A History of the Accordion in Americana MusicPosted: September 1, 2017
Invented in 1829, the accordion came to be embraced by people in North America early on….
Soon, up in the mountains and down in the bayous….
in big cities and in small towns….
in the country and in the deserts of the West, as well as deep into Mexico,
on the Great Lakes and the Great Plains…
in the northern states and Canadian provinces….
and through the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean….
the accordion thrived…
it entertained, delighted, inspired and brought folks together, to dance and sing….
Some of the first to become proficient on the accordion were French educated Creoles from the South, just a few years after the instrument was invented.
Creole musicians were very well schooled in music and provided entertainment at elite “house concerts” and parties in Louisiana.
Young people were eager to make some noise with the accordion. Although it was expensive, it was new and it was radical. With its bellows providing the “lung power”, the accordion impressed women, who saw that they could participate and make music with this rather tiny, relatively light weight and very expressive instrument.
Because it was loud enough for sound to be carried above the “din”, the accordion was heard in music that emanated from front porches, weddings, social gatherings, dances and as entertainment in theaters and taverns for over 150 years..
The piano accordion evolved from the smaller bisonoric diatonic accordion, into a completely different, unisonoric musical instrument. The piano keyboard was added as was the innovative Stradella bass section which used preset chords.
The accordion grew larger, but the changes empowered players of other types of keyboards to find it easier and faster to learn the instrument.
The piano accordion was played by artists who were immigrants….
….And it was played by artists who were sons and daughters of immigrants
The accordion was popular in live stage productions in Vaudeville
The accordion was heard in early recordings of Gospel, Blues and Boogie Woogie………
The Death of Amede Ardoin
In the transitional years from the Great Depression forward into the war years, the piano accordion was widely used because dances were an important source of entertainment. By the mid 1940’s, so many immigrant Catholics wanted their children to play the songs of their homeland on the accordion, and the Roman Catholic Church forgave the instrument its “tavern” reputation and gave it a special status allowing it to be used in church services. Because of this, the accordion was suddenly deemed respectable and “pent up demand” fed the market for instrument sales and lessons.
The accordion, with Anita Carter, was used by Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, in what would have been strictly a “string band” in previous years.
The first woman to play Bluegrass, professionally, was an accordion player….
Pee Wee King reinvented what was known as “Hillbilly Music”, founding a new genre of music known as “Country & Western” music. His Western Swing Band was the first to wear the spangly “Nudie Suit” that came to be associated with Country music.
The piano accordion became synonymous with smoothness and proficiency. The big band scene had died off, but small combos in swanky clubs became a new kind of venue.
Around 1960, the bubble burst for the accordion in America and the instrument’s sales plummeted to a fraction of what they had been a decade before. Publishers of accordion music had failed to provide new music for young people to play on their accordions because they didn’t want to pay songwriters for current hit tunes to be reformatted for the piano accordion. In the 1950’s, they were part of the establishment that didn’t trust or support rock ‘n roll or any aesthetic associated with it. They preferred to push the same European style tunes to a changing demographic. As young people advanced in proficiency, classical music was the promoted path. Because of this short sighted business model, during the fifteen years that the instrument was extraordinarily popular, the piano accordion became misidentified as being a European instrument.
In America in the 1960’s, ‘The Times They Were A-Changing’ and the immigrant’s children had grown up. Americana music was taking them in a different direction and young people needed to participate. The Civil Rights movement had inflamed the cities and the South. The war in Viet Nam and the draft angered America and its students. Women were agitating for equality and rights. Much of the music of the 1960’s were songs about life and death issues that were impacting young people during that era. It had a message and an edge– the accordion establishment was afraid of it and the musicians who created it. In spite of the history of the accordion in North America, the establishment wanted to make sure that the accordion was not going to be a part of any undercurrent or rebellion, as it had been in Argentina. They deliberately chose not to cultivate, especially, outspoken African Americans as legitimate players of the piano accordion in current music, or women, who were routed into teaching the instrument. They stopped marketing and promoting the instrument to them, because, with white males defecting from the ranks of accordion players in favor of the guitar in significant numbers. they were afraid that the future of the instrument could be left in the hands of African Americans and women.
Curiously, accordion players became afraid to sing with their instrument in that era, which they had freely done in the 1940’s. So, young people could not see how the piano accordion could be used to make their music, and found no one inspiring that could play or sing with it their way. There was nothing new coming out of the accordion community and no one to emulate. Young people saw the piano accordion as part of something that they loathed and their strong feelings were transferred to the instrument. So, instead of finding this very expressive instrument worthy, talented musicians simply went on their way and found other instruments with which to express their angst through their music.
The establishment chose to wait it out, banking on the return to sensibility when the war was over and rock music died out, and women, well, were just done trying to be men. In the rest of the world, the accordion didn’t receive this treatment and actually thrived alongside, both the electric and acoustic guitar. It’s not the fault of the guitar for existing that the accordion became almost extinct, but rather, fear and censorship.
When the well seems to run dry, go to the source–New Orleans.
New Orleans is not afraid of the music or the musicians that create it. That is why it is the epicenter for the development of major new genres of music.
Zydeco music emerged in the 1960’s from New Orleans where the piano accordion was put to good use by Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band.
Without a doubt, The Beatles were the “eight hundred pound gorilla” in the room during the 1960’s.
2012 was the “Comeback Year” for the piano accordion.
The piano accordion continues to participate in Americana music, today.
Not the end…….