|A French peasant in smock and sabats dances with his wife to an accordion in a rural cafe.|
I’ve heard it called the second most dreaded instrument in the world, after the banjo. But I am partial to the banjo. I admit to having a harder time warming up to the accordion which I associate mostly with amateur musicians in local talent contests, and Polka, a popular form of dance music to which I never took a shrine even though my wife’s father Art Brady and her uncle Al Wilczynski played on Chicago radio in successful Polka bands after World War I.
But I may have been harsh in my judgment. It turns out that the instrument can be versatile and applied to a wide range of musical styles. It also made making music affordable, portable, and easy to learn for the working poor of Europe, many of who participated in one of the great mass migrations in human history.
We can credit—or blame—Cyrill Demian, an Armenian piano and organ maker who was living in Vienna, Austria. On May 23, 1829 he was granted a patent on a new musical instrument that he called the accordion. In his application papers he described it thusly:
Its appearance essentially consists of a little box with feathers of metal plates and bellows fixed to it, in such a way that it can easily be carried, and therefore traveling visitors to the country will appreciate the instrument….It is possible to perform marches, arias, melodies, even by an amateur of music with little practice, and to play the loveliest and most pleasant chords of 3, 4, 5 etc. voices after instruction.
Demian was not the first one to tinker with a portable instrument using free reeds which produce sound as air flows past them vibrating the reed in a frame. Nor was he the first to use a bellows device to produce the airflow rather than direct wind from blowing in a tube or from air pushed from mouth-inflated bags. Some Russian instrument makers have employed bellows boxes as early as 1820. Christian Friedrich Buschmann is often credited with building the first such instrument in Berlin in 1822.
But it was Demian who obtained a patent and who went into commercial production on at least a modest scale. The left hand on the bellows box could press buttons regulating air flow over the reeds. An entire chord could be produced by depressing a single key. There were only eight buttons in the model described in the patent, but he noted that more could be easily added. There were no buttons or keys on the right side, the player used the strength of the usually dominant arm to push and pull the bellows. Demian’s instrument was bisonoric—it could produce two different chords with the same key, one for each bellows direction.
Whoever has the best origin claims, the accordion was clearly an instrument whose time had come. Its popularity spread like wildfire, especially in Russia and Eastern Europe, but soon in Italy, Germany, and France as well. It seems like every maker made his “improvements.” Dozens of different button arrangements were designed. Some were unisonic, producing the same notes or chords on the draw or the push. In Eastern and Southern Europe they were tuned to be able to play in minor keys.
By the mid 1830’s tens of thousands were being produced in centers across Europe. They were sold mostly to amateur musicians or to the lowest grade of professional—those who played in cafés and taverns or on the street for tips. The instruments were easy to learn and to become proficient on and perfect for playing by ear. They were also loud and easily heard. Most importantly they could be used to play traditional folk music of all sorts of people. The accordion could assume the voice of a church organ, a violin, various stringed instruments, and horns. And the player was free to sing along. Some played single notes instead of chords so they could be used to play melody, often in combination with other accordions playing chords and harmonies.
Accordions reached London by 1832 where newspapers reviewed public performances poorly. But they rapidly caught on with the public. They were demonstrated in New York City by 1841.
In 1844 English inventor Charles Wheatstone came up with a compact instrument which could play both chords and keyboard and melody in one squeezebox. He called it a concertina. In different forms they became very popular in Italy as well as in the British islands and were favored by sailors who took them around the world.
But it was the political turmoil of the 1848 Revolutions that swept Europe, the Irish Famine, and decade of pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe that gave squeeze boxes of all types’ legs. Refugees and immigrants brought them where ever they went along with the familiar folk songs of home. Many, of course came to the United States.
In the late 1800’s the piano accordion was perfected in Germany. Larger and heavier than most other instruments, the right hand played melody on a piano keyboard of white and black keys while arrays of buttons on the left side played an array of chords in multiple keys. The instrument became popular with professional pianists and organists who felt comfortable on it and who appreciated the musical possibilities it offered. Honer, one of the principle German manufacturers, encouraged this and promoted its piano accordions as concert instruments and began publishing transcriptions of classical music for it.
One result of that was its use in formal ballroom dance styles which were being written by the finest composers in Europe. These included waltzes but especially polkas. This was, at the time, considered a major break from being rooted in folk music styles. The dances, however, especially polkas, became very popular with Poles and Germans, many of whom immigrated to the United States. Semi-trained emigrant and American musicians began writing their own lively Polkas that were far less refined than those played where dashing officers in comic opera uniforms swept the floor with belles in enormous dresses. German immigrants brought these kinds of polkas and accordions to the Rio Grande Valley, where they became the basis of Tex-Mex Music and can be heard in Mariachi.
Eastern European Jews brought their special accordions along with traditional melodies and Klezmer music evolved, eventually incorporating jazz elements. And speaking of jazz, in multicultural New Orleans Black musicians incorporated accordions into their street marching bands and with riffs from Spanish military music and the distinctive Acadian sound of the bayous. Many early jazz bands included accordions.
They began to encroach even on traditional fiddle, guitar, and banjo Appalachian and Southern traditional folk music. Mother Maybelle Carter sometimes played guitar, as did her daughter June. Accordions were incorporated into many bands, even on the supper traditionalist early years of the Grand Ol’ Opry. Even Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys sometimes included an accordionist.
The so-called golden age of American accordion really took off with the huge popularity of Pietro Frosini and the two brothers Count Guido Deiro and Pietro Deiro who performed largely classical repertoire on the American concert and vaudeville stage in the early decades of the 20 Century along with Honer's relentless promotion. Music schools began offering classes and music stores offered the instruments on time. Although not cheap, the instruments were less expensive than pianos or home organs, so parents enrolled their children in classes by the hundreds of thousands well into the 1950. Despite the heavy weight of piano accordions they were especially popular among young women. Accordion ensembles were common. There were even accordion marching bands.
Dance bands like Paul Whitman’s, Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, and, of course, Lawrence Welk featured accordions, but so did more cutting edge Swing bands. In the early years of rock and roll the accordion was alongside the chattering saxophones at the heart of several bands.
But eventually the guitar triumphed as THE instrument of rock and roll, and the extended folk revival drew many young people to abandon the accordion, which was now seen a hopelessly square, in favor six strings. By the early 21st Century it had virtually disappeared from popular music except for novelty acts like Weird Al Yankovic.
Today, partly because they have been out of favor for so long that they have become ironic accordions are reappearing in cutting edge music. They may even become as hip as a little fedora and skinny ties.