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Ten Things You Can Do to Promote the Accordion

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Whether you are a new student of the accordion or you are again getting back to playing it, here are some thoughts as we “advance the cause” of reintroducing the accordion to America. (Please note that I am not creating a list of ‘rules’, but, rather, ‘talking points’. Use what you can, but it’s expected that there may be some point that you don’t agree with, or have found that it works differently for you. This article is protected by copyright and can only be used with my permission.)

1)    Safeguard your instrument.

  • It is expensive and not a toy.
  • It is your property so don’t allow anyone to touch it, put it on and try to play it without your permission.
  • Set your boundaries and stick to them.
  • Treat your accordion like it’s your best friend, your child, or your pet by not leaving it outside in the rain, in a hot car, or alone.
  • On a gig, carry it with you when you take a break.
  • Remember that you are responsible if anything happens to your instrument.

2)    Stand up when you perform so that the audience can see you.

  • You are more likely to interact with them, move more freely, play more expressively, make eye contact and be more entertaining. Seated accordionists have a tendency to look down and away from the audience, which makes the performer seem remote and aloof, and your audience could feel shut out. Your intention should be to ‘engage’ the audience in your performance and establish an emotional connection.
  • If you are unable to stand, perhaps your piano accordion is too heavy for you. You could exercise to build strength or get a smaller or lighter accordion. Accordions built today with new age materials, weigh substantially less than in the past. A disproportionately large accordion can be distracting. It should fit your body, be comfortable and have enough bass keys for you.
  • Perhaps getting more thickly padded shoulder straps for your instrument may help to distribute the weight and may also help If you have shoulder strap slippage.
  • A back strap will keep straps from slipping off of your shoulders, but if you need assistance or must go through some gymnastics to secure it, then it may look like you are having a problem with it. Having someone help you with your back strap, backstage, will mean that you will be walking onto the stage with your accordion already on. You may not be able to see equipment and electrical lying around and could trip and fall. And that may be a problem.
  • If you ask yourself, “What do other musicians do?”, the answer is:  they walk confidently onto the stage, put their instrument on, perform while standing, then easily remove their instrument and leave the stage when finished. Just as any professional musician would do with any instrument, you should strive to do the same with your accordion, without any problem. 

Jenny Conlee II

Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists

3)    Practice with a purpose. There is much to be said about how to practice.

  • Practice systematically every day for an hour.
  • No matter what type of instrument you have, practice the bass section of your accordion. Other musicians don’t ignore half of their instrument!  Knowing the bass is essential to give your music dimension and depth, so, know them and don’t be afraid to use them.
  • Practice your bellows action so it is as smooth as possible. Work with your accordion teacher on phrasing, or when to inhale, and exhale (much like a singer does) with the bellows.
  • Have a list of songs, about 6 at a time. Systematically play each, one after the other, every day for a week. At the end of the week, the best one drops off (assuming you know the piece well enough) and is put on a different list of songs that you already know. At some point, perhaps once per week you will revisit those songs and refresh your memory.  Another song that you plan to learn is placed on your practice list, to replace the song that you removed from the list. This system will guarantee that you are always working on new songs, yet not forgetting the songs that you took time to learn. Or come up with your own system.  It’s all about managing your time and effort, and you shouldn’t waste either.
  • Work with a metronome to check that your speed and timing are consistent.
  • Practice your performance by beginning with a quick introduction, getting into the piece quickly, taking your time with it to play it well, then end it smoothly. Why do you need an introduction? So you can settle into the song and draw the listener in. It gives you a chance to get the right tempo and reminds you if you are in the right key.
  • The piece should be arranged and appropriate for the accordion, for you and for the setting.
  • Do not just “wing it”. Put a great deal of thought and care into how you present yourself. Dress to fit the setting and for your performance. Strive to perform each piece from memory, not sheet music or an Ipad. As a musician, you are not just playing music, you are interpreting it and giving a performance.
  • Time each piece so you know how long you will need for your performance. Really great performers spend copious amounts of time on preparation, so that it is second nature after awhile.

4)  Choose music that is special. Song choice is important to your audience and affects their perception of you.

