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 the people”, of inclusion and belonging, and brought folks together as they settled an entire continent..
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.
Creoles were often classically trained musicians who provided entertainment at white “house concerts”, dances and elegant parties in Louisiana.(Ken Burns, “History of Jazz”)
The accordion was radically different. The bellows provided the “lung power” and women loved this light weight, expressive musical instrument.
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”.
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.
It was played by immigrants….
….And played by sons and daughters of immigrants
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
and heard in early recordings of Gospel, Blues and the BoogieWoogie………
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 horrific crime was influential as African Americans began to withdraw from the diatonic accordion. However, it has remained the dominion of Cajun and Latino musicians.
THE PIANO ACCORDION
During World War II, the piano accordion was included in many “big bands” that accompanied dances. After the war, 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 allowed its use in mass. 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.
Performing with the piano accordion was encouraged and thought to be a key to becoming well rounded and popular.
Some Roots musicians already had included the accordion in their bands. Sis Cunningham played the accordion with the alternative folk group, the Almanac Singers. She was a member with Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Bess Lomax Hawes, and Woody Guthrie.
Anita Carter was the accordionist for Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.
Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, an accordionist, was the first woman hired as a professional Bluegrass musician….
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, join the musicians union and each 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.
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”.
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 in the military but was persecuted in the headlines as a “draft dodger”, even though he was not. When honorably discharged from the Army, he performed for fifty years and was the most frequently included guest on the “Ed Sullivan Show”.
The unrelenting criticism that Contino received alarmed the accordion’s ultra conservative wing. Afraid that the instrument would again be tainted by controversy and that their livelihood would be negatively impacted, they began to resist and react to trends as looming threats. The piano accordion strayed from its path of progress when the accordion establishment began to listen to their fears and not to their customers. Ironically, this brought about their demise in less than 10 years.
The 1950’s: When Fear Ruled and Music Mattered
The 1950’s began with enthusiastic demand for the piano accordion and there was an abundance of accordion players in all genres. But, change was on the airwaves and it played into fear 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. It was rumored 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, the 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. American youth had already witnessed, as early as 1952, Johnny Grande performing with Bill Haley and the Comets on the piano accordion in such hits as “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Rock The Joint”. It was evident that the piano accordion was participating in a genre that didn’t yet have a name.
The accordion establishment 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. Instead, they decided 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 on demand for the instrument. As their customers began to slip away, their market share declined.
Les Paul and Leo Fender’s new guitar technology and along with it, the new music that was being played on it, were unsettling changes for the accordion establishment. While guitars of all kinds and the accordion, had commonly held places in bands, side by side in American music, to counter the growing popularity of the electric guitar, they tried to cultivate that it was directly in competition with the accordion. This implied that a “are you with us” or “are you one of them” choice was necessary. This notion became a losing strategy for the piano accordion. At a critical time in music in America, rather than integrate the instrument, it began to become isolated.
A Casualty of a Cultural War
Generational and cultural strife that was already present in America intensified in September of 1955, when a regional show became nationally televised. Before 1955, kids had to seek out Rock ‘n’ Roll through alternative sources. Stores would not sell Rock ‘n’ Roll records and radio stations would not play them, because the music was considered indecent. ‘Decent’ people thought the lyrics and dancing were offensive and they were appalled that much of it was performed and inspired by African Americans. Young people were angry, frustrated and immediately saw through the show’s accordion playing bandleader as a minion of the establishment. They identified his brand of “sweet music” as backward and anti-Rock ‘n’ Roll, and took the show as a direct message that they were expected to settle for the ‘same old’ music. The show became a target and, in protest, the youth of America reacted and turned their backs on the bandleader and his music.
Visibly attached to the bandleader, the piano accordion became a casualty of the conflict because of ‘guilt by association’. It was dropped like a hot stone and almost overnight, no one would touch it. Working musicians abandoned the accordion, reinvented themselves as ‘multi instrumentalists’, and added piano, organ and harmonica to replace it. While music became more diverse by integrating instruments heard traditionally in Blues, Gospel and Jazz, it was an unfair and serious set back for the piano accordion.
