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A History of the Accordion in Americana Music

 


CarterSisters_Cover

Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Invented in 1829, the accordion came to be embraced by people in North America early on….

Soon, up in the mountains and down in the bayous….

in big cities and in small towns….

in the country and in the deserts of the West, as well as deep into Mexico,

on the Great Lakes and the Great Plains…

northern states and Canadian provinces….

the accordion thrived, entertained,  delighted, inspired and brought folks together, to dance and sing….

 

Some of the first to become proficient on the accordion were French educated Creoles from the South,  just a few years 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 African American musicians in Louisiana.

Creole musicians were very well schooled in music and provided entertainment at elite house concerts and elegant parties in Louisiana.

historical African American Accordionist

This musician, probably Creole from Louisiana is unknown to us, but from his fine clothing, he may have been well known in 1870

Young people were eager to make some noise with the accordion. Although it was expensive, it was new and it was radical. With its bellows providing the “lung power”, the accordion impressed women, who saw that they could participate and make music with this rather tiny, relatively light weight and very expressive instrument.

Young woman with her accordion c. 1870

As this “steampunk” teen age girl looks directly into the camera, she proudly and defiantly displays her accordion c. 1870

Because it was loud enough for sound to be carried above the “din”, the accordion was heard in music that emanated from front porches, weddings, social gatherings, dances and as entertainment in theaters and taverns for over 150 years..

The piano accordion evolved from the smaller bisonoric diatonic accordion or “button box”, into a completely different, unisonoric musical instrument. It grew larger when the piano keyboard was added along with the innovative Stradella bass section which used preset chords. These changes empowered players of other types of keyboards to more easily 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 studied the accordion in Italy,  immigrated to America and worked in a mine in Oregon.  Photo c.1910

PietroDeiro1920

Guido’s younger brother, Pietro, also studied the accordion. Both were very influential for the spread in popularity of the piano accordion in America, as performers and as music publishers. Photo c. 1920

….And it was played by artists who were sons and daughters of  immigrants

Violaturpeinen

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

The accordion was popular in live stage productions in Vaudeville

Father with Daughters Vaudeville 1920's

A father and daughters act c.1920’s

The accordion was heard in early recordings of Gospel, Blues and Boogie Woogie………

 

Lead Belly c. 1930

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

The Death of Amede Ardoin

amede-ardoin-1075

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 heart breaking event haunted African American musicians who, from that point on, began to shy away from the accordion. Photo c. 1930’s.

 

Through the Great Depression into the war years, the piano accordion was widely used because dances were an important source of entertainment. By the mid 1940’s, so many immigrant Catholics and returning soldiers wanted their children to play the songs of their ancestral homelands on the accordion, that the Roman Catholic Church forgave the instrument its “tavern” reputation and gave it a special status allowing it to be used in church.  Because of this, the piano accordion was suddenly deemed respectable and, like never before, “pent up demand” fed the market for instrument sales and lessons. After World War II, Americans were all working, had more discretionary income and were more likely to be living in cities, towns and suburbs than in the past. To be able to afford musical instruments and lessons became very important to parents as evidence of status, as well as to help their children to become  better students and well rounded individuals.

gang of accordion players

Retro accordion poster II

Some of the roots musicians had, early on, incorporated the accordion into their music. They chose the piano accordion over the diatonic because they wanted to be seen as more “mainstream”.  Anita Carter was the accordion player for Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, in what would have been strictly a “string band” in previous years.

Mother Maybelle, the Carter Sisters with Chet Atkins

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

The first woman to play Bluegrass, professionally, was an accordion player….

Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys II

The first woman to be hired as a professional Bluegrass musician was Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester who performed with and was a member of Bill Munro and his Bluegrass Boys. Photo c. 1947

Pee Wee King reinvented what was known as “Hillbilly Music”, and founded a new genre of music known as “Country & Western” music. His Western Swing Band was the first to wear the spangly “Nudie Suit” that came to be associated with Country music.

Pee Wee King V

Probably the most influential musician in Americana music, Pee Wee King helped to create a new genre of music, Country & Western music, combining the two under “one roof”, in the city of Nashville, Tennessee. He even co-wrote the state song! C & W music was among the first genres that was not inspired by the music of Europe. c. 1948

The piano accordion continued to evolve and became synonymous with “class”. The big band dance scene died after World War II, but small combos in swanky clubs became popular.