  • Don’t feel you have to “play everything”, then perform passably or even badly; or comply with requests to “play a polka” if you are unwilling to learn to play them well–they are a very demanding genre.
  • Choose a musical genre that you love, dedicate yourself to those songs, and get proficient at playing that type of music. Develop a clearly thought out vision with goals and objectives and decide what you are trying to accomplish, as a musician. Depending on that vision, selecting from multiple genres might be a good objective. Whatever you decide to do is up to you.
  • If you can’t find any songs you care about, compose your own music. Take time to arrange and practice your songs so you can perform them well and subject them to the same care and high standards as you would had they been written by a well-known composer.

5)    Be sensitive to how the accordion is presented to others.

  • By not being well presented, any musical instrument can be annoying. Getting together with fifteen other accordionists (or fifteen of any one instrument, for that matter) is fine if you have a club and want to share ideas. But, please recognize that more than two at a time in public, especially in unison, is too intense for most audiences. To those maniacs that think it is fun, as a group, to use accordions to assault diners with obnoxious performances, I am sure that these events are counterproductive. This approach does not teach people to care about the accordion. In fact, it’s easy to predict that a negative impression of this instrument will be formed or reinforced by such shenanigans.

gang of accordion players

  • Referring to it as a “squeezebox” is inaccurate because the accordion is a musical instrument, not a silly noisemaker.
  • By using the accordion as a prop or as a lame joke, the image of the accordion is seriously diminished.

accordion cartoon

Accordion sign

Welcome to Heaven 001

 Substitute ‘guitar’ for ‘accordion’, and suddenly it’s not funny.

  • This doesn’t imply you can’t strive to be humorous and entertaining. But, take the accordion or whatever instrument you play, seriously, and have some respect for your time and effort.   Think of it this way: if you owned a business and produced a product for sale, it would be a bad business strategy to teach people that your product was a joke. People will not buy your product.  If you are a musician/singer/songwriter,  you want your audience to “buy” into your music, support you and respect you. They won’t if you treat yourself and your instrument as though it is a joke. If you are making fun of the accordion, you are not promoting it, effectively. Perception begins with you because you are the one in control at that moment. Reach higher, and set grander goals for yourself as an artist. Sell your audience on the concept that you are special and  have something special to show them on an instrument that is special. But, before you can accomplish that objective, you have to believe it, yourself.
220px-CharlieGillingham

Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows

  • Know who you are and who your audience will be. The more you understand, the better you can anticipate and plan your performance.
    •By showing pride in yourself, your performance and your instrument of choice, your audience will respect you and recognize that you care about them.

Tink Lloyd

Tink Lloyd of the Grand Slambovian’s Circus of Dreams

6)    Try to mainstream the accordion by starting a band where the accordion isn’t the usual instrument and you are the only accordionist in the group.

  • It can be an unexpected delight to both the audience and to the other musicians in the group.
  • By treating the accordion as though it’s just like any other instrument, ironically, enhances how special and how cool it is. This, more than anything else, promotes the accordion.
  • Here is an exquisite song, Silver Line  by Americana Singer/Songwriter Ray Tarantino, accompanied, beautifully, by Joe First, Accordionist:

  • To be a good accordionist, you don’t have to be the fastest or the loudest player, although that may be a part of what you do. But, keep in mind that music is not an athletic event, and musicians are artists.
  • A good musician is one who is sensitive and knows when to alternate between using restraint and showmanship, when to blend in and when to stand out.
  • A musician is always attempting to emotionally connect with the listener and also to make any artistic judgement as to what the music needs at that moment.

7)    Find your voice! 

  • Sing with the accordion, and learn harmony. Singing with the accordion is seen more now than in the recent past. Sheryl Crow gave a fantastic performance accompanying herself with the accordion, when she sang her hit song, “Strong Enough”.

Although she does nothing with the bass section of her instrument, what I particularly love about Sheryl Crowe’s method of playing is that she is a ‘partner’ with her accordion, harmonizing with it and giving it equal time to be heard along with her voice. She could have simply left the accordion in the background, blandly structuring chords to support her voice. Instead, she chose to use a more dynamic approach, which gives her song fullness and warmth and it allows the accordion to have a real presence in her music.

Mewithoutyou Aaron Weiss

Aaron Weiss of Mewithoutyou

8)    Be visible.

