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. “Uni” means “one” and “sonoric” means “sound”, and if “Bi” means “two”, therefore “bisonoric” means “two sounds.” One key of the piano accordion plays one note (unisonoric), whether the bellows is pulling air in or pushing it out. However, when the button accordion bellows opens to pull air in, the note sounded is different than when the same button is pressed while the bellows is pushing air out,(bisonoric) 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 tiny Creole diatonic accordionist beloved in Louisiana, was highly influential in the development of Cajun music in Louisiana. Ardoin died from a gang beating by whites after his 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 formally deemed the piano accordion respectable in 1947 and allowed its use in mass. As many manufacturers of the piano accordion appeared across North America, the instrument 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 and already a professional musician and singer, 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 the 1950’s, The big band dance scene died off , but small 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”.
In 1952, Pauline Oliveros arrived in San Francisico as a college student. Oliveros was a co-founder of the Center for Contemporary Music and became noted as one of the most influential composers and music philosophers of the Twentieth Century. Although obscure to pop, folk and country music fans, she is lionized in contemporary and “new” music and is credited as an early pioneer of electronic music.
In 1952, Bill Haley reinvented his Country & Western band, The Saddlemen, as The Comets and recorded the first rock’n’roll hit, “Rock This Joint” which featured Johnny Grande on the piano accordion.
The Year of the Tiger
The “Blue Accordion” is a vintage Tiger from 1965, recently acquired by accordionist Mark Yacavone.
Not the end…….