A History of the Accordion in Americana Music


Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters

Invented in 1829, the accordion came to North America early on, and as westward expansion took place, was heard in the mountains and bayous….in cities, towns and in the country….in the deserts of the West and Mexico…. on the Great Lakes and the Great Plains…in all states and Canadian provinces….North to Alaska and West to Hawaii.  For more than 100 years, the accordion was a musical instrument of inclusion and belonging, and brought folks together as they settled an entire continent. It was an instrument “of the people”—all of the people.

Part I

Some of the first to become proficient on the accordion were French speaking Creoles in or near New Orleans, Louisiana,  shortly after the instrument was invented.

Early Accordionist
This photograph, c. 1850, taken 21 years after the invention of the accordion, indicates that the instrument was already being mastered by Creole musicians in Louisiana.

Creoles were often classically trained musicians who provided entertainment at white “house concerts”, dances and elegant parties in Louisiana.(Ken Burns, “History of Jazz”)

historical African American Accordionist
This Creole musician is unknown to us, but from his fine clothing, he may have been well known in 1870

 The accordion was radically different. The bellows provided the “lung power” and women loved this light weight, expressive musical instrument.

Young Woman with Flutina
Young woman with early   “flutina’ accordion. C. 1860
Young woman with her accordion c. 1870
Teen age girl poses for a portrait with her accordion c. 1870

The piano accordion evolved from the bisonoric diatonic “button box”, into a unisonoric instrument.  Any key of the piano accordion plays the same note, whether the bellows is pulling air inward or pushing it outward. However, when the diatonic bellows opens to pull air inward, the note played with the same key is different than when the bellows pushes air outward, making it closer kin to the harmonica.  Along with the piano keyboard, the innovative Stradella bass section was added, which used preset chords. Because of these features, it was easier to master the piano accordion, the instrument became very popular and sales quickly overtook the “button box”.

Newspaper ad accordion
Newspaper ad

The accordion was portable and loud enough to be heard from front porches, at weddings, social gatherings, dances and as entertainment in theaters and taverns.

Historical accordion boys
Brothers NYC c. early 20th Century

It was played by immigrants….

Guido Diero 1910
Guido Diero, a virtuoso in Italy,  immigrated to America and worked in a mine in Oregon.  Photo c.1910
Guido’s younger brother, Pietro Diero, also was a virtuoso. Both were very influential in the piano accordion becoming popular in America, as performers and behind the scenes. Photo c. 1920

….And played by sons and daughters of  immigrants

Viola Turpeinen c. 1920

Viola Turpeinen was probably the first woman accordionist to record, and certainly the first female accordion star in America. A second-generation Finnish-American, starting in the 1920’s she played the Finnish dance circuit in the upper mid-west region of Michigan / Wisconsin / Minnesota. (Accordion Noir) c. 1920

It was popular in live stage productions in Vaudeville

Father with Daughters Vaudeville 1920's
A father and daughters act c.1920’s

and heard in early recordings of Gospel, Blues and the BoogieWoogie………

Lead Belly

Lead Belly c. 1930
Huddie Ledbetter , known as  Lead Belly,  with his diatonic “Windjammer” c.1930’s

Amede Ardoin

Amede Ardoin, a Creole diatonic accordionist beloved in  Louisiana, was highly influential in the development of Cajun music in Louisiana.  Ardoin died from a beating after a performance at a white dance in Eunice, LA. This disturbing event was influential as African Americans began to withdraw from the diatonic accordion. However, it has remained the dominion of Cajun and Latino musicians to this day.

Amede Ardoin c. 1930’s



The 1940’s

During World War II,  the piano accordion was included in “big bands” that accompanied dances. When the war ended, the working class and returning soldiers became nostalgic for their ancestral homelands and the sound of the accordion they heard while in Europe. The Catholic Church deemed the piano accordion respectable in 1947 and included its use in church. As manufacturers appeared in North America, it became more affordable and a surge in demand fed instrument sales and lessons. Americans were back at work and musical instruments in the home were signs of success.

gang of accordion players

Performing with the piano accordion was encouraged and thought to be a key to becoming well rounded and popular.

Retro accordion poster II

Some Roots musicians already had included the accordion in their bands. Sis Cunningham played the accordion with the folk group, the Almanac Singers. She was a member with Pete SeegerMillard LampellLee HaysBess Lomax Hawes, and Woody Guthrie.

The Almanac Singers c. 1943

Anita Carter was the accordionist for Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.