  • Leave your comfort zone and go out and busk! “Busking” is giving a live performance in a public place. You should check with your city about any ordinances that prohibit busking and where it is permitted. If you get out of your comfort zone you will become more comfortable, confident and perform better each time.
  • Live performance is a great way to “test market” your sound, your songs, your image and your ability to relate to an audience. It gives you a chance to assess their reaction to you and what you do. It also helps you to get over your apprehension about appearing in front of others. After a very short while, you are “over it”. You realize that nothing bad will happen to you. People may laugh….but, guess what? You haven’t melted and run away.
  • To those that try to heckle you with their demands because they think they can, just smile, and ignore them (or if they cross your boundaries, either call the police or call it a day.) Performing helps you “build a backbone”, develop patience and character and helps you to learn who you are as a creative individual. Joey Cook busked with her accordion for quite some time before trying out for American Idol in 2015, as a vocalist, rising to be one the top seven finalists! Good for you, Joey!
Joey Cook

Joey Cook

  • Look for opportunities to perform in front of others. Some hospitals and nursing facilities look for live performers to entertain their patients. Seniors at your local Senior Center may enjoy a performance from you.
  • Join a musical “meet up” group where there are people who play a variety of musical instruments.
  • Take advantage of “open mic” nights that are locally held at restaurants, coffee shops and theatres in your area.
  • Listen to others as well as perform.  Look for those who are positive, empowering and who enjoy being creative with their music and performance. Good people generate good energy and they can get everyone excited about being there.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for inspiration or collaboration. Also, competition can be interesting. When two collaborate on a song, one can challenge the other to solo to see what you both can create, individually.
  • If available, there is nothing better than an old-fashioned talent contest that will require one to focus and rise to the challenge.
  • In addition to hiring an accordion teacher, take a class about performance to enhance your professionalism.
  • Even if you don’t become a professional entertainer or musician, what you learn by being visible is “portable” and can be transferred to other pursuits in your life. It can make you a stronger person and less likely to feel intimidated by uncertainty or by others.

Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby

9)    Never give up.

  • If something does not work for you on the accordion, revisit and find out what or how it can work on this instrument. It may be the smallest of details that you haven’t considered that might be bogging you down.
  • Ask your accordion teacher or other musicians for their opinion about your song choice and delivery and how you may improve on your instrument.
  • Listen to others that are more experienced than you are.
  • Model yourself after someone you admire. Your idol doesn’t need to be an accordion player. Art Van Damme, the great Jazz accordionist, admired Benny Goodman, the big band leader and clarinetist. Art successfully learned Goodman’s techniques and applied them to the accordion.
  • Do not listen to anyone who recommends that you change to another instrument. They are not well-intended and do not have your interests at heart.
JoAnne Castle

Jo Ann Castle c. 1957 .

10)   Pass on your knowledge to other people.

  • Try to engage their interest by showing them a different kind of music than has been associated with this instrument. The accordion was removed from mainstream American music at a critical time in pop music history. Someone decided that the accordion should not be involved with American music , when it really could have been. As a result, it was left out of the music scene for decades.
  • For performing accordionists that seek publicity, keep in mind that information control is everything. What is said or written about you and your efforts instantly forms an image and an opinion in the minds of the public. It can get people motivated to come out and hear you play. That’s the point of publicity. Or it can completely turn them off, so that they simply stay home. Don’t allow anyone to define you or your music, or your instrument of choice because they don’t know any better. So, to protect yourself, don’t make any reference to accordion humor, any mention of a certain big band leader who was an accordion player from long ago , the word “polka” unless they are your specialty, or any language that is detrimental. Move the writer forward and away from the stupid accordion jokes, and the distant past of the accordion. All of these are a waste of your time and a ‘road to nowhere’ for you. Tell them what you expect them to say about you by providing a bio that outlines interesting facts that will help them find an angle for your write up. Insist that they focus on your music, your tour and you as an artist.  You deserve the best publicity that you can get, so be involved and be prepared to established the ground rules. If you aren’t sure, write your own promotional material.
  • If you are living in America, doesn’t it make sense to promote the music that is rooted in America, and not just play the music of the rest of the world? By the way, those folks perform their own music, brilliantly. Like us, their music represents who they are as a people and has evolved from their shared experience. It is their identity. They have lived it, and they own it. But, after four hundred years, America has developed its own identity, and surrounding us is music that reflects that fact.

