Jimmy Stewart, Accordion-Toting Cowboy

I remember reading that Jimmy Stewart got his start by playing accordion, but I had never him play until I found this clip from the 1957 Western, Night Passage. In the film, Stewart plays an ex-railroad man (and traveling accordion player) who tries to prove himself by defending a payroll train from a gang of outlaws. Unfortunately, this clip is dubbed in Spanish, but you can still hear Stewart squeezing and singing “You Can’t Get Far Without a Railroad”:

Julieta Venegas Goes Unplugged

Julieta Venegas: MTV UnpluggedI thought MTV gave up on music years ago, opting instead to corner the market on inane reality shows for 16 year olds. Despite their best efforts, however, some music manages to occasionally escape onto their airwaves. Thankfully, one example is Mexican singer/songwriter/accordionist Julieta Venegas’ recent performance on MTV Unplugged, which was released this month as both an album and DVD.

Trained as a classical musician on piano and cello before rising to fame with the accordion, Venegas decided to take a fresh approach for her Unplugged performance, including instruments like the ukelele, banjo, xylophone, and tuba. And in addition to hits from her four albums, she unveiled a handful of new tunes, including “Ilusión,” a Spanish/Portuguese duet with Marisa Monte, and the bouncy “El Presente,” which you can watch over at YouTube:

Bajofondo’s 21st Century Tango

The brainchild of two-time Oscar-winner Gustavo Santaolalla (Best Score for Brokeback Mountain and Babel), Bajofondo (formerly Bajofondo Tango Club) fuses machine-generated beats with the traditional sounds of tango born of the Río de la Plata — the river separating Argentina and Uruguay. Experimenting with hip hop, rock and electronica, the band blazes new trails with relentlessly pulsing rhythms and layered sound textures.

But it isn’t all about the laptops; violinist Javier Casalla and bandoneonist Martin Ferres bring all the passion, intoxication, and surprise that you expect from great tango. It’s drama you can dance to. Their latest record, Mar Dulce, will be released in the U.S. next month and includes guest appearances by Elvis Costello, Nelly Furtado, and Japanese bandoneonist Ryota Komatsu.

You can listen to a live in-studio performance from KCRW’s excellent show Morning Becomes Eclectic, or download the track “Pa’ Bailar” below. And if you’re interested in more electronic/tango fusion, I definitely recommend checking out Gotan Project, one of the genre’s pioneers.

Chocolate Accordion Cake (Yum!)

Chocolate Accordion CakeWhen Debbie Budd’s father turned 80 years old, she didn’t bake him an ordinary cake. No sir, she made this delicious masterpiece — a chocolate accordion cake complete with white chocolate buttons and chocolate icing bellows. The cake is a full-size replica of a two-row button accordion that Debbie bought her father as a birthday gift. Read Debbie’s instructions to learn how to make your own, or check out this YouTube video where Debbie points out some of the cake’s finer details. (Anyone else need a glass of milk after seeing that cake?)

[Found via TDA’s Wall of Wheeze]

Name That Accordion

I receive a lot of emails from people who have found (or been given) an old accordion and are looking to identify it and determine its value. And while this is a common predicament, there are very few resources online for accurately identifying vintage accordions. So I typically ask these people where they’re located and refer them to a local accordion shop. (Especially since, to do an accurate appraisal, you really need to see, hear, and even smell an accordion in person.)

But lately I’ve been thinking, why not throw some of these queries to our readers — after all, you’re probably one of the most diverse and knowledgeable collections of accordion enthusiasts online. So, we’re starting a regular feature called “Name That Accordion”, where we post photos of re-discovered accordions and ask you, our fair readers, to help identify their age, origin, and any other historical details you can muster up.

Our first subjects come from Carmen L., who is researching three accordions that her late stepfather left her. We’ve posted a few photos on Flickr — there’s a black 120-bass Wurlitzer, a blue two-row Concertone, and a red German-made 12-bass. If you can help fill in the details on any of these boxes, post a comment here or over at Flickr. Let’s test the wisdom of the crowds!

Name That Accordion

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Quick Links: Jazz, Idi Amin, and… Insurance?

Five Questions: Bradley Jaye Williams

Bradley Jaye WilliamsHang on tight — it’s another edition of “Five Questions”, our interview series with noteworthy accordion personalities from around the globe.

Few accordionists can cross genres as comfortably as Bradley Jaye Williams. Born in Michigan, Williams moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and then to Austin, where his music career really took off, playing with the likes of Flaco Jimenez and Mingo Saldivar. He currently plays in three bands: an authentic Texas-style conjunto called Conjunto Los Pinkys, a Cajun/Zydeco dance band known as The Gulf Coast Playboys, and The Fabulous Polkasonics, a combo that plays Polish-American “honky style” polkas, waltzes, and obereks.

When and why did you first start playing the accordion?

In 1986, I started playing the 2-row button accordion while living in a tiny studio apartment in Berkeley, California. My neighbors listened to me struggle with “La Cucaracha” and “La Nopalera” for a few months! Why did I start playing? I love accordion music! It was the natural thing to do. It felt right. To me, the accordion was always cool and it’s at the heart of many styles of dance music I love. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan around all kinds of music… Motown, country, Dixieland, jazz, rock n’ roll and polka music… mainly the Polish-American and German music of Marv Herzog and Lawrence Welk (of course).

Living in the Bay Area in my 20’s, I experienced the music of Flaco Jimenez and it really struck a chord with me. Here was good old polka music being chopped and customized in a new and different way. I loved it. Ultimately, I think I was drawn to the international and cross-cultural appeal of accordion music and polka… the songs, customs, dance, food and pure FUN we all share. Of course, there is also something very compelling about the accordion itself: a magnificent machine…beautifully designed…and a challenge to play.

Another Clever Accordion Shirt

In honor of Accordion Awareness Month, shirt.woot.com is featuring an accordion t-shirt which reads “Everything’s going accordion to plan!” for $15. From the site:

“Wear this shirt: every day during National Accordion Awareness Month, this June and every June. Don’t wear this shirt: while you’re playing accordion. Then nobody’ll see that hilarious pun.”

Hilarious indeed. Get yours before they’re sold out!

(Thanks for the heads up, Robyn!)

Celebrate Accordion Awareness Month

You probably already have it marked on your calendar, but in case you didn’t, June is Accordion Awareness Month. The “holiday” was established in 1989 by San Franciscan Tom Torriglia to promote and educate people about the accordion, as well as help spread the word about the accordion’s resurgence in popularity. (Tom was also instrumental — pun intended — in getting the accordion named San Francisco’s official instrument in 1990.)

“But how do I celebrate Accordion Awareness Month?” Here are some ideas:

  • Attend an event on the Let’s Polka accordion calendar.
  • Wear tank tops all month. Explain that you’re showing off the muscles you’ve built through years of squeezing bellows.
  • Make a YouTube video of yourself playing the accordion. Become an Internet celebrity overnight.
  • Give the gift that keeps on giving: accordion lessons (in person or online).
  • Change your ringtone to “Lady of Spain.”

How are you celebrating the best month of the year? Leave a comment and let us know.