One of state’s historic live music landmarks.
Historic venues like Tom Sefcik Dance Hall on Seaton Road in Temple once served not only as popular live music and entertainment destinations but also bustling community centers and even hosted church services throughout rural Texas communities.
“In the 1800s, when the Czechs and Germans were coming in to settle the areas, they were all mostly farmers,” explained Gary McKee, a Texas dance hall and music historian who was born in Schulenburg and now lives just outside Fayetteville, near LaGrange, about two hours south of Temple-Belton.
“Every community out there was a half a day’s horseback ride from each other. The farmers had to do their chores in the morning, and then if they had to go to town, they had to get back home in time for the evening chores.
“That’s why in Fayette County alone, there were 60 dance halls. Lavaca County had about the same.
“When you say dance halls, they were also community centers. People needed a place to gather and nobody had any money, so the church built a hall or the SPJST built lots of halls all over Texas.
“Dances were all held at these dance halls, and they also were held in schoolhouses, because that was the biggest building around. If you listen to some of the old western swing – Bob Wills stuff – they’ll mention schoolhouses in the songs real quick.”
McKee, who serves as photojournalist for the monthly Texas Polka News (see www.texaspolkanews.com and www.polkabeat.com), enjoys all kinds of sounds but has a particular passion for traditional dance hall music, which also includes country, western swing, Cajun, and Tejano.
“Polka got a bad rap back in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said. “The butt of jokes, you know? In the ‘30s and ‘40s, every country and western band, and every orchestra, had an accordion – or more than one – in it. Because it’s a substitute for a piano. You can’t haul a piano around to gigs in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but you can haul an accordion around.
“Elvis Presley’s ‘Wooden Heart’ has an accordion – the only instrument on there.
“As late as the ‘50s, all the bands were putting in a few country songs. Most people are so ignorant to the music. Dancers, as long as they have a beat, really don’t care. Every polka band now will pretty much play a hardcore polka, a waltz, a country song, then something else, then back to polka, and just rotate it like that.”
One of McKee’s favorite spots to go listen to live music is Sefcik Hall. He says he visits every chance he gets.
“It’s one of the coolest dance halls ever,” he said. “It’s one of the few second-floor dance floors. It was built in 1923 by Tom Sefcik. I was just there a couple weeks ago.
“They’ve started up dancing again after COVID. There was a lady, Alice, whose father was Tom Sefcik. She is no longer there, but she grew up at the hall, and she is the most stereotypical dance hall female operator. Flaming red hair at the age of 90, you know?
“She had a pool cue underneath the bar, and she knew how to use it. And she played in a band. Her and her sister had their own bands. She was larger than life. Hollywood makes up this stuff, but she was the real thing.
“There’s quite a few people like that who are just so … real. Compared to when you go to a club in Houston or somewhere and the guy’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I ran this club over here and this club over there.’
“I say, well, you must have done a lousy job if you couldn’t stay in one place. They had no soul.
“Dance halls are an environment that I just really love. So family-oriented. I’m 67, and my friends all grew up sleeping underneath the tables at the dance hall, as their parents brought them to most of the dances.”
With his focus being mainly on the dance hall scene, McKee does not concern himself as much with what he calls “singer-songwriter” venues, but he says live music in general appears ready to make a comeback following widespread – and sometimes crippling – COVID-19 restrictions.
“COVID literally knocked it completely dead. The way the government shut down public gatherings … they called any place that served beer, a bar.
“There’s a few that got around it. They partnered with a food establishment, so they were able to open up in limited numbers. When you shut the dance halls down, they still have to pay insurance every month; they still have to keep the electricity on so the coolers don’t mold up and everything.
“There’s some singer-songwriter venues around here opening up. They had the same issues. Some were able to stay open, but nobody wanted to come, really. The musicians were the same way. They didn’t want to play and the crowds stayed away because of the fear of COVID.”
McKee, who also serves as an archaeological steward for the Texas Historical Commission and an advisor to Texas Dance Hall Preservation, said he recently discovered Tornado Radio and likes what he sees. He thinks the site is doing an excellent job of promoting a growing live music scene.
“I love the layout. Going through the calendar, I like the way the locations open up to a map. That’s really cool.
“We’ve (polkabeat.com) been doing that for a decade or more, but for that area, it is definitely unique. The podcasts are really good; the blog. It looks great.
“There will always be live music. It will never be like it was prior to 2000 or so. It was more of a dance culture (back then). There are groups that will keep the flame alive … it’s just not the quantity it was 30 years ago. Too many things on television – sports, for example. I mean, it pisses me off when you go into a place to see a band and there’s three monitors in the same room with the football game on. It’s a distraction.
“It’s coming back. The crowds are coming back. We had a thousand people one weekend down here in two days at three different dance halls. Everybody was so happy. Smiles on their faces. Talking about how good it feels to be back out with live music.”
John H Clark III is a longtime central Texas journalist and author.
Go to www.johnhenryiii.com for more on his books and writing services.