  • People in the U.S. don’t seem to realize that the accordion is not new to American music. It has been a part of our pioneer experience and has been in America since the mid 1800’s. It has been played, not only in the mountains and the bayous, but by folks in the city and in the country, on the prairie and in the desert, for a long, long time. It was played solo and with orchestras, at weddings, dances and social gatherings for over 150 years. Because it was portable, the accordion was used when pianos and organs were too heavy or delicate to transport. Accordions continued to participate throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st, along with pianos and organs, fiddles and guitars. It was used in the early Blues, the Boogie Woogie, Gospel and every American genre of music. The accordion is a critical piece of our music history and we should be proud of that connection, celebrate it and hold the accordion in high regard because of it.

  • But, the accordion must participate in current music to survive. So, please, take your accordion–whatever type you prefer– go and find your audience, and make the most out of any opportunity!

List of Bands that Feature the Accordion

Punk’s 10 Best Accordion Players: A Tribute to accordion Rockers
Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 12:18 PM (PST) by connor_maoil

The sound of the accordion is, in my opinion, one of the best, weirdest, and most unique additions to the punk genre. For most it’s easy to see the instrument as nothing more than a novelty but the truth is there are a lot of very talented musicians whose squeezebox skills can’t be overlooked as a gimmick. As an aspiring punk rock accordionist myself, I wanted to spotlight some of the best in the field.

Check out the list here.

10. (Honorary mention): Eugene Hutz (Gogol Bordello)

Things might have ended up differently for the gypsy troubadour Eugene Hutz if he stuck with his attempt at learning the accordion. In a video interview, Hutz jokes about the difficulties he had trying to learn the instrument:

“Learning the accordion was just impossible. Have you ever tried an accordion? It’s insane. It’s f*cking nuts man, it’s like, to play accordion you must have your brain wired differently. I worship people who can play accordion. I tried for 2 years and ended up withminor scoliosis and, anxiety problem. And that’s when I picked up [guitar].

9. Eric Melvin (NOFX)

While the accordion is rarely up front in the ranks of NOFX, founding guitarist Eric Melvin busts out his giant squeezebox to time to time to please the crowds. Wailing minor waltzes about sleepless nights, Melvin really puts a lot of character into the instrument

I, Melvin

8. Katie McConnell (The Mahones)

I’ve gotta admit that I’ve had a crush on this punk for a long time. McConnell really does a great job of bringing the punk style and hardcore energy to the accordion. Her style of playing seems to draw a good deal of inspiration from The Pogues (above). Seeing any performance by her with The Mahones is an awesome experience that I highly recommend to any lover of celtic punk. Watch for them in your town!

“A Great Night On The Lash” (from “The Black Irish,” 2011, True North Records)

7. Marc Orrell (Dropkick Murphys, 2000-2008)

He’s the one who brought you Shipping Up To Boston. Enough said?

6. Tim Brennan (Dropkick Murphys, 2003-present)

The current recording and touring multi-instrumentalist Tim Brennan has continued to make the accordion a more part of the band’s staple sound.

The Hardest Mile (off 2011′s Going Out In Style)

5. James Fearnley (The Pogues)

One of the pioneers of the punk accordion, James Fearnley, the original and current member of The Pogues, was originally a guitar player. According to Fearnley’s memoir, “Here Comes Everybody: The Story Of The Pogues,” founding banjo member Jem Finer, desperately seeking an accordion for his new band, showed up at Fearnley’s flat with an accordion in a laundry bag and persuaded him to try and learn the instrument.

“Turkish Song Of The Damned“ (from “If I Should Fall From Grace Of God,” 1988, Island Records)

4. Seamus O’Flanahan (The Dreadnoughts)

I’ll just let Seamus speak for himself. (Off “Polka’s Not Dead”, 2010)

3. Matt Hensley (Flogging Molly)

Hensley, a former skateboarder, picked up accordion from guitar like so many others on this list. In addition to skillfully adding to the work of Flogging Molly with his accordion, Hensley is also frequently featured on the concertina and more traditional Irish diatonic button accordion. That’s the kind of thing that tends to really impress the geeky accordion junkies.