Mother Maybelle, the Carter Sisters with Chet Atkins
Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, with Chet Atkins. Photo c. 1945

 Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, an accordionist, was the first woman hired as a professional Bluegrass musician….

Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys II
Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester was a member of “Bill Munro and his Bluegrass Boys” for six years. Photo c. 1947

Pee Wee King elevated “Hillbilly Music” and transformed it into “Country & Western” music. Each member of his Western Swing Band was required to read music, belong to the musicians union and was included as among the best musicians in the business.( Pee Wee  King, “Hell Bent for Music“) They were the first to wear the spangly Western outfits that came to be associated with Country & Western.

Pee Wee King V
The most influential showman in Americana music, Pee Wee King, invented and brought Country & Western music and Nashville, Tennessee to  world renown. He used the accordion, electric guitar and added drums. Along with Redd Stewart, he wrote what became the state song, “The Tennessee Waltz” c.1948

By 1950, The big band dance scene died off , but combos in swanky clubs often included the piano accordion, and it became synonymous with “class”.

Art Van Damme brought the accordion into the world of Jazz. He toured internationally for forty years, performed brilliantly with the instrument and elevated it to an unprecedented level of sophistication. Photo c. 1950
Dick Contino V
Dick Contino c. 1950

 Dick Contino was just a teenager when he earned $4000 a week as he toured as the “World’s Greatest Accordionist”. He was a genuine star who had a brief film career.  However, he found himself in the middle of a military draft fracas when he was required to report, but could not be found.  Contino served honorably in the military but was persecuted in the headlines as a “draft dodger”, even though he was not. When discharged from the Army, he performed for fifty years and was the most frequently included guest on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. 

Part II

The unrelenting criticism that Contino received alarmed the accordion’s ultra conservative wing. Concern for their livelihood galvanized and motivated them. Fearful that the instrument would again be tainted by controversy, they began to organize and resist trends they viewed as looming threats. However, by “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”,  these Cold War decision makers brought on their own demise which ironically, destroyed their livelihood.

The 1950’s

Dick Thomas san Sue City Sue accompanied by accordion c. 1951
Dick Thomas, with his hit song, “Sue City Sue”, accompanied by accordion c. 1951

The 1950’s began with enthusiastic demand for the piano accordion.  There was an abundance of accordion players in all genres and it was assumed that they would always be there. But, change was on the airwaves and it played into fears about music that already existed in America. In some areas, racist flyers instructed parents,  “Don’t let your children listen to those Negro records!”  A government service announcement promoted the idea that early Rock ‘n Roll was a symptom of national moral decay. Many Americans believed that Folk musicians were Communists. The accordion establishment, already suspicious of Jazz, looked down on Country & Western and current Pop music.

In their tiny domain, on the coasts and in the South, these kingpins of the accordion in America viewed young people who lived in the cities, towns and in the vast heartland of the country, as simple and misguided. In their wisdom, they decided it was best to steer kids away from objectionable material and ‘nip it in the bud’. They turned a deaf ear to the demands of young people and refused to seek out and pay for current “hits” to be reformatted as sheet music for the accordion. They chose to ignore what American youth already witnessed as early as 1952, when Johnny Grande performed with Bill Haley and the Comets in such hits as “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Rock The Joint”, with the piano accordion. The accordion was participating in a genre that didn’t yet have a name.

Instead of trying to embrace change, the accordion establishment had a better option: to do nothing except to provide the ‘same-old’ lessons and song books for students and to dictate that kids settle for the path of classical music as they became proficient. This slippery slope was cheaper, but almost immediately it began to have an impact.  As their customers began to slip away, their market share declined.

The accordion establishment did not trust the new technology of the electric guitar. They didn’t like the music they heard being played on the instrument because it represented a change in the industry that was outside of their control. They didn’t pay attention to what folks were listening to anyway, so in their world, they had a notion that the guitar was an adversary in competition with, not complementary to the accordion.  In reality, both guitar and accordion had commonly held places, side by side, in multi-instrumental bands all along.

Tutmarc Trio, Marlin Hickerson (accordion, Bonnie Tutmarc (guitar) and Paul Tutmarc, c. early 1950's
Tutmarc Trio c. early 1950’s


The Cold War

The struggle intensified in September of 1955, when a West Coast hit TV show went national with ABC. Young people immediately identified the accordion playing bandleader as a minion of the establishment.  They thought that his brand of music was backward looking and anti-Rock’n’Roll. This fueled the generational strife that was already present. Before 1955, to hear Rock ‘n’ Roll, kids had to seek it out through alternative sources.  TV was not a good source because it was a new medium with limited content. Most record stores would not sell Rock ‘n’ Roll records and radio stations would not play it, because it was considered indecent. ‘Decent’ people took issue with the lyrics and also that much of it was performed by African Americans. Young people thought that it was  dictated that they just settle, but they would have none of it.

