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…
in the northern states and Canadian provinces….
the accordion thrived…
it 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.
Creole musicians were very well schooled in music and provided entertainment at elite “house concerts” and elegant parties in Louisiana.
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.
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, into a completely different, unisonoric musical instrument. The piano keyboard was added as was the innovative Stradella bass section which used preset chords.
The accordion grew larger, but the changes empowered players of other types of keyboards to find it easier and faster to learn the instrument.
The piano accordion was played by artists who were immigrants….
….And it was played by artists who were sons and daughters of immigrants
The accordion was popular in live stage productions in Vaudeville
The accordion was heard in early recordings of Gospel, Blues and Boogie Woogie………
The Death of Amede Ardoin
In the transitional years from the Great Depression forward 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 services. Because of this, the piano accordion was suddenly deemed respectable and “pent up demand” fed the market for instrument sales and lessons.
The accordion, with Anita Carter, was used by Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, in what would have been strictly a “string band” in previous years.
The first woman to play Bluegrass, professionally, was an accordion player….
Pee Wee King reinvented what was known as “Hillbilly Music”, founding 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.
The piano accordion became synonymous with “class”. The big band dance scene had died off, but small combos in swanky clubs became a new kind of venue.
From that point the “bubble” flattened as demand for the instrument’s sales plummeted to a fraction of what they had been a decade before. All through the 1950’s, the accordion establishment did not trust or support Rock ‘n Roll or any aesthetic associated with the genre. Publishers did not want to pay songwriters for current hit songs to be reformatted for the piano accordion but preferred instead, to push the “same-old, same-old” European style tunes to a changing demographic. As young people advanced in proficiency on the piano accordion, classical music was the promoted path because it was already in the public domain. In fifteen years of post war popularity, this short sighted business plan shifted the identity of the accordion from an American “grass roots” instrument to one perceived as predominantly, a European instrument.
In America in the 1960’s, ‘The Times They Were A-Changing’ and the immigrant’s children had grown up. Americana music was taking them in a different direction and young people were listening and participating. 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. Much of the music of the 1960’s were songs about life and death issues that were impacting young people during that era. They knew that they had a lot to gain or lose and expressed it through their music with a message, sexual tension or an angry protest. The accordion establishment was afraid of it and the musicians who created it. In spite of the long history of the accordion in North America, the establishment felt a sense of ownership and wanted to keep their instrument away from any political or social undercurrent, fearing that it would become associated with rebellion, as the bandoneon had been in Argentina. (Astor Piazzola) They did not cultivate as potential customers, African Americans who could have easily become prominent players of the piano accordion in current music and taken it in their own direction. They did not explore new markets and promote the instrument, for example, to inner city children through churches as they had aggressively and systematically pursued white children and their parents in the suburbs. Women were seen as teachers of the instrument rather than as legitimate players and potential performers, as they had been in the past. With draftable white males defecting, in significant numbers, from the ranks of accordion players in favor of the guitar and other instruments, the accordion establishment was afraid that if they didn’t take control, the future of the piano accordion could be left in the hands of black and women musicians.
Curiously, accordion players never sang with their instrument in that era, which they had freely done in the 1940’s. Young people could not see how the piano accordion could be used to make their music, and found no one inspiring that could play or sing with the instrument their way. The accordion community had insulated itself so well from the times that there was nothing new allowed in, or out and there were no innovative players to emulate. Except for jazz, accordion music was cheesy and watered down, at best. Young people were not only disinterested in playing the accordion, they scorned it. They saw the piano accordion as part of something that they loathed and their strong feelings were transferred to the instrument. This attitude is the very reason for the accordion jokes, the disrespect and the “hairy eyeball” that so many accordion players still encounter. As a result of these tactics, there was a “brain drain”, as energy was taken away from the stylistic evolution of the instrument for decades in America because it was held back. Instead of finding this very expressive instrument worthy and highly regarded as it always had been, talented musicians simply went on their way and found other instruments with which to express their musical vision. The Hammond B3, Hohner Harmonica, saxophone, piano and both electric and acoustic guitar defined the music of the 1960’s,70’s, 80’s….The establishment’s action was to do little to nothing, wait it out and bank on the return to sensibility when the Viet Nam war was over and the music changed, and women were done trying to be men.
As far as the piano accordion was concerned, it was fear that ran the show, In retrospect, the accordion establishment blamed the conservatism of music teachers or that the piano accordion simply “fell out of fashion”. They put the blame for the downturn of the accordion market heavily on the existence of the electric guitar, while in the rest of the world, the accordion actually thrived alongside both the electric and acoustic guitar.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself” Franklin D. Roosevelt
New Orleans is not afraid of the music or the musicians who create it.
That is why it 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.
Without a doubt, The Beatles were the gigantic “elephant in the room” during the 1960’s.