“Tomorrow Comes A Day Too Soon” (from “Within A Mile Of Home,” 2004, SideOneDummy)

2. Yuri Lemeshev (Gogol Bordello)

Although not a founding member of the New York gypsy punk band, Yuri Lemeshev has been a vital part of the band for over a decade. Hailing from Russia, Lemeshev has to be one of the most technically skilled members of the scene. And not only can he knock down tunes masterfully, he can also move around and have a good ol’ punk time on stage while doing it.

“Supertheory Of Supereverything” (from “Super Taranta!”, 2007, SidOneDummy)

1. Franz Nicolay (World/Inferno Friendship Society)

In addition to that moustache, Franz Nicolay brings in the background of a converted rock piano player (most notably in The Hold Steady) and has spread the use of the accordion all over the genre. Nicolay probably has the most impressive resume of them all; in addition to being a former longtime member of the punk circus collective World/Inferno Friendship Society and his own collective Anti-Social Music, Nicolay has recorded and toured with the likes of Against Me!, Leftover Crack, The Dresden Dolls, The Loved Ones, and Mischief Brew. Check out a complete list of his recording and producer credits over here.

“Your Younger Man” (from “Red Eyed Soul,” 2006)

Had enough yet? If not, check out some up-and-coming bands featuring the accordion.

The First Chairs (ska)

Roughneck Riot (celtic punk)

Larry And His Flask (cow punk)

The Real Mckenzies (celtic punk)

Mad Caddies (ska/swing punk)

The Mighty Regis (celtic punk)

Crash Nomada (gypsy punk)

Joey Briggs (solo from The Briggs)

Ramshackle Glory (folk punk)

Feudalism (folk punk)

Lucero (cow punk)

This is a list of articles describing popular music acts that incorporate the accordion.

Band or musician Accordionist Style
Agalloch  ? Folk metal, doom metal, black metal, neofolk, post-rock
Arcade Fire Régine Chassagne
Richard Reed Parry[1]
Indie rock
The Band Garth Hudson Americana
Beirut Perrin Cloutier Combines elements of Eastern European and folk sounds
Calexico Martin Wenk Rock
Counting Crows Charlie Gillingham Rock
The Decemberists Jenny Conlee Folk rock
Deep Forest Michel Sanchez Combines electronic beats with world music
Del Amitri Andy Alston Rock
Detektivbyrån Anders Flanders Combination of electronica, folk and French pop
DeVotchKa Tom Hagerman Indie rock
The Dropkick Murphys Tim Brennan Celtic punk
The E Street Band Danny Federici
Charles Giordano
Rock
Equilibrium  ? Viking metal, folk metal, symphonic black metal
Finntroll  ? Folk metal, black metal, humppa
Flogging Molly Matt Hensley[2] Celtic punk
Folkearth  ? Viking metal, folk metal, black metal
Gogol Bordello Yuri Lemeshev Gypsy punk
Gotan Project Nini Flores Tango, Electronic
Great Big Sea Bob Hallett Traditional Newfoundland folk and rock
Green Day Tré Cool Punk rock
The Hooters Rob Hyman Rock
Jason Webley Self Combination of traditional music, romani music, punk
John Mellencamp  ? Rock. Has included the accordion in most of his music since 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee.
Julieta Venegas Self Latin pop
Jump, Little Children Matthew Bivins Combines Irish influences with an alternative rock sound
Katzenjammer  ? Pop
Korpiklaani Juho Kauppinen Folk metal
Lemon Demon Neil Cicierega Indie rock
Mägo de Oz Sergio Cisneros Folk metal, folk rock
MewithoutYou Aaron Weiss Alternative Rock
Moonsorrow Henri Sorvali Folk metal
Motion Trio (Accordion Trio) Collaborations with other artists (such as Bobby McFerrin and Michał Urbaniak)
The Pogues James Fearnley Irish punk, pub music
Skyforger  ? Folk metal, black metal
Silvestre Dangond Juancho De la Espriella Vallentos, Modern and very popular Colombian music
Sound Horizon Revo Combination of many genres, ranging from heavy metal to classical
Stolen Babies Dominique Lenore Persi Avant-garde metal
Styx Dennis DeYoung Hard rock, progressive rock
Svartsot Hans-Jørgen Martinus Hansen Folk metal, Viking metal
That Handsome Devil Jeremy Page and Andy Bauer Alternative rock, alternative hip hop
They Might Be Giants John Linnell Alternative rock
Tiger Lillies Martyn Jacques Brechtian and gypsy cabaret
Tom Waits  ? Jazz, rock, blues, folk, experimental
Tosca Tango Orchestra Glover Gil Nuevo tango, classical music
Turisas Janne Mäkinen Folk metal, Viking metal
The Twilight Sad Andy MacFarlane Scottish folk rock, indie rock
Vitas Vitas (studio), ? (live) Eclectic Russian pop
“Weird Al” Yankovic Self Parody music
Windir Valfar Folk metal, Viking metal, black metal
The World/Inferno Friendship Society Franz Nicolay[3] Cabaret punk