Art_VanDamme3

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 until he found himself in the middle of a military draft scandal, disappearing for a week when required to report. Although he did serve honorably in the military, in the press, he was tried and convicted as a “draft dodger” for decades, 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 accordion establishment, those that made the marketing and business decisions for the piano accordion, were a highly conservative group.  They set out to sanitize “their” instrument, to prevent it from being rocked by another scandal. They also determined that it should never be associated with social unrest, as the bandoneon later came to be in Argentina (Astor Piazzolla). Through their own fear,  they effectively began to “starve” their own market.

Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla

Through the 1950’s in “Cold War” America, the accordion establishment did not trust, approve of or support the current music of the day or anyone associated with it. They believed that Rock ‘n Roll was contrary to conservative American values.  As a lot of people during the McCarthy era felt, they feared that “Commies” lurked around every corner and suspected that Folk music was a breeding ground for Communism.

With those excuses, publishers felt justified not to use and pay for current hit songs to be reformatted for the piano accordion. It was cheaper to push the “same-old, same-old” European style tunes to a changing demographic. As young people advanced in proficiency with the piano accordion, classical music was promoted because it was the path of least resistance and was already in the public domain.

In the 1950’s, the piano accordion was a white man’s instrument, but males were also leaving the accordion in favor of other instruments. In response to this, women sought recognition and status among performers but were not even spoken of as legitimate musicians and drifted, instead, into teaching 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. After a short time,  as a condition of her employment, 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 a male accordionist of average proficiency to displace her.

From that point the deflating “bubble” was finally crushed flat as demand for the piano accordion plummeted to a fraction of what had been seen a decade before.

 In the years of post war popularity, the accordion establishment managed to shift the identity of the piano accordion from one of American “grass roots”  to one perceived as  “off shore”. Jazz accordionists found that they had to leave America and travel to Europe to find an audience. Curiously, accordion players stopped singing with their instrument in the 1950’a and 1960’s, which they had freely done in the 1940’s.

In America in the 1960’s, the immigrant’s children had moved on and were protesting and urging “Make Love, Not War”.  The Civil Rights movement had inflamed the cities and the South.  The Viet Nam War and the draft angered America, especially young people. Women were agitating for equality and rights. Music galvanized American youth because they knew that they had a lot to gain or lose. It became their weapon of choice with which to fight back and they were determined that their message, suggestive lyric and angry protest be heard.

The accordion establishment was afraid of it and the musicians and songwriters who created it.

As their market crashed around them and with draft able males defecting from the ranks of accordion players in favor of the guitar and other instruments, the accordion establishment did little to explore new markets for the instrument.  The accordion community had insulated itself so well from the times that there was nothing new allowed in, nor out.

What occurred for the piano accordion was a “brain drain” as creative energy was sucked away from the stylistic evolution of the instrument and refocused on other instruments. Young people could not imagine how the piano accordion could fit into their music because there existed no young innovative players for them to emulate that could have developed the chops to play it.  Young people were not mildly disinterested in the instrument–they loathed and scorned it as it was played in the 1960’s! Their attitude  stuck to the instrument, and is the reason for the “hairy eyeball”  and stupid accordion jokes that so many accordion players are subjected to, today.  Instead of the piano accordion being an option, talented musicians found other instruments with which to express their musical vision. The Hammond B3,  Hohner harmonica, saxophone,acoustic and electronic piano and both electric and acoustic guitar defined the music of the 1960’s,70’s, 80’s, and still do.

In retrospect, the accordion establishment places blame on the conservatism of music teachers or that the piano accordion “fell out of fashion”.  They also blame the invention of the electric guitar for the decline in the accordion market.  They imply that both can’t coexist together, while in the rest of the world, the accordion actually thrived alongside both the electric and acoustic guitars.

New Orleans is not afraid of music or the musicians who create it.  That is why New Orleans is the epicenter for the emergence of major new genres of music.

Zydeco music came out of New Orleans in the 1960’s and it was there that the piano accordion was put to good use by 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, in his landmark 1965 song “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.” The word “zydeco” is popularly associated with the French phrase “les haricots sont pas sales,” or “the snap beans are not salty.”

Without a doubt, The Beatles were the gigantic “elephant in the room” during the 1960’s.