Because the bandleader and his accordion were symbols of their struggle, the youth of America took out their anger and frustration and turned their backs on him and his music. The piano accordion became a visible casualty of the conflict.  Working musicians abandoned the instrument, and became ‘multi instrumentalists’, adding piano, organ and harmonica to their resumes. Almost overnight, the piano accordion was dropped like a hot potato, and few would touch it.

Bewildered accordionists that stayed with the instrument didn’t diversify and adapt, and ceased to circulate among other musicians. The accordion did not share in the post 1955 evolution of Americana music because accordionists did not participate in bands that created the music. With the exception of ethnic bands, it belonged in the hands of soloists. Accordionists lost their places in bands and gave up their voices.  As they dug in and played the expected ‘same old’ dated, foreign or classical tunes the ‘same old’ way, the instrument was shut out of mainstream pop music and caught up in the bandleader’s ‘bubbly’, dated little world where it stopped evolving.

Nothing was done to make the piano accordion blend in and more was done to make it stick out. TV promoted accordionists in goofy costumes as “one man” bands, or playing dated dance tunes, jolly polkas in lederhosen, or “Flight of the Bumblebee”, played at break neck speed, completed perfectly, in 60 seconds!  American parents were delighted and relieved to see these acts on black and white television, but to those teenagers to whom music was enormously important, they seemed like stooges.  They had it in their minds that they wanted something more from music.  They wanted Elvis.

retro man with accordion

But, the aristocrats of the accordion insisted that players be mature men, examples of the morally upright,  ‘worthy’ enough to appear with such an instrument. Those born during or just after World War II, took pride in themselves as misfits or rebels. Many teenage boys chose slicked back hair with T shirts and blue jeans.  But, to the establishment, it was an indication of weak character.

The Advent of the Garage Band

Garage Band
Garage Band c. 1960’s

This attitude mirrored how many music-centered teen age boys saw themselves, as out casts who didn’t fit in.  Working class boys that fled the piano accordion and converted to other instruments, sought to ‘belong’ to four or five-piece bands, should have been a part of the customer base of the piano accordion. The piano accordion was no longer an instrument “of the people” as it had been, but a ‘tool’ of the elite. These young heroes or rebels that would have counted the piano accordion among their arsenal of instruments, for the first time did not include it. Instead, mostly all male groups used drums and guitars in ‘garage bands’. These workshops were foundries where the “music of the people” was forged for the next several decades. Along with their work ethic, they took their hand crafted music to the streets, where they let loose their angst in grass roots competitions known as the “Battle of the Bands”.

Vintage girl accordionist
Girl with accordion c.1960

For those left over, the pressure was on to play larger accordions. Although “ladies size” accordions existed, women and girls wanted to show that they were the equals of males. Young females didn’t want an instrument that was perceived as less than what a man could play, since men were the promoted standard.  Many full sized piano accordions had grown to a heavy 30 pounds(14 kg), which excluded slight males, small women and girls, who had to sit down to practice due to the sheer weight of the instrument. It was warned that the piano accordion could become “a girl’s instrument” due to the deficiency of males who played it in America, but the accordion establishment did nothing to empower females to help this to happen.

Then insulting jokes about the accordion took over, among them were obscene cartoons that still resurface, and depict the female anatomy in relation to the accordion bellows. It became acceptable for boys, and even adult males, to make off color remarks about and to female accordion players, instilling a myth that breasts were not a good fit for the instrument. “Better watch out, girl, for ‘those things’ around that bellows!”, or to simply yell, “Ouch!” at a girl accordion player and all would laugh. Although it may not have been recognized at that time, by such harassment and shaming, women and girls were discouraged from performing with the accordion in public.  Female accordionists became teachers of the instrument, or gave it up, or apologized for being  “just a closet accordion player” and performed only at home for family.

JoAnne Castle c. 1957

Jo Ann Castle is significant for what she didn’t do, as much as for what she did. A gifted and rare female professional musician, she performed in Las Vegas bars and night clubs as an underage teen, had a best selling instrumental album in 1957 that scored #67 on the Billboard Hot 100. The pretty 18 year old created a lot of excitement and had real star potential. Castle was promptly hired by a national variety show as an accordionist. Viewers were stunned when she was required to change her instrument to honky-tonk piano, which was not her instrument (her repertoire consisted of three songs). This was done to make way for a forty year old male accordionist of lesser proficiency to displace her.