Ten Best Accordion Rock and Roll songs

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/accordion-songs/


A History of Blues Accordion

ACCORDION

The accordion reached its peak popularity with African American musicians between the end of Reconstruction (1865-1877) and the early twentieth century. Clarence Tross, a West Virginian musician, reported that it was ”mostly the colored man” playing accordions in that period, and a contemporary from coastal Virginia remembered that accordions were ”the only kind of music we had back then.” In Mississippi, some of the earliest ensembles playing blues used accordions, and one accordionist, Walter ”Pat” Rhodes, was among the earliest Delta blues singers to make records.
As the first mass-produced instrument marketed to rural blacks, the accordion served as the precursor to the mass marketing of guitars that fueled the growth of rural blues. Even so, few early blues musicians played accordions and by the mid-1930s a number of factors combined to bring about the demise of its use in almost any popular black music. With the emergence of zydeco—the blues-influenced music of the French-speaking African American population of southwest Louisiana—in the late 1950s a new bluesy accordion sound emerged. Zydeco showcased accordion virtuosity the way blues bands featured the electric guitar. In the hands of master accordionist Clifton Chenier, the accordion achieved unprecedented credibility as a blues instrument.
Types of Accordions
Two types of accordions concern us here: the diatonic button accordion and the piano accordion. All accordions are two rectangular boxes connected by a bellows with the melody notes on the right side and the accompaniment chords on the left side. As the name implies, the button accordion has buttons for both melody and accompaniment. The diatonic scale is the same scale found on the single-key harmonicas (such as the Marine Band) commonly played by blues harpists. Like the slots on those harmonicas, each button on the accordion produces a different tone depending on whether the bellows are pushed or pulled. The original design was for a single row in a single key, but later models featured two and three rows in related keys allowing the accordionist to play in multiple keys. The accompaniment may have as few as two buttons or up to twenty-four in various configurations. This single-row design is the model still popular with the Cajuns of southwest Louisiana.
Diatonic accordions dominated sales to the general populace from the 1840s to 1925 when sales of the piano accordion began to dominate. This instrument offered several immediate advantages over the button accordion. First, the piano keyboard offered a full chromatic scale that sounded the same note regardless of the bellows direction. secondly, the accompaniment provided up to 128 buttons arranged in bass-chord combinations to allow playing of almost any chord progression. The button accordion was reduced to a niche instrument while the piano accordion became wildly popular in America and remained so until the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.
Pre-Blues Usage
One of the earliest photographic images of an American accordionist is a daguerreotype from 1850 of a black man from a southeast Louisiana plantation playing a button accordion. The slave narratives collected by the works Progress Administration in the 1930s contain recollections of accordions being played as accompaniment for dancing. The largest concentration of accordion players occurred in the post-Civil War period, a time referred to as Reconstruction (1865-1877). The newly emancipated slaves purchased instruments with their own earnings and they seem to have bought accordions in significant numbers. Accordions were cheap, lightweight, durable, loud, and provided built-in accompaniment.
Mississippi Blues
In Mississippi, older relatives of Big Joe Williams, K. C. Douglas, Jim Brewer, Eli Owens, and Henry Townsend all played accordion. Two of the most important Mississippi accordionists were Homer Lewis and Walter ”Pat” Rhodes. Lewis performed with blues guitarist Charley Patton at Dockery’s plantation in the early part of the twentieth century in an ensemble made up of one or two guitarists, Lewis, and a fiddler. It was likely a popular sound—Rhodes, a street singer from nearby Cleveland, regularly played in an ensemble with similar instrumentation. In 1927 he became the first Sunflower County musician to record. His recording of ”Crowing Rooster Blues” accompanied by Richard ”Hacksaw” and Mylon Harney on guitars precedes Patton’s own more famous recording of ”Banty Rooster Blues” by two years. This record, backed with ”Leaving Home Blues,” is the only commercial blues recording in English that used the accordion until the emergence of zydeco. Folklorist John Lomax did record another Mississippi accordionist in 1937 for the Library of Congress. Blind Jesse Harris sang ballads and reels for the most part, but did perform a memorable version of the popular blues tune ”Sun Gonna Shine in My Door Someday.”
