A History of the Accordion in Americana Music

Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, Photo by Peggy Marsheck

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, estados and provinces….North to Alaska and West to Hawaii.  For more than 150 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 is 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. 1928 (Accordion Noir)

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 Boogie Woogie………

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/Creole music.  Ardoin died from injuries received by a white racist mob after being invited to perform at an all white dance in Eunice, LA. This horrific crime was heartbreaking, never punished and influenced Creole musicians to withdraw from the diatonic accordion, leaving it to remain the domain of white and Latino musicians until only relatively recently.

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

Helen 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,( with a substitute, Pea Puffinbarger, filling in for Helen Carter on accordion) along with Chet Atkins. Photo c. 1945

 Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, was an accordionist and already a seasoned professional singer, fiddle player and pianist 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 performed, recorded with, toured and was a paid member of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. Photo c. 1947

Pee Wee King elevated and transformed “Hillbilly Music,” into a completely new art form, “Country & Western” music. It evolved from a string based, roots music brought to America by the Scots-Irish who emigrated in large numbers from 1718 to 1750.  Each member of “Pee Wee King’s Western Swing Band” was required to read music, join the musicians union and included as among the most polished 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  changed and 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 featured 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, Texan Pauline Oliveros arrived in San Francisico as a college student. Oliveros was eventually a co-founder of the Center for Contemporary Music and has been noted as being one of the most influential composers and music philosophers of the Twentieth Century. Although obscure to pop, folk and country music fans, she is credited as an early pioneer of electronic music and also as an important influence in contemporary and “new” 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. Artists were targeted and it was preached that their work threatened the morality of America. Some were ruined, others left the country to make a living or left the business.

In September, 1955, a television variety show, hosted by a bandleader/accordion player, became a prime beneficiary of uncertain times. The show promoted an innocuous  “sweet” brand of music and was modeled after a variety show from a previous era. The show was seen as a solution to allow “good” Americans to find comfort and escape from “bad” music, once more. As anticipated, the show was an instant hit and remained on television for decades and still airs in re-runs.  A large segment of America found the show reassuring, but other viewers saw the band leader’s signature piano accordion as the symbol of artistic oppression and backward thinking and even saw it as racist. They developed a negative attitude toward the piano accordion that endured from 1955 until recently.  When most of America chose to move forward musically and culturally, the piano accordion was left behind.

The 1960’s

Clifton Chenier
Meanwhile, Clifton Chenier kept the piano accordion relevant. From New Orleans in the early 1960’s, he introduced “zydeco” music to America. “Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band” scored a hit with their landmark 1965 song “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.”

1965: The Year of the Tiger 

Titano Tiger
A vintage Titano Tiger from 1965

The “Tiger” was produced by the Titano Accordion Company as a ‘last gasp’ attempt to inspire relevancy in the piano accordion with the addition of a slanted keyboard, bright colors and other features. It was hoped that the new look and sound options would set the instrument on a more current path. In 1965, the “Tiger” was a good product with the best intentions behind it. The accordion industry really needed some smart decisions that could help the piano accordion overcome a decade of negative attitude and falling sales.

  But, from 1955 until 1965, the accordion industry ignored the dominance of the youth market, the emergence of women musicians and the influence and popularity of African Americans in the fast-changing worlds of pop and jazz.   Like most mainstream companies, to avoid controversy and remain politically neutral during the Cold War and the Viet Nam war years was seen as the best course for business. Because of this, Titano deliberately chose not to acknowledge folk, blues and jazz musicians who dominated the music industry during the mid and late 1960’s. They were young, usually male, long haired, anti-war and anti-establishment. Many were forward thinking musicians and some were associated with taking drugs. Not all among them were guitar players. Some keyboard players had deep experience with the piano accordion and could have endorsed the “Tiger.” Garth Hudson, for example, keyboardist for “The Band” with Bob Dylan, was a proficient accordionist. Clifton Chenier was very popular as was zydeco music, at that time.  JoAnn Castle would have been a very good choice, but as a woman, she was clearly second class in their eyes to the white male that they quickly chose. Out of fear, instead of any or all of the above, Titano and the accordion industry thought they had made a safe choice to endorse the “Tiger”:  “the one and only” white male accordion player from the variety show who, by then, was in his mid 40’s.  With that mistake,  Titano opted to reinforce the intended market for the well built and radically designed instrument as ultra conservative, over 40, white and male. Ironically, these types did not find the “Tiger” appealing. So, predictably, Titano’s “Tiger” did not sell, production ceased and Titano went out of business.

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

But, the piano accordion was used by influential musicians in the late 1960’s and beyond:

Paul McCartney with Accordion
Paul McCartney‘s first instrument was the piano accordion. He frequently took it with him and used it as he wrote songs for the Beatles. Photo c. 1965
Gary Lewis and the Playboys
Gary Lewis and the Playboys scored a No. 1 hit on the Billboard chart with “This Diamond Ring” with John West on Accordion 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 Jazz accordionist, Cory Pesaturo became known as the most internationally awarded accordionist of all time. Photo c. 2010.


Ben Lovett with Mumford and Sons
Although they are British, the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Americana album, “Babel”, featured Ben Lovett on the piano accordion and 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, 4 brothers born off shore, but raised and educated in Scottsdale, AZ 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…….