They sing it in Croatian, but they don't understand a single word
Saturday, April 30, 2005
Visit reveals traditions of Cokeburg to Croatian reporter
By Lada Kalmeta
COKEBURG – "I'm crying, my dear mother ... I'm crying because
he first kissed me, but then he left me ..."
Tens of voices sing this song loudly and emotionally in this
little Washington County town. The song is written in the
Croatian language and they sing it in Croatian, but they don't
understand a single word. People from Cokeburg sing hundreds
of Croatian songs, and during every performance they seem to
understand perfectly every word they sing, but it is not so.
"They wrote down words of every song and they learned it by
heart. But they never ask for the meaning of those words. They
just sing. They love it," says Marlene Luketich-Kochis, who
leads this Cokeburg group of singers. Members of the group
don't only sing, they perform their ethnic dance and play
instruments called "tamburitza." The word tamburitza is
Croatian; there is no English translation for it, as
tamburitza was invented in Croatia and brought to the United
States almost two centuries ago.
Immigrants left the coal towns in this area after all the coal
was mined. By 1950, all coal mines in Cokeburg were already
closed, but this town, inhabitated by Croatian immigrants and
their descendants, still exists. People didn't leave Cokeburg.
Now, 705 inhabitants live there, and the average age of
residents is 42, which proves that many young people with
children have made the decision to stay here.
Why is it not the case in any other coal towns?
If we say that people in Cokeburg carry on old Croatian
traditions by playing tamburitza and singing old national
songs, we still haven't reached the only real reason why they
still populate Cokeburg. The fact is that they maintain
customs which in Croatia are already forgotten. They are the
only group of Croatians in the whole world who keep certain
rituals, particularly with respect to St. George. Moreover,
because only Cokeburg people keep these traditions, Croatian
people from all over the United States – and even from other
parts of the world – come to Cokeburg to participate in
Cokeburg resident Marlene Luketich-Kochis, in back,
recently shows her collection of Croatian costumes and
dresses to Lada Kalmeta, a Croatian reporter interning
with the Observer-Reporter. (STAN DIAMOND/O-R)
"This is the reason why Cokeburg is full of life," explains
Bernard Luketich, the mayor of Cokeburg. "Croatian people came
here before World War I only from one region in Croatia,
around the town named Ogulin. There is a village near Ogulin,
called Zagorje Ogulinsko, and particularly from that village
came the most people in Cokeburg in those early years. Today
in Zagorje Ogulinsko in Croatia, everything changed, and they
didn't keep old traditional habits. We did, so Cokeburg became
the host town for people from all over the U.S. who originally
came from Ogulin and from Zagorje, and they are coming to
Cokeburg to participate in our common celebration."
The celebration of St. George takes place in Cokeburg every
year on April 23 and 24, when Americans and Canadians who
trace their ancestry to Ogulin, Zagorje Ogulinsko and other
Croatian villages come to Cokeburg. The celebration, with old
Croatian costumes and old rituals, the procession and the
blessing of a special cake in the church cannot be seen
anywhere else in the world, not even in Croatia anymore.
"In our club in Cokeburg, where we dance, sing and play
tamburitza, we have people from 5 to 85. Everybody must learn
to play tamburitza and to sing Croatian songs, although they
don't know the language. That keeps us together, and that
marks us as the only Croatian descendants who take care about
tradition, forgotten everywhere. There are other Croatian
unions in the U.S., but they don't practice this 'old way,'"
American and Croatian flags fly above the house of
Bernard Luketich in Cokeburg. (STAN DIAMOND/O-R)
The church in Cokeburg is closed. People from Cokeburg, who
are all religious, have to go to the church in Bentleyville,
even for the most important celebration when they host
hundreds of people in Cokeburg. The church in Cokeburg closed
more than 10 years ago, by the order of the bishop in
There is no school in Cokeburg, either. Children from the
borough go to school six miles away.
But their tradition is kept so strong in their hearts, and
they practice it so diligently in everyday life, that this
little "miracle" of a town will continue to exist in spite of
those troubles. Cokeburg will continue to host not only
hundreds of Croatian descendants from the United States and
Canada who love to be a part of Cokeburg's celebrations, but
also many other Americans who like their folklore and who also
sing Croatian songs perfectly, without understanding one
Lada Kalmeta is a reporter for the newspaper Slobodna
Dalmacija in Zadar, Croatia. She just wrapped up three weeks
at the Observer-Reporter as part of a training program for
journalists from southeastern Europe, funded by the U.S.
Department of State.
© 2005 Observer Publishing Co.Washington, PA