The 1960’s

  By 1960, not many sought out the piano accordion as they had just ten years before. Young people were onto other things and their ideas about music were worlds apart. The accordion seemed from ‘long ago and far away’ and most didn’t care to be members of the exclusive fraternity who played it.  Nearly all accordion manufacturers in North America were gone as demand for the instrument had been drastically reduced throughout the 1950’s.  Any Americana connection was wiped away from the piano accordion and an “off shore” label was stamped in its place. Finally, the piano accordion itself was excluded and exiled from the American musical landscape.  Jazz accordionists had to leave North America and travel to Europe to find an audience.

The Year of the Tiger

Titano Tiger
The Titano Tiger

In 1965, the Beatles with George Martin, were about to release “Rubber Soul”, and their impact was already felt in the world.  Rock ‘n’ Roll had died out a few years before and Pop music was fusing and changing very fast. The wizards of the accordion, along with new owners of the Titano Accordion Company, Ernest and Faithe Deffner, decided that it was time to be a part of it. In 1965 they “recognized the changing dynamic in music as rock’n’roll captured the interest of youngsters”. Their “Tiger Combo’Cordion was a radical, compact, colorful instrument featuring a ‘quint’ treble tuning for piercing lead or swinging chords…to flip the crowd”(Hullabaloo Magazine).  Its main feature was the resurrected ergonomic slanted keyboard.

Faith and Ernest Deffner
Ernest and Faith Deffner

The Deffners threw all of their resources into research and development and the Tiger debuted. During the roll out, the spokesman named to endorse the product was a prominent forty six year old accordionist who “youngsters”, the target market, already knew and were fully aware was not young.  Focused on their product, the Deffner Team apparently forgot to ask their target market if the ‘same old’ guy who played the ‘same old’ way on their new Tiger would “flip” them. It flopped. Their Tiger sits today in collections of rare instruments and in museums gathering dust.

The “Blue Accordion” is a vintage Tiger, recently acquired by accordionist Mark Yacavone.


But, accordionists prospered outside of the establishment


Clifton Chenier
From New Orleans in the early 1960’s arose “Zydeco”  music and,  considered by many to be the Father of Zydeco, was Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band,  with his landmark 1965 song “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.”
Paul McCartney with Accordion
Paul McCartney‘s first instrument was the accordion. He frequently took it with him and used it as he wrote songs for the Beatles. c 1965
Garth Hudson was a proficient accordionist long before he was hired by Bob Dylan, as a member of The Hawks, renamed The Band. (Photo by Barry Wenzel c. 1968)
Large_Nitty GrittyDirt Band_5
Americana band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had an enormously successful accordion-based hit song written by Jerry Jeff Walker, the now classic “Mr. Bojangles”.
Danny with accordion III
As a child prodigy on the accordion, Danny Federici won “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour”. He graduated from high school,  co-founded a band in 1969 and enlisted a young Bruce Springsteen as his lead singer. Danny performed for nearly 40 years with The E Street Band. Photo c. 1973
Jon Hammond
Jon Hammond deliberately pushed the envelope for the accordion in the 1970s. Photo c. 1974
Buckwheat zydeco II
 Stanley Dural was a break through artist for the piano accordion and was well known in New Orleans as a Blues organist even before associating himself with the piano accordion or Zydeco music. Stanley Dural continued the Blues tradition as Buckwheat Zydeco.
Tom Waits II
Singer/Songwriter Tom Waits has been a prominent advocate of the accordion in his performances and recordings since the early 1970’s. Photc c. 1990
 Fast Forward
In the 21st Century, American accordionist, Cory Pesaturo, became known as the most internationally awarded accordionist of all time. Photo c. 2010.
Ben Lovett with Mumford and Sons
2012 Grammy Award for Best Americana album, “Babel”, featuring the piano accordion, made Mumford and Sons a household name in North America
Johnny Kongos III
In 2012, out of the Phoenix Valley rose Arizona’s own homegrown band, KONGOS, who composed and recorded the most successful, piano accordion-based hit song, “Come With Me Now”.  It shattered all records, blew the roof off of perceptions about the instrument, and earned Johnny Kongos and his brothers much success and a world wide following.
Bill Haley and the Comets
Also, 2012 was the year that Bill Haley’s group,  the Comets, along with Johnny Grande, were recognized by their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Danny and Bruce
Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, co-founded by the late Danny Federici in New Jersey in 1969, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 2014.

Not the end…….