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.
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 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.
THE PIANO ACCORDION
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.
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 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, 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.
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 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”.
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 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.
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.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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 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
Not the end…….