By Kevin Binversie
As one of 22 bands from around the world given the honor to perform at the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in California, the Pulaski High School Marching Band knew it would be the focus of attention.
It just didn’t know the kind of attention it would be getting as a result of their performance on Jan. 2 in Pasadena, Calif.
Pulaski is as typical as you can get to small town life in Wisconsin. The hamlet of 3,000-plus sits on the corners of Brown, Oconto, and Shawano counties in the northeast corner of the state — about 20 miles from Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Every July to honor its Polish heritage, the village hosts Pulaski Polka Days, drawing thousands of tourists and polka enthusiasts.
Now the band's Tournament of Roses Parade performance and its Polish heritage became an unwilling part of Wisconsin’s collective bargaining fight.
Making its debut on national television, the band came down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena with “On Wisconsin,” the official state song, as its street march.
After it completed playing that old standard, the band came to a halt and did what many college and high school bands do during a parade. It broke into a scramble formation and performed a rehearsed marching routine to another song — enter the controversy.
A poster at the liberal blog Daily Kos who saw the Tournament of Roses Parade wrote a tribute to the Pulaski band Tuesday, praising its members for playing “Union Maid,” a pro-union song written in 1940 by folk singer Woody Guthrie.
The song also was a mainstay for protesters during last year's occupation of the state Capitol in Madison. The blogger gleefully viewed the band’s performance of this song as a public “In your face!” to Gov. Scott Walker on a national stage.
Several unions and groups seeking to recall Walker jumped on the blog post and praised Pulaski for making such a strong political statement. But was it?
When questioned about the comments flying online, Pulaski Community School District Superintendent Mel Lightner told numerous media outlets that the band was not playing “Union Maid,” but was instead playing “The Red Wing Polka.”
“Red Wing” was chosen as a tribute to the village’s Polish past. And, it reportedly is a favorite of the band director's grandmother. Lightner told the media that his school district's band was not using the Rose Bowl Parade as an opportunity to send a political message.
Lightner also told 620WTMJ that the band "plays (the 'Red Wing Polka') all the time." In fact, in a Dec. 14, 2011, posting at Pulaski News, a website covering the greater Pulaski area, reporter Laura Cortright noted some of the songs the Pulaski band was practicing for California. Among them were “On Wisconsin,” “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, “25 or 6 to 4” by the rock band Chicago, and last but not least, “Red Wing,” as a polka.
So how is the confusion between songs even possible? Blame Guthrie. When he wrote the lyrics for “Union Maid," he put the chorus of “Union Maid” to the tune of “Red Wing”, which was published in 1907.
Is it possible there is some grand conspiracy here? That Pulaski band director Tom Busch knew the history of the song he’s had his band play countless times and wanted to send a message? Honestly, while it is possible, there’s little evidence that puts such a theory beyond the realms of coincidence.
Messages left to Busch for comment were not returned.
With hundreds of students and recent graduates performing in Pasadena, with their parents and community beaming with pride, someone, somewhere would have raised a red flag a long time ago if they suspected shenanigans.
Also, not that I would know, but they say a conspiracy works best when only a handful of people are party to it, not an entire village.
Sadly, what is lost in this entire controversy is the work done by the students of Pulaski High School. Those who are politically opposed to Wisconsin's governor have done the students, school and community a great disservice by overshadowing the honor and pride of this Rose Parade opportunity.
Now when they think back to those amazing memories, these young musicians and the village of Pulaski will shake their heads and marvel at how a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity became roiled in a case of mistaken musical identity.
They had this moment robbed from them in a brash attempt to score petty political points. They can’t have that back anymore, and that’s the real shame.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.