The Accordian in the Americas: Klezmer, Polka, Tango, Zydeco, and More!



An invention of the Industrial Revolution, the accordion provided the less affluent with an inexpensive, loud, portable, and durable "one-man-orchestra" capable of producing melody, harmony, and bass all at once. Imported from Europe into the Americas, the accordion with its distinctive sound became a part of the aural landscape for millions of people but proved to be divisive: while the accordion formed an integral part of working-class musical expression, bourgeois ...

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The Accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, Polka, Tango, Zydeco, and More!

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An invention of the Industrial Revolution, the accordion provided the less affluent with an inexpensive, loud, portable, and durable "one-man-orchestra" capable of producing melody, harmony, and bass all at once. Imported from Europe into the Americas, the accordion with its distinctive sound became a part of the aural landscape for millions of people but proved to be divisive: while the accordion formed an integral part of working-class musical expression, bourgeois commentators often derided it as vulgar and tasteless.


This rich collection considers the accordion and its myriad forms, from the concertina, button accordion, and piano accordion familiar in European and North American music to the exotic-sounding South American bandoneón and the sanfoninha. Capturing the instrument's spread and adaptation to many different cultures in North and South America, contributors illuminate how the accordion factored into power struggles over aesthetic values between elites and working-class people who often were members of immigrant and/or marginalized ethnic communities. Specific histories and cultural contexts discussed include the accordion in Brazil, Argentine tango, accordion traditions in Colombia, cross-border accordion culture between Mexico and Texas, Cajun and Creole identity, working-class culture near Lake Superior, the virtuoso Italian-American and Klezmer accordions, Native American dance music, and American avant-garde.


Contributors are María Susana Azzi, Egberto Bermúdez, Mark DeWitt, Joshua Horowitz, Sydney Hutchinson, Marion Jacobson, James P. Leary, Megwen Loveless, Richard March, Cathy Ragland, Helena Simonett, Jared Snyder, Janet L. Sturman, and Christine F. Zinni.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Simonett (Latin American studies, Vanderbilt Univ.; Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders) has edited a comprehensive volume of the accordion's presence and influence in North, Central, and South America. The essays, by different music scholars, seek out the deeper meaning of many people's intense love-hate relationship with the unconventional instrument. Simonett suggests that perhaps it is the cultural identification of the accordion as a folk instrument that sometimes gives it a bad reputation; it is a marker of low art and a fixture in taverns, brothels, and dancehalls. Simonett's compilation is much different from Marion Jacobsen's Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, as it delves deeper into the social aspects of the accordion and covers a wider geographic area. The book is a careful examination of several very different cultures and genres, including not only zydeco and polka but also the little-known music of groups such as the Tohono O'odham, an indigenous people living in southern Arizona. VERDICT Simonett's book is an excellent collection of ethnomusicology scholarship that will be of interest to those who like world music, ethnography, or unusual instruments.—Carolyn M. Schwartz, Westfield State Univ. Lib., MA
From the Publisher
"A fascinating look at the musical culture of the South. . . . Thoroughly Southern, spicy, real, and lots of fun."—Library Journal

"This cultural study of the accordion makes a major contribution to understanding the instrument's important social function within different ethnic cultures. The impressive group of contributors illuminates the importance of studying mass culture and indicates the accordion's enduring significance to many cultural and personal identities."
—Victor R. Greene, author of A Singing Ambivalence: American Immigrants between Old World and New, 1830-1930

 "This book should help lift the accordion's reputation to the place it deserves for its role in music history.  Highly recommended."—Choice

"The Accordion in the Americas offers a history rich in insights drawn from the complex intertwining of society, race and culture in American music-making."—Times Literary Supplement

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252037207
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2012
  • Series: Music in American Life Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Helena Simonett is an assistant professor of Latin American studies, associate director of the Center for Latin American Studies, and adjunct assistant professor in the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders. 

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Read an Excerpt

The Accordion in the Americas

Klezmer, Polka, Tango, Zydeco, and More!


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03720-7

Chapter One

From Old World to New Shores


In his article on immigrant, folk, and regional American musics, Philip Bohlman engages the accordion for commenting on territorial transgressions. The instrument's popular appeal, he holds, was mainly due to its "adaptability and its ability to respond to a wide range of musical demands in the changing cultural contexts" of the New World. Despite its malleability, the accordion remained an emblematic immigrant instrument, a symbol of the working-class people, throughout the twentieth century. Yet the accordion has challenged and transgressed its social associations many times during its relatively short history of nearly two hundred years. During the first decades after its invention in the early 1800s, the accordion was an upper- and middle-class instrument: its buyers were young, urban, affluent, ambitious, fashion conscious, and future oriented—in short, early nineteenth-century "yuppies." Each instrument was meticulously handcrafted, which made the early accordion costlier than a guitar and put it out of reach for the common people. The finest materials were used—polished ebony wood for the frame and delicate kidskin for the bellows. Labor-intense filigree carvings and spangles, inlay, rhinestone, and ivory work decorated these luxury models, created in a process involving hundreds of hours of labor. This first essay briefly traces the history of the accordion from its humble beginnings in the early 1800s to its meteoric rise and consolidation as a truly global instrument.