Ernest and Faith Deffner, owners of their newly acquired Titano Accordion Company decided it was time to design a more radical accordion to appeal to the youth culture of America. The Deffners saw a 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 more user friendly for the position of the human hand, thereby allowing faster finger work.
After substantial research and development, the Titano Tiger was rolled out, but, sadly, they decided to choose to endorse the instrument, a spokesman who was a prominent member of the very “same-old, same-old” accordion establishment that loathed youth culture and from whom young people so desperately wanted to escape. After all their fierce determination, the Deffner Team didn’t recognize that by choosing someone who could not relate to American youth, it would be their greatest tactical error and be a “big wet blanket” on their effort to sell their accordion to America’s young musicians. The futuristic vision of Ernest and Faith Deffner was undermined by fear and, as a result, the Titano Tiger didn’t sell and sits today in collections of rare instruments and in museums gathering dust.
But, there were accordionists who existed outside of the establishment.
2012 was the “Comeback Year” for the piano accordion.
The piano accordion continues to participate in Americana music, today.
Not the end…….
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Not many people embrace the accordion, and then abandon their day job. It’s just not done. But, Jason Webley did just that. Maybe it was a reaction, at that time,to his belief that his life was falling apart. Maybe it was a response to a yearning for another place, and another kind of life. Or maybe he just wanted to have fun. But, for whatever reason, Jason took the accordion, and created a radically different life beyond his hometown of Everett, Washington.
In the early 1990’s, while in High School, as musically adventurous people often do, Jason formed a punk band, Moral Minority. Even then, he was a skilled multi-instrumentalist proficient on guitar and other instruments. “We did all of three gigs in our local community…I was in a band with some roommates in college that did two or three gigs. Then, I was in another band that wasn’t exactly a punk band..and we did a ton of gigs and nobody ever noticed us.” In 1996, during his senior year at the University of Washington, while working on the music for a play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, he found an accordion that his parents had purchased at a garage sale, and used it in his performance. That was Jason Webley’s first experience composing for and performing with an accordion.
After college, Jason worked for a small sound company that suddenly went out of business. When his girlfriend left him, he decided to make some changes in his life. He decided that he would travel by bus across the country and busk on street corners and public places with the accordion. He anticipated that it would be over when his money ran out. For two years, Jason managed to support himself as a full time street performer. It was the spring of 1998. He had found his way to the San Francisco Bay Area where he was asked to play at an accordion store in Oakland, CA. That day, he met accordionists, Daniel Ariand and Aaron Seeman. From this chance meeting, the three created an alliance that proved to be the beginning of The Monsters of Accordion Tour, an event that exploded with sold-out performances along the West Coast. Like visionaries often do, Jason Webley captured a devoted following and made a lot of friends along the way.
One of the many friendships that Jason formed was with a performance artist and musician from San Francisco, John Rinaldi. A decade before, Rinaldi found a vintage scrapbook at the bottom of a dumpster. The subject of the book was the late Margaret Rucker Armstrong from Everett, WA. Rinaldi was captivated by the beautifully crafted book filled with photos and news clippings from an earlier era and pages of Margaret’s melancholic poetry she had written as a university student. He kept the book for years, sharing it with friends and showing it to anyone he thought might find it interesting. Rinaldi decided to create a show about Margaret, and at the end of the performance, give the contents, in bits and pieces, away to members of the audience. Before he did that, he created a digitized record of her scrapbook. His friend, Jason Webley, later saw those images of Margaret and her work during his 2011 hiatus from nearly thirteen years of touring. Jason became fascinated by Margaret’s scrapbook and already had some familiarity with her family name, having come from the same town in the state of Washington. He assembled a group of writers and artists and they began to write and perform, to tell Margaret Rucker’s story, capture her spirit and acknowledge her life. In December, 2014, Jason Webley released the album entitled, Margaret, and is currently touring to rave reviews.
Since Jason Webley first bounded up the steps of a Greyhound bus with his garage sale accordion, he has self produced and released five albums, and owns his own record label, Eleven Records. He continues to tour relentlessly, throughout the U. S. and Canada, Europe, Russia and the Ukraine, and Australia. Of his love for Russia, he says that the invitation from Russia was special because it was the first foreign country to ask him to come and perform for them. He visits and performs often, and has since become somewhat of a celebrity in Moscow.
“I love the accordion because it’s a physical instrument. It engages your whole body when you play it. It’s also very handy that it’s incredibly loud and versatile. You can play bass lines, a choral accompaniment, melodies and harmonies, and still have your mouth free to sing and your feet free to stomp.”
The accordion, Jason says, is “versatile and interesting, you can dance and move, but it’s there with you, you’ve got your grip on it, you’re doing something with your hands and you can accompany yourself, you provide the rhythm and the melody”.