Marion Jacobson plays the accordion on the subway. She also holds a degree in music and ethnomusicology from NYU, so she ought to know better! But this paradox is part of the complex psychology of the accordion itself: it has often been viewed as an object of ridicule, yet someone who loves and understands music can cherish its lofty sounds, its déclassé image, and its very American spirit.
European companies vying to produce a musical instrument with a large sound and an orchestral range of chords and tones invented the first accordions in the early 1800s. The “piano accordion” (the subject of Jacobson’s research) is powered by air--hence the “squeeze”--and like many other instruments, it requires great dexterity to play.
One hand runs over the melody keys and the other picks out a myriad combination of chords, while the arms push and pull. The variety of music it produces goes way beyond the sometimes parodied “oompah” sound of standard polka bands. Jacobson demonstrates that the accordion’s initial popularity in Europe and then the US was assured because it could play tunes that were both folk and classical; accordionists drew from a repertoire that everyone knew and enjoyed.
As time passed, however, and the public’s musical tastes grew more sophisticated, the accordion became associated with simple folk, music hall comedy and polka dancing. Jacobson has traced the accordion through several generations of American musical preferences, from Italian immigrant vaudeville stars Guido and Pietro Deiro through the famous and often satirized era of Lawrence Welk and Myron Floren, when accordions were roundly panned for being played by squares. But all along, those squares were keeping the sound alive, and accordionists retained their fan base by doing what they’d always done so well: playing recognizable tunes. In the
Sixties and Seventies, hip musicians who secretly longed to play accordion in rock/pop ensembles dropped the idea when they realized it them look chubby: “A number of former accordion players I interviewed, all of whom happened to be male, indicated that the instrument made them uncomfortable with their onstage profile.”
The current resurgence of enthusiasm for the instrument has come about largely because Tex-Mex, Cajun, Zydeco and Eastern European sounds--all requiring the squeeze-box--are suddenly cool. Charlie Giordano is an exemplar of how the accordion has waged guerilla forays into pop and rock, playing on stage or in studios for such notables as Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper and Roseanne Cash. The author summarizes the “revival” notion warily, however, willing to state only that “different accordion sounds, genres and styles are coming together in new ways, all over the United States.” Zany underground “accordionista” bands like Those Darn Accordions, while engaging in a certain amount of self-mockery, still go a long way towards re-legitimizing the accordion for the common ear. And there are accordion festivals of august standing such as that in Cotati, California; its 2012 lineup includes polka bands, Zydeco, European accordionists, and the now-legendary Dick Contini.
Jacobson has given herself the task of writing a story that is both scholarly and light-hearted, and
she has the talent to make that work. She concludes that though the accordion has struggled to overcome the image of “a middle-aged man in a powder blue suit playing ‘Lady of Spain,’” it seems to be thriving, perhaps as much as it ever did--just on different stages and among different sorts of audiences. In the final analysis, the accordion still survives by push and pull.