Although the Viennese organ and piano manufacturer Cyrill Demian was the first to have his new invention patented (1829), numerous other European inventers were cooking up their own versions of free-reed instruments at the same time. Demian's accordion, "a little box with bellows [and] five keys, each able to produce a chord"—hence its name—topped an invention frenzy among instrument makers, but it inspired rather than stopped their creative zeal. Once an instrument circulated, it was subject to a restless continuation of improvements. In fact, the accordion was itself a continuation and a perfection of many late eighteenth-century experiments with free-reed aerophones: in 1770, a Bavarian musician performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, on a "sweet Chinese organ"—most likely a Chinese sheng. The sheng is an ancient free-reed instrument that consists of a wooden mouthpiece attached to a gourd equipped with bamboo pipes of varying lengths. It is believed that the early European attempts to create bellows-driven instruments based on the free-reed principle—tongues that are vibrated by an airflow—were derived from the sheng. In 1779, a portable free-reed organ called the Orchestrion had been developed in St. Petersburg, based on ideas for a talking machine developed by an acoustics professor in Denmark. The invention of the Pys-harmonika (Vienna, 1821) and the Aoline (Bavaria, 1822) followed. A Viennese music-box maker patented his "Harmonika in Chinese manner" in 1825, calling himself a "Certified Music Box- and Mouth-Harmonica-Maker."

European countries in the nineteenth century were closely connected through travel and trade. It is no surprise, then, that Demian's accordion appeared in Paris the year after its invention. The patent protected his invention until 1834, but not in a foreign country. Thus, Parisian instrument makers immediately copied the novelty. Six years later, there were twenty accordion and harmonica makers registered in Paris. With some modifications of the Viennese model, they tried to appeal to the sophisticated Parisian ears. M. Busson in Paris added a piano keyboard for the right hand, a novelty that became known as accordéon-orgue, flûtina, or harmoniflûte. With its casework made in rosewood and inlays of ivory and mother-of-pearl, it was geared "towards the ladies of the better society and advanced to a desired bourgeois object of female distraction." Unencumbered by gender expectations, the novel instrument was indeed considered suitable for young women. Busson's new invention was shown at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1855. The popularity of the accordion continually increased as the number of published method books, some printed in two or even three languages (German, French, and English), indicates. "It was the accordion's uniform tone, considered novel at the time, and its breadth of nuance-rich music, as well as its portability and affordability, that endeared it to large populations." The flourishing French accordion production came to a halt during the Franco-Prussian War (1870—71), after which Italian manufacturers from Stradella pushed onto the market.

The luxurious artisanal Stradella model was one of the two main Italian accordion types to succeed. In the early decades of the accordion's conquest, the instrument found its way into two music-loving towns: Stradella in the northern Italian province of Pavia, a region that at the time was under the power of the Austrian Empire, and Castelfidardo, located in the province of Ancona (Marche region) in central-eastern Italy. The latter town, marked by its old castle and surrounding walls, was the place where in 1860 a decisive battle between the Piedmontese troops and the papal army laid the groundwork for Italy's unification. Immediately after the annexation of the Marche region, "we witness the birth of the first accordions and concertinas which were probably introduced to the Italians by French troops allied to the Papal State. These instruments were soon adapted to suit Italian taste."

Italians, their ears accustomed to the sound of the bagpipe (zampogna), a popular instrument found from Sicily to the Lombardy, quickly embraced the new instrument that allowed playing sustained notes resembling bagpipe drones and generated a similar jarring sound as the traditional double-reeded zampogna. The later nineteenth century saw the accordion gain unprecedented popularity: according to the director of Castelfidardo's accordion museum, Beniamino Bugiolacchi, Giuseppe Verdi put forward a proposal to the Italian conservatory for the study of the instrument in his role as president of the ministerial commission for the reform of musical conservatories during the 1870s. Accordion workshops sprang up all over Italy to appease the population's craving for the new instrument. But like elsewhere around the turn of the century, the separation of leisure activities along class lines, aggravated by unremitting urbanization and modernization, had increased, and "the joyous sound of the accordion, exalted by the gaiety of country outings and barnyard dancing, soon end[ed] up hoarsened in the outdoor settings of a geography neglected by other more ancient and illustrious instruments." The bagpipe's modern rival was eventually delegated to the peasantry. The instrument, with its "decidedly vulgar sound," void of any "noble phonic aspirations," nevertheless later served a fascist regime in its populist politics. Bugiolacchi writes, "[T]he propaganda of the time spoke of the accordion as a musical instrument invented in Italy, and as being 'the pride of our industriousness and delight of the Italian people.' ... In 1941 Benito Mussolini ordered that a quantity of 1,000 accordions be distributed to the various troops fighting in the Second World War."