Both the Harris and Rhodes recordings show how hard it is to play blues on the diatonic button accordion. The instrument is incapable of playing many of the slides, glissandos, and flatted notes that are dominant features of blues music. Both men stop playing while they sing and play simple melodic lines using only bellows shakes to emulate the vocal line. These shortcomings made it easy for a number of musicians who started on the accordion to decide to switch to guitar as soon as one became available. Some of those young musicians included Big Joe Williams, Blind Willie McTell, and McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. Huddie Ledbetter or ”Leadbelly” was born in 1885 in the far northwest corner of Louisiana where he learned to play the button accordion for the local dances called ”Sukey Jumps” with the older musicians in the area. As a young adult he switched to the twelve-string guitar, but continued to play the accordion, eventually recording four tunes on it for various small New York record companies in the early 1940s.
Amede Ardoin and Creole Blues
A unique blues accordion tradition, unrelated to the northwest Louisiana style played by Leadbelly, developed in southwest Louisiana among the French-speaking people of African descent. Their music synthesized elements of the French Caribbean, Cajun, American Indian, French, and African (Wolof and Bambara) cultures. The music of English-speaking African Americans made a relatively late entrance into this mix. For example, accordionist Sidney Babineaux recalled first hearing the blues on a Bessie Smith record in the late 1920s. Blues were considered risque and crude and were banned from Creole dances. Still the most influential musician of the period, Amede Ardoin, recorded a handful of ”blues” songs. These did not follow the chord structure common to the twelve-bar format, but instead followed the harmonic pattern caused by the left-hand accompaniment of the accordion. Ardoin played his blues in the ”cross position” that blues harmonica players commonly use and this caused the instrument’s standard accompaniment to be reversed. Accordionists cannot play the critical fifth chord; they can merely imply it, leaving the blues with an unresolved feel.
Ardoin’s blues conceded structure to this harmonic reality, but not to the spirit ofthe blues. His vocals are blues inflected, full of flatted thirds and sevenths and the slurs and glissandos associated with the best Delta blues singing. His most distinct blues records include ”Blues de Basile,” ”Les Blues de Voyage,” and ”Les Blues de Crowley.” Ardoin’s playing career ended in late 1930s when he was beat up by a group of white patrons at a dance, run over, and left for dead. The incident caused Ardoin to lose his mind and led to his eventual commitment to a Louisiana asylum for the insane where he eventually died. His two steps and waltzes are still performed by both Cajuns and Creoles, but it is his blues in particular that influenced zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier.
Zydeco
Ardoin’s final recordings made in December 1934 were the last by a Creole musician until 1954. During this undocumented period, musical influences from the greater English-speaking African American culture became more important in Creole music. Blues, which had often been taboo even in Ardoin’s time, became an integral part of the repertoire of younger Creoles. The ”rub board” or ”frattoir” became the standard for accompaniment of the accordion and accordionists began to favor multiple-row accordions. In 1954 a Lake Charles appliance dealer named Eddie Shuler recorded one of these younger accordionists, Boozoo Chavis. Shuler recruited Houston-based bandleader Classie Ballou to accompany Chavis and the resulting record, ”Paper in My Shoe,” became a huge regional hit. Chavis’s success gave a visibility to this new music outside of the French-speaking community. The success of Paper in My shoe” was partially responsible for getting Clifton Chenier signed by Specialty Records in 1955.
Clifton Chenier