A Paradigm Shift
Blindsided accordionists who stayed with the instrument and did not diversify, ceased to circulate among other musicians. The accordion did not share in the post 1955 evolution of Americana music because accordionists were cut from bands that created the music and shut out of mainstream pop, emerging folk and country music. Accordionists lost their places and gave up their voices. Except for ethnic bands, the accordion was left in the hands of soloists who never sang with it. As they dug in and clung to the ‘same old’ tunes played the ‘same old’ way, the instrument stopped evolving. Meanwhile, the accordion was played predictably by the same man, in every episode, in the bandleader’s carefully orchestrated ‘bubbly’ world. It was further held back for decades as reruns of the show blanketed North America. As a result of the show’s over-saturation and the association with the bandleader and his “sweet music”, a prejudice about the accordion has followed two or three generations of young Americans until 2012.
From 1955 on, little was done to make the piano accordion blend in and more was done to make it conspicuous. Because accordionists were no longer involved in making mainstream music, to keep working, the accordion was seen in “one man” bands, or heard playing jolly polkas by men in lederhosen, or used simply as a prop in comedy routines. American parents were comforted and relieved and found these acts harmless entertainment. But the accordion was harmed because it changed the perception of the instrument.
The Elvis Effect
The record buying public wanted music that was free from any concerted attempt to ‘dial back’ the times.
They wanted Elvis.
The accordion establishment objected to everything that they knew about Elvis and held suspicions about what they did not know. They insisted that mature men were fit to appear with the piano accordion and were deemed to be musically superior and ‘trustworthy’ to be able to represent the instrument. The accordion establishment had their own, more acceptable version of who to emulate.
Many teenage boys during that era, took pride in themselves as misfits or rebels and identified with Elvis and his music. The establishment’s attitude toward Elvis mirrored how many music-centered teen age boys saw themselves, as out casts who didn’t fit in. They were, in many cases, the first generation ‘off of the farm’ who were from families that migrated to urban areas to work in factories, especially in the North. These working class boys, white and black, who sought to ‘belong’ to four or five-piece bands, converted to other instruments. The piano accordion was no longer an instrument “of the people”. In the past, these young heroes or rebels would have counted it among their arsenal of instruments, but for the first time did not include it. Mostly all male groups, with members living in fast growing neighborhoods of little homes, formed bands and practiced in basements and garages. These intense workshops became foundries where the “music of the people” was forged for the next few decades. With their working class work ethic, they took their music to the streets and let loose in competitions known as the “Battle of the Bands”.
For those left out of the garage band movement, 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 men. Females didn’t want an instrument that was perceived as less than what a man could play, since males 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 due to the sheer weight of the instrument. It was warned that the piano accordion could become “a girl’s instrument” due to the sudden deficiency of boys who played it in America. Sadly, there was no outreach to empower this to happen.
A “Girl’s Instrument”?
If there was not a gender war, there certainly was “gender awareness” that went on within the world of music in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Because of this, insulting jokes about the accordion took over and among them were obscene cartoons that depict the female anatomy in relation to the accordion bellows. It started with off color remarks made by men and boys, about and to female accordion players, turning a myth that breasts were not a good fit for the instrument into a big joke. “Better watch out, girl, for ‘those things’ around that bellows!”, or to simply yell, “Ouch!” at a female accordion player and all would laugh. At first, this highly personal shaming was done by male accordionists who knew it was not true. Others caught on, at first as a source of entertainment, then with the intention to diminish the confidence of women and girls as musicians and to discourage them from pursuing music performance. Eventually, it became to be one of the accepted, harmful stereotypes against which women musicians still fight hard. Cartoons further promote the myth in men’s magazines. But the damage had been done long ago, as many female accordionists gave up and became teachers of the instrument, switched to piano or apologized with “I’m just a closet accordion player” and performed only at home for family.
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 was an emerging star. Castle was promptly hired by a national variety show as an accordionist. Viewers were stunned when she was required to change from piano accordion 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.
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
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.
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 missed the opportunity with their target market, if even to ask them 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, some accordionists prospered outside of the establishment
Not the end…….