Italy and played for Thomas Foglietta, the American ambassador in Rome.
“We walked off the bus in costume and marched into St. Peter’s Square where people looked at us not knowing about the Mummers,” Rutledge said. “CNN sent back newsfeeds to local affiliates of our trip.”
Whether performing for the community of Port Richmond or performing for the Pope in Rome, the award-winning Polish American String Band continues to make history by spreading the joy of the Mummers both at home and afar. The band’s love and commitment for music, entertainment and traditional values is what keeps them united and respected as one of the finest string band organizations in Philadelphia.