By Edward M. Komara The accordion reached its peak popularity with African American musicians between the end of Reconstruction (1865-1877) and the early twentieth century. Clarence Tross, a West Virginian musician, reported that it was ”mostly the colored man” playing accordions in that period, and a contemporary from coastal Virginia remembered that accordions were ”the only kind of music we had back then.” In Mississippi, some of the earliest ensembles playing blues used accordions, and one accordionist, Walter ”Pat” Rhodes, was among the earliest Delta blues singers to make records.
As the first mass-produced instrument marketed to rural blacks, the accordion served as the precursor to the mass marketing of guitars that fueled the growth of rural blues. Even so, few early blues musicians played accordions and by the mid-1930s a number of factors combined to bring about the demise of its use in almost any popular black music. With the emergence of zydeco—the blues-influenced music of the French-speaking African American population of southwest Louisiana—in the late 1950s a new bluesy accordion sound emerged. Zydeco showcased accordion virtuosity the way blues bands featured the electric guitar. In the hands of master accordionist Clifton Chenier, the accordion achieved unprecedented credibility as a blues instrument.
Types of Accordions
Two types of accordions concern us here: the diatonic button accordion and the piano accordion. All accordions are two rectangular boxes connected by a bellows with the melody notes on the right side and the accompaniment chords on the left side. As the name implies, the button accordion has buttons for both melody and accompaniment. The diatonic scale is the same scale found on the single-key harmonicas (such as the Marine Band) commonly played by blues harpists. Like the slots on those harmonicas, each button on the accordion produces a different tone depending on whether the bellows are pushed or pulled. The original design was for a single row in a single key, but later models featured two and three rows in related keys allowing the accordionist to play in multiple keys. The accompaniment may have as few as two buttons or up to twenty-four in various configurations. This single-row design is the model still popular with the Cajuns of southwest Louisiana.
Diatonic accordions dominated sales to the general populace from the 1840s to 1925 when sales of the piano accordion began to dominate. This instrument offered several immediate advantages over the button accordion. First, the piano keyboard offered a full chromatic scale that sounded the same note regardless of the bellows direction. secondly, the accompaniment provided up to 128 buttons arranged in bass-chord combinations to allow playing of almost any chord progression. The button accordion was reduced to a niche instrument while the piano accordion became wildly popular in America and remained so until the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.
One of the earliest photographic images of an American accordionist is a daguerreotype from 1850 of a black man from a southeast Louisiana plantation playing a button accordion. The slave narratives collected by the works Progress Administration in the 1930s contain recollections of accordions being played as accompaniment for dancing. The largest concentration of accordion players occurred in the post-Civil War period, a time referred to as Reconstruction (1865-1877). The newly emancipated slaves purchased instruments with their own earnings and they seem to have bought accordions in significant numbers. Accordions were cheap, lightweight, durable, loud, and provided built-in accompaniment.
In Mississippi, older relatives of Big Joe Williams, K. C. Douglas, Jim Brewer, Eli Owens, and Henry Townsend all played accordion. Two of the most important Mississippi accordionists were Homer Lewis and Walter ”Pat” Rhodes. Lewis performed with blues guitarist Charley Patton at Dockery’s plantation in the early part of the twentieth century in an ensemble made up of one or two guitarists, Lewis, and a fiddler. It was likely a popular sound—Rhodes, a street singer from nearby Cleveland, regularly played in an ensemble with similar instrumentation. In 1927 he became the first Sunflower County musician to record. His recording of ”Crowing Rooster Blues” accompanied by Richard ”Hacksaw” and Mylon Harney on guitars precedes Patton’s own more famous recording of ”Banty Rooster Blues” by two years. This record, backed with ”Leaving Home Blues,” is the only commercial blues recording in English that used the accordion until the emergence of zydeco. Folklorist John Lomax did record another Mississippi accordionist in 1937 for the Library of Congress. Blind Jesse Harris sang ballads and reels for the most part, but did perform a memorable version of the popular blues tune ”Sun Gonna Shine in My Door Someday.”
Both the Harris and Rhodes recordings show how hard it is to play blues on the diatonic button accordion. The instrument is incapable of playing many of the slides, glissandos, and flatted notes that are dominant features of blues music. Both men stop playing while they sing and play simple melodic lines using only bellows shakes to emulate the vocal line. These shortcomings made it easy for a number of musicians who started on the accordion to decide to switch to guitar as soon as one became available. Some of those young musicians included Big Joe Williams, Blind Willie McTell, and McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. Huddie Ledbetter or ”Leadbelly” was born in 1885 in the far northwest corner of Louisiana where he learned to play the button accordion for the local dances called ”Sukey Jumps” with the older musicians in the area. As a young adult he switched to the twelve-string guitar, but continued to play the accordion, eventually recording four tunes on it for various small New York record companies in the early 1940s.
Amede Ardoin and Creole Blues
A unique blues accordion tradition, unrelated to the northwest Louisiana style played by Leadbelly, developed in southwest Louisiana among the French-speaking people of African descent. Their music synthesized elements of the French Caribbean, Cajun, American Indian, French, and African (Wolof and Bambara) cultures. The music of English-speaking African Americans made a relatively late entrance into this mix. For example, accordionist Sidney Babineaux recalled first hearing the blues on a Bessie Smith record in the late 1920s. Blues were considered risque and crude and were banned from Creole dances. Still the most influential musician of the period, Amede Ardoin, recorded a handful of ”blues” songs. These did not follow the chord structure common to the twelve-bar format, but instead followed the harmonic pattern caused by the left-hand accompaniment of the accordion. Ardoin played his blues in the ”cross position” that blues harmonica players commonly use and this caused the instrument’s standard accompaniment to be reversed. Accordionists cannot play the critical fifth chord; they can merely imply it, leaving the blues with an unresolved feel.
