KENYON, Minn. -- Many musicians spend decades with a band or music group but few have a tenure as long as Kenyon-born Ray Sands. The accordionist and singer is a founding member of the Polka Dots, a band that has been active for 70 years.
Sands first picked- up an accordion when he was 9. He explained that a neighbor played the instrument.
“I just thought it was the most gorgeous sounds that I ever heard,” Sands explained.
For his birthday, Sands’ father bought him a used accordion. Sands recounted that the instrument was $25.
“It was a lot of money at the time.” Especially considering that it was purchased during the Great Depression.
The Polka Dots formed in 1949 and members played most nights throughout the region for decades. While this was fun and exciting for Sands and the band, the constant travel and late nights led to some dangerous moments.
Only a couple of years after the group’s formation, Sands was driving the band and a trailer with all of their instruments and equipment to a gig in Hersey, Wis. He saw lights to one side and assumed that they were coming from the town. However, within the next seconds the assumed were streets lights were racing down a track, attached to the front of a train. The train raced by, only inches from the front of the car. Sands explained that the group later discovered the guard rail lying on the ground, overgrown with weeds.
When the band arrived at the venue, they needed time to recover.
“We couldn’t play for the first half hour, we were just shaking,” Sands recounted.
Years later, the night before Sands’ daughter Heidi’s college graduation ceremony, the band pulled over onto the side of the road in Rochester so that Sands could get his glasses out of the trailer.
“As I was standing there, I heard the loudest boom I heard in my life, I thought a bomb had hit Rochester,” Sands explained.
Sands realized that he had been thrown from where he was standing. A woman with a blood-alcohol level of 0.206 was traveling at 55 mpj had hit the trailer and then him, resulting in skinned knees, shredded pants and lots of blood.
According to Sands, since he grew up on a farm he was used to cuts and scrapes. He refused to let the police officers who responded to the scene to take him to the hospital because he was afraid that he would miss his daughter’s graduation. Eventually, they let Sands go home with the band.
“We made it to the graduation and I never told Heidi a thing about it until the graduation ceremony was over with.” After being hit, Sands limped for awhile but eventually fully recovered.
Along with dealing with near-death experiences as a band member, Sands spent much of his life with fewer hours of sleep than what is recommended.
In the 1950s, the Polka Dots played at least five nights a week. Sands recalled that in one stretch, the group played 17 of 18 consecutive nights. After a gig, Sands would usually arrive home between 2 and 3 a.m. and then have to get up at 6 a.m. to milk cows.
Despite the lack of sleep and brushes with death, Sands loves playing with the group and has many memories from his time playing that he cherishes.
“Without a question it was the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., it was the biggest event I’ve ever played in,” he recalled.
The Polka Dots had been chosen to represent Minnesota in “State Day,” when a group from each state plays at the Kennedy Center.
Now, Sands and the Polka Dots play about one to two gigs a week except for in January and February when Sands takes time off to avoid driving in bad road conditions.
The Polka Dots’ next public event is at 6 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Zumbrota VFW for the fireman’s dance.
For more information about the Polka Dots, visit www.raysandsandthepolkadots.com