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The piano accordion experienced a roller coaster ride of popularityrise to fame on the airwaves, stage and silver screen, then a deathly decline, followed by a pop culture resurgence. Squeeze This! rolls out a history of the squeezebox with the first book-length study of its fascinating role in twentieth-century American music and culture.
Focusing on key moments of transition, ethnomusicologist and accordion enthusiast Marion Jacobson shows how the instrument came to be celebrated by ethnic musical communities and mainstream fans alike. She also explores the accordion's rebirth in contemporary music, from the parodies of "Weird Al" Yankovic to geek rock legends They Might Be Giants to accordion-wielding superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Sheryl Crow.
Loaded with images of gorgeous instruments, virtuoso performers, and rabid fans, Squeeze This! presents the untold story of America's rich accordion culture.
About the Author
Marion Jacobson holds a Ph.D. in music and ethnomusicology from New York University. An accordionist herself, she has performed with klezmer bands and accordion bands, and in old-timey jam sessions, but her favorite spot for gigs is the New York City subway.
Read an Excerpt
Squeeze This!A Cultural History of the Accordion in America
By MARION JACOBSON
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
IntroductionLIKE MANY WHO STARTED PLAYING the accordion in the late twentieth century, my introduction to the instrument happened quite unexpectedly, resulting from a series of chance encounters. While strolling down Essex Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side on a brilliant fall day in 2002, I impulsively ducked into Main Squeeze Accordions. I do not recall what drove me into the store to examine the used and new squeezeboxes, browse through sheet music, and talk at length with owner Walter Kuehr. Perhaps I was curious as to what an accordion store was doing in this neighborhood, at the crossroads of Orthodox Jewish and hipster cultures. I was vaguely aware that accordion shops had once populated Mulberry Street, but that neighborhood was further west and significantly more Italian. I do recall my feeling of awe when Kuehr strapped on one of his wood-framed accordions, made to his specifications in a factory in the Czech Republic, and a velvety carpet of free-reed sound washed over me. "Here's a little Cajun tune," he said, launching into "Jambalaya." He then gave his interpretations of klezmer, French musette, and an Italian song, each time flipping another switch to alternate from the dark, low reeds of the Cajun and klezmer tunes (the bandoneon switch) to the lighter, sweeter textures of French and Italian music (the musette switch, with two reeds tuned slightly apart, creating a reedy vibrato). With only one instrument, you can travel the world. I was also fascinated by the physical dynamics of the instrument, the way Walter and the accordion seemed to breathe together, and how this awkward-looking box could be transformed into something that looked like an extension of the player's body. "You hold it close, you practically embrace it, and it breathes. And you can get every effect you want out of it," said Kuehr. "You can sound sad or silly, and you can make someone laugh or cry. That's harder to do on a piano."
Funny that Walter should have mentioned the piano. I had taken lessons and played piano for most of my life but had been thinking of getting rid of mine, to make room for a second child in our cramped Brooklyn house. But I still wanted to make music, so I decided to get an accordion—as the right-hand keyboard, at least, would no doubt be easy to learn. The idea of owning an accordion seemed completely irrelevant to the musical tastes and habits of my generation. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s were more likely to base their instrument choices on seeing Paul McCartney or Pete Townshend playing keyboards or electric guitar than Myron Floren or Lawrence Welk playing an accordion. Like many who began playing accordion in the twentieth century, I acquired my instrument from someone who didn't want it any more. I have observed thousands of orphaned accordions sitting in museums and hundreds for sale on Ebay. This wave of neglect came for various reasons discussed in this book: the Lawrence Welk stigma; the emerging appeal of electronic instruments in the 1960s; and, simply, these instruments' need for expensive repairs or attainment of the ends of their fifty-year life spans. But an accordion fell into my hands under different circumstances, ones that proved to be highly significant for this book. Alyssa Lamb, a singer and musician who lived near me in Brooklyn, played accordion with a local band called Las Rubias del Norte. After many nights standing up and playing the thirty-five-pound instrument for two or three hours, Lamb's back had given out. Her boyfriend, Olivier Conan, was the owner of Barbès, a popular bar and music venue in Park Slope. Conan needed a piano for visiting musicians. Within a matter of days, we arranged a trade: Barbès got my Baldwin Acrosonic spinet, and I got Lamb's ruby-red Delecia Carmen accordion.