Ardoin’s blues conceded structure to this harmonic reality, but not to the spirit ofthe blues. His vocals are blues inflected, full of flatted thirds and sevenths and the slurs and glissandos associated with the best Delta blues singing. His most distinct blues records include ”Blues de Basile,” ”Les Blues de Voyage,” and ”Les Blues de Crowley.” Ardoin’s playing career ended in late 1930s when he was beat up by a group of white patrons at a dance, run over, and left for dead. The incident caused Ardoin to lose his mind and led to his eventual commitment to a Louisiana asylum for the insane where he eventually died. His two steps and waltzes are still performed by both Cajuns and Creoles, but it is his blues in particular that influenced zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier.
Ardoin’s final recordings made in December 1934 were the last by a Creole musician until 1954. During this undocumented period, musical influences from the greater English-speaking African American culture became more important in Creole music. Blues, which had often been taboo even in Ardoin’s time, became an integral part of the repertoire of younger Creoles. The ”rub board” or ”frattoir” became the standard for accompaniment of the accordion and accordionists began to favor multiple-row accordions. In 1954 a Lake Charles appliance dealer named Eddie Shuler recorded one of these younger accordionists, Boozoo Chavis. Shuler recruited Houston-based bandleader Classie Ballou to accompany Chavis and the resulting record, ”Paper in My Shoe,” became a huge regional hit. Chavis’s success gave a visibility to this new music outside of the French-speaking community. The success of Paper in My shoe” was partially responsible for getting Clifton Chenier signed by Specialty Records in 1955.
Clifton Chenier has the distinction of being the first Creole musician to master the piano accordion. With a full four-octave piano keyboard, Chenier could emulate the licks of any blues pianist, but the bellows-driven free reeds created a much more nuanced, vocal quality similar to that of blues harpists. Chenier also used the full 128 accompaniment buttons to approximate the left hand of boogie-woogie and blues pianists. His recordings for Specialty Records such as ”Boppin’ the Rock” and ”All the Things I Did for You” display the masterful blues playing that garnered him a large regional audience throughout the Gulf Coast.
While other Creole musicians remained local or, like Chavis, retired, Chenier embarked on endless touring, both nationally and internationally, and slowly developed a following for his style, which was now labeled zydeco. The name derived from the title of a traditional Creole dance Les Haricots Sont Pas Sale” ( The Snap Beans Are Not Salty”) cut to a phonetic spelling of the Creole pronunciation of haricots (snap beans). Chenier, billed as the ”King of Zydeco,” scored his largest regional hits with his blues tunes: Louisiana Blues,” Black Gal,” and Black Snake Blues.” As a national presence, he performed at venues that commonly presented blues performers, which created a large crossover audience for zydeco. For Americans he presented a completely new image of the accordion as a soulful instrument that contrasted greatly with their preconceptions of saccharine sweet accordion music that were drawn from Lawrence Welk’s popular TV show.
Chenier’s talent combined with tireless touring and consistent recordings brought zydeco a national popularity that allowed other zydeco performers to follow on the path that he had blazed. This included Chavis, who returned from retirement to have enormous success with his own more rural version of the music. Still Chenier remained the King until his death in 1987. His legacy is heard in the playing of his son, C. J. Chenier; Stanley Dural, aka Buckwheat Zydeco,” his former organist; and Nathan Williams. All play piano accordion in a blues style that owes greatly to Chenier. The success of zydeco and quality of Chenier’s blues performances have inspired many to pick up the accordion and will continue to inspire more.
Savoy, Ann Allen. Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People. Vol. 1. Eunice, LA: Bluebird Press, 1984.
Snyder, Jared. ”Boozoo Chavis, His Own Kind of Zydeco Man.” Sing Out! 44, no. 1 (Fall 1999): 3441.
___. ”Breeze in the Carolinas: The African American Accordionists of the Upper South.” The Free-Reed Journal 3 (Fall 2001): 19-45.
___.”Leadbelly and His Windjammer: Examining the African American Button Accordion Tradition.” American Music 12 (1994): 148-166.
___. ”The Legacy of the Afro-Mississippi Accordionists.” Black Music Research Journal 17, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 37-58.
Tisserand, Michael. The Kingdom of Zydeco. New York: Arcade Press, 1998.
Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Music (1978, Blue Ridge Institute BRI 001). (This recording includes non-blues accordion by Isaac ”Boo” Curry and Clarence Waddy.)
Amede Ardoin: Pioneer of Louisiana French Blues 1930-1934 (1995, Arhoolie Folklyric 7007).
Refer to The Kingdom of Zydeco and Boozoo Chavis, His Own Kind of Zydeco Man for a more complete discography. The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb (1990, Rounder 2097). (Contains some of his earliest hits.)
Refer to Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People for a more complete discography. Some of his earliest recordings and greatest hits include the following: Bayou Blues (1970, Specialty Records SPCD-2139-2). Zydeco, Volume One: The Early Years (1989, Arhoolie Folklyric CD-307).
60 Minutes with the King of Zydeco (1994, Arhoolie Folk-lyric CD-301).
Harris, Blind Jesse
”Sun Gonna Shine in My Door Some Day.” LC-1331-A-1. Reissued on Field Recordings, Volume 4, Mississippi & Alabama 1934-1942 (1998, Document DOCD-5578).
Each of Leadbelly’s accordion pieces are on different records:
A Leadbelly Memorial Volume, Volume II (1963, Stinson Records SLP 19).
Take This Hammer (1968, Folkways FTS 31019).
Global Accordion: Early Recordings (2001, Wergo SM 1623).
Rhodes, Walter “Pat”
“The Crowing Rooster” (Columbia 14289-D). Leaving Home Blues (Columbia 14289-D).
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