A History of the Accordion in Americana Music


Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters

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..

Part I

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, just 21 years after the invention of the accordion, indicates that the instrument was already being mastered by Creole musicians in Louisiana.

Creoles were often classically trained musicians who provided entertainment at white “house concerts”, dances and elegant parties in Louisiana.(Ken Burns, “History of Jazz”)

historical African American Accordionist
This musician from Louisiana is unknown to us, but from his fine clothing, he may have been well known in 1870

 The accordion was radically different. The bellows provided the “lung power” and women loved this light weight, expressive musical instrument and would often gather in parlors to make music together.

Young Woman with Flutina
Young woman with early accordion. C. 1860
Young woman with her accordion c. 1870
Teen-age girl poses for a portrait with her accordion c. 1870

The piano accordion evolved from the bisonoricdiatonic “button box”, a closer kin to the harmonica, into a unisonoric instrument. The piano accordion is different because one key sounds only one note, whether the bellows in pushing or pulling air through the instrument’s reeds. 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, and sales of the instrument quickly overtook the “button box”.

Newspaper ad accordion
Newspaper ad early 20th century

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.

Historical accordion boys
Brothers NYC c. 1900

The piano accordion was played by European immigrants….

Guido Diero 1910
Guido Diero, a virtuoso, studied the accordion in Italy and moved to America, where he worked in a mine in Oregon c.1910
Guido’s younger brother, Pietro Diero, studied the accordion in America. Both were very influential in the development of the accordion in America, as performers, publishers and behind the scenes. Photo c. 1920

….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. Photo 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 the BoogieWoogie………

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

Amede Ardoin

Amede Ardoin, a tiny Creole diatonic accordionist beloved in Louisiana, was highly influential in the development of Cajun music.  Ardoin died from injuries received by a gang beating by whites after being invited to perform at a white dance in Eunice, LA. This horrific crime was heartbreaking and influenced Creole musicians to withdraw from the diatonic accordion, leaving it to remain the dominion of Cajun and Latino musicians.

Amede Ardoin, photo c. 1930


The 1940’s

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 at 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.

gang of accordion players

Performing with the piano accordion was encouraged and promoted as the key to becoming well rounded and popular.

Retro accordion poster II

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. Photo c. 1943

Anita Carter was the accordionist for Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.

Mother Maybelle, the Carter Sisters with Chet Atkins
Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, along with Chet Atkins. Photo c. 1945

 Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, was an accordionist and already a seasoned professional multi-instrumentalist and singer, when she was hired by Bill Monroe to perform and record with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys….

Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys II
The first woman to be hired as a professional Bluegrass musician was Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester. For six years, she toured, performed, recorded with, and was a paid member of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. Photo c. 1947

Pee Wee King elevated and transformed “Hillbilly Music,” string based, roots music largely influenced by the British Isles into what was seen as a completely new art form, “Country & Western” music.  Each member of Pee Wee King’s Western Swing Band was required to read music, join the musicians union and 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 the Country & Western aesthetic.

Pee Wee King V
Pee Wee King and his Western Swing Band . c. 1948

 Pee Wee King also combined both Country music and Western music under “one roof”, in the city of Nashville, Tennessee. He used the accordion and along with Bob Wills, the electric guitar and added drums and amplifiers. With Redd Stewart, his lead singer, Pee Wee King co-wrote “The Tennessee Waltz,” which became the state’s official song.

Pee Wee King and Red Stewart
Co-writers, Pee Wee King (R), with accordion, and Redd Stewart (L), singer, flank producer, during recording session of “The Tennessee Waltz.” Photo c. 1946

The 1950’s

The piano accordion was present in every genre of  American music, especially Country Music.

Dick Thomas san Sue City Sue accompanied by accordion c. 1951
Dick Thomas, with his hit song, “Sue City Sue”, accompanied by accordionist c. 1951

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”.

Art Van Damme brought the accordion forward 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
Dick Contino, Photo c. 1950

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”. 

Pauline Oliveros, Photo by Corwin Smith 1947

In 1952, Pauline Oliveros arrived in San Francisico as a college student. Oliveros was eventually 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.

Bill Haley and the Comets II
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.Bill Haley and the Comets Photo c. 1955

By the 1950’s, on a new medium called “television,” America watched as creative and successful Americans were “blacklisted” for alleged participation in extremist political beliefs. Musicians and songwriters were suspect and it was taught that they were a threat to democracy. Radio often refused to play their work. Some artists were ruined, others had to leave the country to make a living or simply left the business. Based on political hysteria, America had learned to fear music.

In September, 1955, a solution was created to allow war-weary and artistically terrified white Americans to, once again, find comfort and escape in music. In the form of a television variety show,  that became an instant hit, the accordion was a regularly featured instrument along with other instruments, singers and dancers. Among a large segment of America, the show worked, but another part of the population saw the piano accordion as the symbol of artistic oppression and backward thinking. Most of America was choosing to move forward, and eventually would go to the moon. However, the piano accordion was left behind, musically untapped, for many years.


The 1960’s

Clifton Chenier
Meanwhile, from New Orleans in the early 1960’s arose “Zydeco” music and, considered by many to be the Father of Zydeco, was Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band, with his landmark 1965 song “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.”


1965: The Year of the Tiger 

Titano Tiger
A vintage Titano Tiger from 1965

The “Blue Accordion” is a vintage Titano Tiger, recently acquired by accordionist Mark Yacavone.


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. Photo 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)

The 1970’s

Large_Nitty GrittyDirt Band_5
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a huge accordion-based hit song in the early 1970’s, the now classic Mr. Bojangles. Photo c. 2000.
Danny with accordion III
Danny Federici photo c. 1973

As a child prodigy on the accordion, Danny Federici won “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour”. He graduated from high school,  co-founded a band in 1969 and enlisted a young Bruce Springsteen as his lead singer. Danny performed for nearly 40 years with The E Street Band.

Jon Hammond
Musician Jon Hammond deliberately pushed the envelope for the accordion in the 1970s. Photo c. 1974

 The 1980’s

Buckwheat zydeco II
Buckwheat Zydeco

Stanley Dural was a break through artist for the piano accordion and was well known in New Orleans as a Blues organist even before associating himself with the piano accordion or Zydeco music. Stanley Dural continued the Blues tradition as Buckwheat Zydeco.

Tom Waits II
Tom Waits Photo c. 1990

Singer/Songwriter Tom Waits has been a prominent advocate of the accordion in his performances and recordings since the early 1970’s.

C.J. Chenier , the son of Clifton, continues his father’s legacy of Zydeco and the Blues.

 Fast Forward

In the 21st Century, the American accordionist, Cory Pesaturo became known as the most internationally awarded accordionist of all time. Photo c. 2010.


Ben Lovett with Mumford and Sons
2012 Grammy Award for Best Americana album, “Babel”, featuring Ben Lovett on the piano accordion, made Mumford and Sons a household name in North America. Photo c. 2011.
Johnny Kongos IV
Johnny Kongos of KONGOS

Out of the Phoenix Valley rose Arizona’s own homegrown band, KONGOS comprised of 4 brothers raised and educated in Scottsdale, 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 much success and a world wide following.

Bill Haley and the Comets
Bill Haley and the Comets c.1955

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.

Federici and Springsteen
Danny Federici with Bruce Springsteen. Photo c. 2008

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.

Not the end…….