By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Invented in 1829, the accordion came to North America early on and before long was heard
in the mountains and in the bayous….
in big cities and small towns….
in the country, the deserts of the West, and deep into Mexico,
on the Great Lakes and the Great Plains…
in northern states and Canadian provinces….
For over 150 years, the accordion entertained, inspired and brought folks together….
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.
The accordion was new and radical. The bellows provided the “lung power” and women saw that they could make music with this light weight, expressive musical instrument.
The accordion was loud enough to be heard in music from front porches, weddings, at social gatherings, dances and as entertainment in theaters and taverns.
The piano accordion evolved from the bisonoric diatonic “button box”, into a unisonoric instrument. The piano keyboard was added along with the innovative Stradella bass section which used preset chords, making it easier for players of other types of keyboard instruments to adapt to 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
It was popular in live stage productions in Vaudeville
and heard in early recordings of Gospel, Blues and BoogieWoogie………
During World War II, the “big bands” accompanied dances and the piano accordion was often present in them. When the war ended, working class Catholics and returning soldiers missed the songs of their ancestral homelands and the sound of the accordion they heard while in Europe. The Catholic Church forgave the instrument its “tavern” reputation, allowing its use in church, which deemed it respectable. As manufacturers sprang up in North America, it became cheaper to buy an accordion. Like never before, demand fed instrument sales and lessons. Americans were moving upward and musical instruments were evidence of success. It was aggressively promoted that children would become better students and well rounded individuals if they learned to play the accordion.
Some roots musicians had already incorporated the accordion into their bands. Anita Carter was the accordion player for Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.
Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, an accordion player, was the first woman to be hired as a professional blue grass musician….
Pee Wee King reinvented what was known as “Hillbilly Music”, and founded a new genre known as “Country & Western” music. He required his Western Swing Band be able to read music and be members of the musicians union. They were the first to wear the spangly suites that came to be associated with Country & Western.
By 1950, The big band dance scene died off , but small combos in swanky clubs featured the piano accordion, as it evolved to became synonymous with “class”.
The intense and ongoing bad press that Contino received alarmed the instrument’s ultra conservative established businesses that made decisions for the piano accordion. They feared that their livelihood would be threatened if the instrument should become associated with unsavory types or political causes.
The 1950’s began with a strong market for the piano accordion. However, the accordion establishment was already suspicious of Jazz, and looked down on Country and Pop music. Like many, they believed emerging Folk music was a breeding ground for Communists and Rock ‘n Roll was contrary to conservative American values. There was also an outcry against “black music”. They were afraid of it and the musicians and songwriters who created it. The accordion establishment began to separate the piano accordion from certain genres that were potentially ‘unfit’. Publishers pushed back and ignored the demand by students for current “hits”. They refused to seek out and pay for songs to be reformatted for the piano accordion. It was cheaper to push the ‘same-old’ tunes to students and it was simpler to instruct them that classical music be the path to follow as they advanced in proficiency.
By the late 1950’s, it was as though accordion players had forgotten how to sing or play in Americana bands as they had done in the past. The piano accordion had grown heavy, to more than 30 pounds(14 kg), and the implied message was that one had to be a man to play it. A typical performance by an accordionist as seen on black and white TV was that of a solitary, white male in a suit and tie who played a foreign or classical piece as he was seated, while he looked down at the floor and frowned. The children of parents who had been so easily sold on music influencing values and virtues would have none of it. They wanted more from music.
One had to be clean cut and ‘worthy’ to fit the mold to be an acceptable accordion player. Slicked back hair and blue jeans became a big focus in the 1950’s, so ‘clean cut’ disqualified most teens. Creative energy was sucked away, and a “brain drain” occurred as talented young people found other instruments. As working class men abandoned the accordion, or left for the military, women sought recognition as performers. But, they also were not accepted, so most drifted away or became teachers of the instrument.
In one decade, demand for the piano accordion plummeted to a fraction from what it had been. Nearly all manufacturers in North America were out of business. The accordion establishment had successfully managed the piano accordion away from American “grass roots” to exclusively an “off shore”identity. Evolving Jazz accordionists found that they had to leave America and travel to Europe to find an audience.
In the 1960’s, in America, the Civil Rights movement inflamed the cities and the South. America was angry about the Viet Nam War and the draft. Women were agitating for equality and rights. American youth was invested in it, and galvanized by it. To fight back, music became their ‘weapon of choice’. They were determined that their message be heard. Much of their music was innovative, often aggressive and played with a lot of conviction and reflects that intention.
However, the piano accordion was in exile.
Today, the accordion establishment blames the teachers of the piano accordion for their conservatism, or explains dismissively that the instrument simply “fell out of fashion”. They also blame the invention of the electric guitar for the decline in the accordion market, while in the rest of the world, the accordion actually flourished alongside both the electric and acoustic guitars.
New Orleans is not afraid of the music or the musicians who create it. That is why New Orleans is the epicenter for the emergence of major genres of music in the world.
From New Orleans arose Zydeco and Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band.
The Year of the Tiger
Recognizing an opportunity, Ernest and Faithe Deffner, the new owners of the Titano Accordion Company decided that it was time to design a more radical accordion to appeal to the youth market in America. The Tiger Combo’Cordion was a compact, colorful instrument featuring a ‘quint’ treble tuning for “piercing lead or swinging chords…to flip the crowd”(Hullabaloo Magazine). It’s main feature was the resurrected ergonomic slanted keyboard which was built to ‘rock out’.
After substantial research and development, the Titano Tiger debuted. However, their choice for a spokesman to endorse their product was a prominent member of the accordion establishment that young people, by this time, openly loathed. So focused on their product, the Deffner’s were blind to the fact that their decision would be the biggest “wet blanket” on their efforts to sell the Tiger to their target market–America’s youth! The Deffner team made what they thought was a safe choice, but found that the ‘same old guy’ playing the ‘same old song’ on the new Titano Tiger didn’t flip anyone. It flopped, and their Tiger sits today in collections of rare instruments and in museums gathering dust.
The “Blue Accordion” is an old Tiger, recently acquired by accordionist Mark Yacavone.
But, there were accordionists who prospered outside of the establishment.
The piano accordion continues to participate in Americana music, today.
Not the end…….