I made frequent visits to Barbès to hear local accordionists like Ben Ickies and Rachelle Garniez (accordion and vocals) and bands that made use of the accordion and free-reed instruments: Slavic Soul Party (Peter Stan, accordion), Matt Munisteri & Brockmumford (Will Holshouser, accordion), and One Ring Zero (Joshua Camp, accordion). So my interest in the accordion was a product of an entirely new phenomenon, apparently unrelated to the wave of popularity the accordion experienced during the Lawrence Welk era. But what was this phenomenon, exactly? Who were all these people who played accordion? Why did they choose their instrument, and what kinds of sounds and styles did they relate it to? Under what circumstances did the accordion make a reappearance in the late twentieth century, and how did these new uses of the accordion relate to the its history? And why, when I began to learn and play the accordion in public, did people seem so amazed to see and hear the accordion? ("I haven't seen one of those in awhile" was a frequent comment I heard.) Judging from the lineup at Barbès, accordionists and bands with accordions symbolized an appealing and popular manifestation of alternative musical cultures in the postpunk area. Had we returned to some version of the era when accordion bands, accordion orchestras, and accordion-playing virtuosi on television had symbolized an appealing and popular manifestation of American mainstream musical cultures, pre-Elvis and pre-Beatles? Were we returning to the past, and under what conditions?
Attempting to answer some of these questions, I attended my first Accordion Seminars, an annual ritual sponsored by the American Accordionists Association (AAA) in New York City. I was not prepared for what I was witnessing—northern Italian accordion music, Mozart opera overtures transcribed for the accordion, and atonal improvisations for digitally enhanced accordions, interspersed with maniacally satirical and dark commentary by curator-musician William Schimmel. I was amazed to visit Joan Grauman's house in Potomac, Maryland, in which every room was filled with accordions, accordion memorabilia, accordion-playing troll figurines, and drawings and paintings of accordionists. This was a world in itself, different from anything I had seen as a pianist or even as a player of klezmer and other ethnic styles of music. I became intrigued by the stories older people told about their experiences with the accordion—which seemed to consist of episodes like being enticed into lessons by a door-to-door salesmen, followed by intensive study at a studio, followed by neglect, and later, rediscovery. But how did that relate to what I was observing in New York City? And what of the accordion's history—right here in New York, a manufacturing center? At that point, I had no inkling of the century's worth of historical research that lay ahead of me, detailed in chapters 2, 3, and 4 of this book.
I learned that there were accordion festivals and conventions in most major cities and many small towns across the country; that there were workshops on specific ethnic styles featuring the accordion; that one could travel to an accordion festival somewhere in the world every month. I learned of the many people who played and composed for the accordion as a "classical" instrument, as well as those who played accordion in the context of ethnic and traditional folk music. In this way I discovered the conventionally ethnographic material in this book. All of these phenomena were vaguely familiar to me as an ethnomusicologist, but it was hard to determine—once I decided to turn my accordion investigations into a book—where to locate my "field" of study. The community with which I became involved was bound by no single repertoire, ethnic background, or specific location. This "world" owed its existence almost entirely to a shared interest in a particular instrument. In this sense, it differed markedly from the traditional fieldwork situations in which the location of the field is obvious. One of my first discoveries was that these "accordion people," as they called themselves, were extremely mobile, traveling to conventions and conferences and competitions all over the globe.
Since the origins of ethnomusicology as a discipline, scholars have been concerned with the collection and documentation of musical instruments from around the world. The discipline's major thrust has been the investigation of their sound quality and the materials and techniques of their construction. The centuries of work in this area has privileged scientific modes of inquiry such as classification and acoustic analysis. This book addresses the ongoing reexamination of organology, the science of musical instruments. Like some other contemporary scholars of ethnomusicology, I conceive the study of musical instruments not as the study of objects but as the study of tools for making culture. Two scholars in this endeavor, Alan Merriam and Paul Berliner, have made significant, early progress toward enhancing our knowledge of the meaning of musical instruments. Merriam's magisterial account of drum-making among the Bala Basongye introduced a comprehensively ethnographic approach to the study of musical instruments, revealing important findings about how they operate at the intersection of material, social, spiritual, and cultural worlds, and how their meanings are constructed on multiple symbolic levels. Paul Berliner's unique contribution was to fuse the study of a musical instrument (the Shona mbira) with all aspects of music making in people's lives. Recent books have deepened our understanding of the cultural work musical instruments perform: how they visually and publicly display a culture's mores and values, retain cultural memory, delineate gender roles, construct ethnic identity, embody meaning, and act as indicators of place, self, and community. In these studies, particularly Kevin Dawe's study of the Cretan lyre, the themes and ideas come from observations in situ of the instruments' and performers' relationships with their geographic, economic, and cultural contexts. Studies such Richard Leppert's analysis of the role of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century keyboard instruments in European domestic culture offer a valuable contribution toward the understanding of iconographic representations of musical instruments.