Clifton Chenier has the distinction of being the first Creole musician to master the piano accordion. With a full four-octave piano keyboard, Chenier could emulate the licks of any blues pianist, but the bellows-driven free reeds created a much more nuanced, vocal quality similar to that of blues harpists. Chenier also used the full 128 accompaniment buttons to approximate the left hand of boogie-woogie and blues pianists. His recordings for Specialty Records such as ”Boppin’ the Rock” and ”All the Things I Did for You” display the masterful blues playing that garnered him a large regional audience throughout the Gulf Coast.
While other Creole musicians remained local or, like Chavis, retired, Chenier embarked on endless touring, both nationally and internationally, and slowly developed a following for his style, which was now labeled zydeco. The name derived from the title of a traditional Creole dance Les Haricots Sont Pas Sale” ( The Snap Beans Are Not Salty”) cut to a phonetic spelling of the Creole pronunciation of haricots (snap beans). Chenier, billed as the ”King of Zydeco,” scored his largest regional hits with his blues tunes: Louisiana Blues,” Black Gal,” and Black Snake Blues.” As a national presence, he performed at venues that commonly presented blues performers, which created a large crossover audience for zydeco. For Americans he presented a completely new image of the accordion as a soulful instrument that contrasted greatly with their preconceptions of saccharine sweet accordion music that were drawn from Lawrence Welk’s popular TV show.
Chenier’s talent combined with tireless touring and consistent recordings brought zydeco a national popularity that allowed other zydeco performers to follow on the path that he had blazed. This included Chavis, who returned from retirement to have enormous success with his own more rural version of the music. Still Chenier remained the King until his death in 1987. His legacy is heard in the playing of his son, C. J. Chenier; Stanley Dural, aka Buckwheat Zydeco,” his former organist; and Nathan Williams. All play piano accordion in a blues style that owes greatly to Chenier. The success of zydeco and quality of Chenier’s blues performances have inspired many to pick up the accordion and will continue to inspire more.
Bibliography
Savoy, Ann Allen. Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People. Vol. 1. Eunice, LA: Bluebird Press, 1984.
Snyder, Jared. ”Boozoo Chavis, His Own Kind of Zydeco Man.” Sing Out! 44, no. 1 (Fall 1999): 3441.
___. ”Breeze in the Carolinas: The African American Accordionists of the Upper South.” The Free-Reed Journal 3 (Fall 2001): 19-45.
___.”Leadbelly and His Windjammer: Examining the African American Button Accordion Tradition.” American Music 12 (1994): 148-166.
___. ”The Legacy of the Afro-Mississippi Accordionists.” Black Music Research Journal 17, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 37-58.
Tisserand, Michael. The Kingdom of Zydeco. New York: Arcade Press, 1998.
Discography
Virginia Traditions: Non-Blues Secular Music (1978, Blue Ridge Institute BRI 001). (This recording includes non-blues accordion by Isaac ”Boo” Curry and Clarence Waddy.)
Ardoin, Amede
Amede Ardoin: Pioneer of Louisiana French Blues 1930-1934 (1995, Arhoolie Folklyric 7007).
Chavis, Boozoo
Refer to The Kingdom of Zydeco and Boozoo Chavis, His Own Kind of Zydeco Man for a more complete discography. The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb (1990, Rounder 2097). (Contains some of his earliest hits.)
Chenier, Clifton
Refer to Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People for a more complete discography. Some of his earliest recordings and greatest hits include the following: Bayou Blues (1970, Specialty Records SPCD-2139-2). Zydeco, Volume One: The Early Years (1989, Arhoolie Folklyric CD-307).
60 Minutes with the King of Zydeco (1994, Arhoolie Folk-lyric CD-301).
Harris, Blind Jesse
”Sun Gonna Shine in My Door Some Day.” LC-1331-A-1. Reissued on Field Recordings, Volume 4, Mississippi & Alabama 1934-1942 (1998, Document DOCD-5578).
Leadbelly
Each of Leadbelly’s accordion pieces are on different records:
A Leadbelly Memorial Volume, Volume II (1963, Stinson Records SLP 19).
Take This Hammer (1968, Folkways FTS 31019).
Global Accordion: Early Recordings (2001, Wergo SM 1623).
Rhodes, Walter “Pat”
“The Crowing Rooster” (Columbia 14289-D). Leaving Home Blues (Columbia 14289-D).

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Clifton Chenier, Louisiana Blues Accordionist

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifton_Chenier