The accordion had a similar meteoric career in northern Europe. Six weeks after Demian filed a patent for his accordion in Vienna, the Londoner Charles Wheatstone filed a patent for an invention he called "symphonium," an aerophone with a keyboard layout and bellows. This instrument served as the prototype for Wheatstone's concertina—"a hexagonal double-action, forty-eight key instrument"—a patent for which he would eventually file in 1844. Because of the close musical relationship between Vienna and London at the time, it is likely that Wheatstone knew of Demian's experiments. His early concertina models combined "the twenty-four-key fingering system of the symphonium with the exposed pearl pallets and wooden levers of Demian's first accordion." Neil Wayne suspects that Wheatstone's concertina models were first intended for his lectures on acoustics at the King's College in London, where he was a professor of experimental physics, and not for commercial sale. Wheatstone had also a scientific interest in Oriental free-reed instruments (the Chinese sheng, the Japanese shô, and Javanese musical instruments) and the jew's harps and German mouth harmonicas (mouth organs) that had already been circulating for several years. In 1821, Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann (Berlin) constructed a small mouth-blown device with fifteen reeds as an aid for tuning, which he continued to improve. A year later, Buschmann had added hand-operated bellows, valves, and fitting buttons. This became his Hand-Aoline, or Konzertina.

Like a host of others with similar experimental inclinations, Wheatstone created a number of new and improved musical instruments, including the "foot-powered concertina," "wind piano," "bellows-fiddle," and free-reed pitch devices. He was also working on typewriters, electromagnetic clocks, artificial voice devices, and the electric telegraph, for which he later would gain fame. Most of Wheatstone's musical inventions seemed rather preposterous, much like "the multitude of attempts of all kinds daily made by instrument-makers, and their pretended inventions, more or less disastrous, ... the futile specimens which they seek to introduce amidst the race of instruments." This critique was expressed by an open-minded and extremely progressive composer for his time, Héctor Berlioz. The French composer liked to explore new tone colors in his orchestrations and made use of the (Wheatstone English) concertina, whose sound he found "at once penetrating and soft ... it allies itself well with the quality of tone of the harp, and with that of the pianoforte." However, he criticized the concertina's meantempered tuning—"conforming to the doctrine of the acousticians,—a doctrine entirely contrary to the practice of musicians"—which prevented it from being useful in combination with any well-tempered instrument.

Despite this limitation, the concertina quickly rose in popularity as prominent Victorian concertinists began to perform virtuoso solo works, concertos, and chamber music. Benevolent reviews from respected critics—such as the playwright George Bernard Shaw's comment that "the concertina has now been brought to so great perfection ... [it] can perform the most difficult violin, oboe, and flute music"—helped its reception among the affluent. Indeed, the main purchasers of the concertina into the 1870s were members of the aristocracy, male and female alike. Once exclusively at home on the concert stage and in the upper-class salon, the concertina was gradually adopted by the English working class and thus was eventually abandoned by the "serious" musicians of the Victorian era. Maybe that was the incentive for this widely known joke: "What is the definition of a gentleman? Somebody who knows how to play the accordion but refrains from doing so!"

The trend toward an increasing proletarization of music making in the second half of the nineteenth century was backed by the import of low-priced, mass-produced concertinas from Germany, which did their part to crumble the instrument's image as "exclusive." English concertina makers got on the bandwagon with their own "people's concertina" models, affordable for the working class. Like the earlier brass-band movement, the concertina swept the British Isles as the working class began to form thousands of clubs. The concertina was particularly suited for dance music because the pull-and-push motion gave the music a strong rhythmic bounce. The instrument was popular in the taverns and pubs of port cities, from whence it quickly traveled to and conquered the British colonies and the United States. Sailors and whalers were particularly fond of the small portable instrument.

The accordion was in many ways a revolutionary instrument, suiting the liberal ideas of the late nineteenth century and partaking in the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the accordion effectually signified the birth of popular music, in both the sense of "people's music" and "music of the masses," for it coincided with the end of the preindustrial era and became a symbol of industrialization and mass culture.

Accordion (concertina and harmonica) manufacturing centers first emerged in Germany: Trossingen (Christan Messner, 1830), Magdeburg (Friedrich Gessner, 1838), Berlin (J. F. Kalbe, 1840), Gera (Heinrich Wagner, around 1850), Klingenthal (Adolph Herold, 1852), and Chemnitz (Carl Friedrich Uhlig, concertinas, 1834), but skilled workers soon went on to open their own competing workshops and factories all over Germany that quickly developed into important production centers on their own terms.

