A History of the Accordion in Americana Music


Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters

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.

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

Creoles were often classically trained musicians who provided entertainment at white “house concerts”, dances and elegant parties in Louisiana.

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 new and radical. The bellows provided the “lung power” and women saw that they could make music with this light weight, expressive musical instrument.

Young Woman with Flutina
Young woman with early accordion. C. 1860
Young woman with her accordion c. 1870
This teen age girl looks directly into the camera, and shows off her accordion c. 1870

 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.

Historical accordion boys
Brothers NYC c. 1900

The piano accordion was played by artists who were 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, 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 it was played by artists who were 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. Eventually based out of New York, she toured widely and it became a tradition for dancers to see her headlining travelling shows every summer. (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 BoogieWoogie………

Lead Belly

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

Amede Ardoin

Amede Ardoin, a diatonic accordionist beloved in  Louisiana, was highly influential in Cajun music. Ardoin died from being horrifically beaten after performing at a white dance in Eunice, LA. This shameful event haunted African American musicians who began to shy away from the accordion. Photo c. 1930’s.

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.

gang of accordion players

Retro accordion poster II

Some roots musicians had already incorporated the accordion into their bands.  Anita Carter was the accordion player 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 accordion player, was the first woman to be hired as a professional blue grass 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 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.

Pee Wee King V
Probably the most influential musician in Americana music, In Nashville, Tennessee, Pee Wee King helped to create and combine Country & Western music under “one roof”. He even co-wrote the state song! c. 1948

 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”.

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
Teenager, Dick Contino was earning $4000 a week billed as the “World’s Greatest Accordionist”. He was an enormously popular star who even had a brief film career However, he found himself in the middle of a military draft scandal, when he disappeared for a week when required to report. Although he did serve honorably in the military, in the headlines, he was tried and convicted as a “draft dodger”, even though he was not. He performed for fifty years and was the most frequently seen guest on the Ed Sullivan Show. c. 1950

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.

retro man with accordion

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.

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 musician, she performed in Las Vegas 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 well known variety show as an accordionist. Viewers were stunned when it was required that she change her instrument to honky-tonk piano, which at the time, was not her specialty (her repertoire consisted of three songs).This was done to make way for an older male accordionist of average proficiency to displace her.

 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.

Musician in New Orleans
Musician in the French Quarter, New Orleans, LA

From New Orleans arose Zydeco and Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band.

Clifton Chenier
“Zydeco” music gained popularity in the early 1960’s with Clifton Chenier, considered by many to be the Father of Zydeco with his landmark 1965 song “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.”
Titano Tiger
The Titano Tiger

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’.

Faith and Ernest Deffner
Ernest and Faith Deffner

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.

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 a huge accordion-based hit song in 1972, 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 in the 1950’s. He graduated from high school,  co-founded a band which became The E Street Band and enlisted a young Bruce Springsteen as his lead singer. Danny performed for nearly 40 years with  The E Street Band until his death in 2008. Photo c. 1973
Jon Hammond
Musician Jon Hammond deliberately pushed the envelope for the accordion in the 1970s. Photo c. 1974
Singer/ Songwriter Billy Joel frequently incorporates the accordion in his music to this day. photo c. 1978
Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac c. 1980
Christine McVie and Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, in their live performance of “Tusk”, used the accordion to replace the entire USC marching band! c. 1982
Tom Waits II
Singer/Songwriter Tom Waits is a prominent advocate of the accordion in his performances and recordings since the early 1970’s. Photo c. 1990
NY Underground artist Phoebe Legere
A classically trained pianist and vocalist, Phoebe Legere used the accordion when she opened for David Bowie in 1990, and still uses it as an underground artist in New York. Photo c. 1990’s
Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows c. 1990’s
Buckwheat zydeco III
Stanley Dural was a break through artist for the piano accordion and was well known in Louisiana as a blues organist even before associating himself with the piano accordion or with Zydeco music. Stanley Dural continued the blues tradition as Buckwheat Zydeco and was the most successful Americana accordionist until his death in 2016. Photo c. 2000
Sheryl Crowe
Sheryl Crowe, prodoucer, vocalist, guitarist, pianist and top recording artist caused quite a stir using the accordion on tour and in her recordings. In doing so, she made a tremendous contribution to the presence of the accordion in Americana music. Photo c. 1998
C.J. Chenier took up where his father, Clifton, left off and performs as a blues and zydeco musician throughout the world. c. 2005
Regine Chassange shreds on the accordion as a member of Montreal’s Arcade Fire. Photo c. 2000’s
In the 21st Century, Cory Pesaturo became recognized as the most internationally awarded American 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
In 2012, out of the Phoenix Valley arose 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 plenty of contracts 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.

The piano accordion continues to participate in Americana music, today.

The Time Jumpers
Jeff Taylor with The Time Jumpers, Nashville, TN
Buxton (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff of Mother Jones, Americana Music Awards, Nashville, 2016)
The Band Perry


Not the end…….