Paul McCartney with Accordion

Paul McCartney’s first instrument was the accordion. He frequently used it as he wrote songs for the Beatles. c 1965

Titano Tiger

The Titano Tiger

Ernest and Faithe Deffner, owners of their newly acquired Titano Accordion Company decided it was time to design a more radical accordion to appeal to the youth of America. The Deffners saw the void in the market in the mid-1960’s and looked at it as their great opportunity. They were bold and right to embark on their idea. 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). The main feature of the instrument was the resurrected slanted keyboard which was ergonomic for the position of the human hand, thereby allowing faster finger work.

Faith and Ernest Deffner

Ernest and Faith Deffner

After substantial research and development, the Titano Tiger was rolled out, but, sadly, the Deffners chose a spokesman to endorse their product who was a prominent member of the very “same-old, same-old” accordion establishment from whom young people so desperately wanted to escape. After all their fierce determination,  the Deffners didn’t recognize that by choosing someone not relateable, it was to be their critical error and a “big wet blanket” on their efforts to sell the Tiger to their target market–America’s youth! The futuristic vision of Ernest and Faithe Deffner was derailed because they were afraid of youth culture and its music.  As a result, young musicians didn’t buy the Titano Tiger, which sits today in collections of rare instruments and in museums gathering dust.

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

 

But, there were accordionists who thrived outside of the establishment.

179.-Garth-Hudson-The-Band-811C_25-copy

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

billy-joel-philadelphia-1978

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

220px-CharlieGillingham

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

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

Regine Chassange shreds on the accordion as a member of Montreal’s Arcade Fire. Photo c. 2000’s

corey-pesaturo-iii

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.

Buxton

Buxton (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff of Mother Jones, Americana Music Awards, Nashville, 2016)

The+Band+Perry

The Band Perry

 

Not the end…….

 

 

 

 

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New England’s Jeremiah McLane: Simply “The Best!”

Jeremiah McLane

Jeremiah McLane

Bio courtesy of jeremiahmclane.com  Jeremiah was raised in a family with deep ties to both its Scottish heritage and its New Hampshire roots. Traditional New England music and dance were a part of his parents and grandparents generations. After an early formation in classical piano, Jeremiah spent his teenage years playing blues and jazz. Following undergraduate studies with jazz legend Gary Peacock, he studied Indonesian Gamelan, West African drumming, and the music of minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. It wasn’t until his mid twenties that Jeremiah began to immerse himself in the world of traditional Celtic and French music, studying accordion with Jimmy Keene and Frederic Paris. He then spent several decades traveling in Europe, doing field research that laid the groundwork for a Master’s degree he received many years later from the New England Conservatory.

Jeremiah McLane and David Surette

Jeremiah McLane and David Surette

In the early 1990s Jeremiah formed two bands: The Clayfoot Strutters and Nightingale. Both bands had strong traditional New England roots and had a deep and lasting impact on the traditional dance scene in New England. In 2003 he formed Le Bon Vent, a sextet specializing in Breton and French music, and as an outgrowth of this ensemble, has formed several duos with individual members including James Falzone, Ruthie Dornfeld and Cristi Catt. Since the early 1990s, Jeremiah has recorded over a dozen CDs with Nightingale, the Clayfoot Strutters, Bob & the Trubadors, Le Bon Vent, with Ruthie Dornfeld. His second solo recording, Smile When You’re Ready, was nominated by National Public Radio in their “favorite picks”, and his fifth release, Hummingbird, with Ruthie Dornfeld, received the French music magazine “Trad Mag” Bravo award, as did his CD Goodnight Marc Chagall with Le Bon Vent. He has composed music for theater and film, including Sam Shepard’s “A Lie Of The Mind”, and been awarded the Ontario Center For The Performing Arts “Meet The Composer” Award, and the Vermont Council On The Arts “Creation Of New Work” grant.

In 2005 Jeremiah started the Floating Bridge Music School, which is devoted to teaching traditional music from the British Isles, Northern Europe, and North America. An adjunct instructor at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, NY, he also teaches at the Summit School of Traditional Music in Montpelier, VT, at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon NH, and at many summer music camps including Ashokan Fiddle & Dance, Augusta Heritage Arts Center, American Festival of Fiddle Tunes, and the Maine Fiddle Camp.

 

Jeremiah and Ruthie

Jeremiah McLane and Ruthie Dornfeld

Interview with Jeremiah McLane onWCAX Tv:

http://www.wcax.com/story/24087130/vermont-composter-and-teacher-jeremiah-mclane-talks-accordion

Jeremiah McLane II

Jeremiah McLane

http://www.jeremiahmclane.com/bands/