In all of these studies, musical instruments are viewed not just as soundmaking objects but as part of an active web of meaning, whether they are rooted in a single tradition or community or circulate transnationally, acquiring a different range of meanings for which they were not originally intended, as Karen Linn certainly demonstrates in her study of the banjo, tracing its circulation from Africa to American minstrel shows to middle-class American parlors. Clearly, instruments can be problematic; their meanings are never neutral. But few instruments—perhaps only the banjo—have had as wide a range of meanings as the accordion, whose role, from the rock band to the Dutchman band to the symphony orchestra, has been hotly contested.
Scholars exploring new symbolic and sonic dimensions of musical instruments in human experience find themselves increasingly drawn into conversations about transnational networks and industries that circulate and transmit musical instruments, along with other ethnic commodities. These conversations often reference James Clifford's "traveling cultures" and his analysis of issues surrounding the display and performance of objects in postmodern contexts. For example, Karl Neuenfeldt's (1997) work views the didjeridu as a symbol both of aboriginality and resistance, in Australia, and of essentialized primitivism, where it is played on the streets of large cosmopolitan cities from Berlin and Boston. Likewise, Kevin Dawe and Andrew Bennett reveal strikingly different dimensions of the guitar's ubiquity in world cultures, where it "circulates in cultural spaces created at the convergence of local and global forces." Like the mass-produced guitars of Gibson and Fender, the piano accordions of Excelsior and Titano offer a uniform and consistent prototype with which to contend as a hegemonic force. These types of accordion have followed a consistent pattern—replacing local indigenous instruments and sounds—yet people subvert that hegemony by appropriating the instrument in local ways, as in the customized models used in conjunto music and Dominican merengue típico. Less prone today to frame their analyses of instruments in closed or static cultural systems, scholars are increasingly attracted to postmodern formations such as the "global cultural flows" described by Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff. The "cultural biographical" approach prescribed by Kopytoff can be productive and helpful in transforming the classic "organology orthodoxy" that has held on for too long in the field of ethnomusicology.
Accordingly, in writing this biography of the accordion, I move away from traditional organological concerns (the collection of data on materials, construction, and design of musical instruments) and focus on the accordion as a thing with a complex "social life," career, and networks of exchange. I pose questions similar to those Kopytoff asks about material objects in general: Where do accordions come from and who made them? For what purpose? What are the major markers and periods in the thing's life, and what are the possibilities inherent in its status? How does it function as an object of exchange? When the accordion moved from local artisan production in small shops to the global market, it did so with a force Kopytoff might recognize as a "drive toward commoditization." In a general sense, the mass-produced, factory-made piano accordion emerged as a "colonizing" force in the modern European and American world, reshaping tastes and musical practices as it replaced the traditional diatonic button accordions that had long been popular with European national and ethnic groups. But people also appropriate and "recolonize" musical instruments, subverting the meanings and uses for which they were invented. My cultural biography of the accordion offers a compelling model for scholars concerned with how instruments become situated in wider networks of social and symbolic exchange across a broad spectrum of time and space in the twentieth century.
A second conversation with which this book will engage scholars of music is the idea of the accordion as a cultural technology, which I define (after Jon Frederickson) as a network of circulating objects and relationships involving musical skills and a means of organizing cultural work. Like scholars such as Paul Théberge and Timothy Taylor, who have been concerned with musical instruments as consumer technologies, I view the accordion and its manufacture as rooted in an American midcentury cultural sphere in which issues of authenticity and power come into play. Throughout the book, relating debates about the free-bass accordion and whether or not and how people should play Bach and rock on piano accordions, I explore the routes by which accordionists became "consumers of technology" in a way that represented a break from earlier practices. Paralleling Théberge's study of music technologies in North America, this book will address accordion manufacture, design, and marketing. The reader will see that some of the same processes that produced the American accordion phenomenon also produced the Hammond organ and the Moog synthesizer, enhancing the presence of technology in the musical lives of Americans. I will also show how the accordion contributed to a backlash against technology and the desire for the more "embodied" experience of music making that the accordion offers.
Excerpted from Squeeze This! by MARION JACOBSON 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.
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Table of Contents
1 Advent of the Piano Accordion 15
2 Squeezebox Bach: The Classical Accordion 50
3 Squeezebox Rock: The Rise and Fall of the Accordion in American Popular Culture 91
4 Crossover Accordionists: Viola Turpeinen, John Brugnoli, and Frankie Yankovic 116
5 New Main Squeeze: Repositioning the Accordion in the Music Industry 145
6 Out of the Closet: Reimagining the Accordion in American Popular Culture 173
Color illustrations appear after page 90