Before mass production was introduced in the 1850s, all parts of an accordion were made by hand. Instrument makers, in collaboration with metal workers, locksmiths, fitters, mechanics, and a host of other skilled workers, toiled to develop a series of machines that would make possible the industrial production of individual accordion parts. Soon the reed beds were no longer hand cut and filed but punched out using a specially made fly-press dies, a metalworking-machine tool used to cut through sheet metal in one movement by shearing it. Laborious processes were rationalized by mechanically automated routers and milling machines. With the introduction of steam power in the late 1870s, accordion-production costs could be drastically lowered as unskilled workers were hired to operate the machines. Factory owners continued to outsource the manufacturing of parts that required hand labor by relying on a well-established homework system that employed low-wage workers—men, women, and children. Overall, production output increased while maintaining the quality of the musical instruments. One factory, for example, employed around four hundred workers to produce one hundred thousand accordions and 750,000 mouth harmonicas in 1855, but required only 250 workers seven years later to fabricate the same number of accordions and more than a million harmonicas. Accordion and harmonica making was a dynamic, fast-growing business that soon oriented itself toward export and overseas markets. Indeed, a large number of the more than half-million accordions made annually in Germany at that time were special models for export.

Among the many types of diatonic accordions invented before the 1850s was the Bandonion, a concertina that eventually became most famous in Argentina as the bandoneón. A predecessor model with a square shape and single notes instead of chords on the bass side was developed in Chemnitz by Carl Friedrich Uhlig in the early 1830s. The musician and teacher Heinrich Band, from Krefeld near Düsseldorf, ordered a model with eighty-eight pitches, retuned some of them, and called the new instrument "Bandonion" (the name appeared in 1856). Due to his energetic instrument trading, the name soon surpassed the general "concertina." Most German concertinas were produced in Saxony, where the instrument was popular among the working class in the 1880s.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of noteworthy new models appeared: at the 1854 Industrial Exhibition in Munich, the Vienna accordion builder Matthäus Bauer showed his Glavierharmonika, a prototype of the piano accordion. These first chromatic button accordions soon became a favorite among the Viennese Schrammelkapellen, ensembles inspired by the Viennese chamber music of the Schrammel brothers, after whom these popular (pseudo-)folk ensembles were named. The Schrammel accordion, resembling a clarinet in timbre, was added to the string ensemble, likely to strengthen the overall sound volume. At home in the taverns of Vienna's suburbs, the accordion acted, in Wagner's words, "as midwife for an emerging new music style" that fused folk-dance rhythms (Ländler) and Hungarian gypsy tunes with popular waltzes. Schrammel music, with its accordion virtuosos, enjoyed a high reputation among the Austrian aristocracy, and contemporary composers joined the euphoria.


Excerpted from The Accordion in the Americas Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction HELENA SIMONETT....................1
Chapter 1 From Old World to New Shores HELENA SIMONETT....................19
Chapter 2 Accordion Jokes: A Folklorist's View Richard March....................39
Chapter 3 From Chanky-Chank to Yankee Chanks: The Cajun Accordion as Identity Symbol MARK F. DEWITT....................44
Chapter 4 'Garde ici et 'garde la-bas: Creole Accordion in Louisiana JARED SNYDER....................66
Chapter 5 "Tejano and Proud": Regional Accordion Traditions of South Texas and the Border Region CATHYRAGLAND....................87
Chapter 6 Preserving Territory: The Changing Language of the Accordion in Tohono O'odham Waila Music JANET L. STURMAN....................112
Chapter 7 Accordions and Working-Class Culture along Lake Superior's South Shore JAMES P. LEARY....................136
Chapter 8 Play Me a Tarantella, a Polka, or Jazz: Italian Americans and the Currency of Piano-Accordion Music CHRISTINE F. ZINNI....................156
Chapter 9 The Klezmer Accordion: An Outsider among Outsiders JOSHUA HOROWITZ....................178
Chapter 10 Beyond Vallenato: The Accordion Traditions in Colombia EGBERTO BERMÚDEZ....................199
Chapter 11 "A Hellish Instrument": The Story of the Tango Bandoneón MARÍA SUSANA AZZI....................233
Chapter 12 No ma' se oye elfuinfuán: The Noisy Accordion in the Dominican Republic SYDNEY HUTCHINSON....................249
Chapter 13 Between the Folds of Luiz Gonzaga's Sanfona: Forró Music in Brazil MEGWEN LOVELESS....................268
Chapter 14 The Accordion in New Scores: Paradigms of Authorship and Identity in William Schimmel's Musical "Realities" MARION S. JACOBSON....................295
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