It’s Not a Party Without an Accordion

One of the ideas we try to promote here is that the accordion isn’t just a polka instrument, or a Cajun instrument, or a Tex-Mex instrument: it’s all those things and much, much more. For well over a hundred years now, accordions have been an essential player in genres ranging from avant-garde jazz to zydeco, in countries from Albania to Zimbabwe.

This past weekend, I stumbled across a great video that captures this idea. “The Accordion Party” is a medley of songs showing how the accordion has been a key player in party music the world over since its invention in the 1800’s. It’s by no means complete, but it’s a fun survey of the accordion’s global reach.

The video was created by cdza, a group of musicians in New York who create “musical video experiments.” They’re incredibly talented and I highly recommend checking out their other videos, including “Journey of the Guitar Solo” and “An Abridged History of Western Music in 16 Genres”.

20 Years of the Cotati Accordion Festival

Twenty years ago, Jim Boggio and Clifton Buck-Kauffman had a crazy idea. What if they put on a music festival in the small Northern California town of Cotati? And what if it was centered around the accordion — which Boggio played — and incorporated a mix of musical styles like jazz, polka, Cajun, gypsy, etc. Would people be interested? Could they pull it off?

The answer is yes. Twenty times yes, in fact. This weekend, as they have for twenty years, accordion lovers from across the country and beyond will descend upon Cotati, CA, for the annual Cotati Accordion Festival. There will be two full days of accordion music, a tent dedicated to nonstop polka dancing, booths for accordion clubs and vendors, and, of course, the traditional Lady-of-Spain play-along accompanied by the release of white doves. Thousands attend every year and the non-profit festival raises important funds for local youth organizations.

Performers at this year’s festival include:

Anna and I have been attending for more than ten years and we’ll be there again this year. If you see us wandering around, be sure to say hi!

Flickr Find: Graham Jackson

A friend recently visited the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta and found this vintage advertisement with “internationally known musician and entertainer” Graham W. Jackson enjoying a bottled Coke while playing his accordion:

Graham W. Jackson: Internationally Known Musician and Entertainerworld of coca-cola, uploaded by tinyprayers

The son of a well-known singer, Jackson displayed musical talents at an early age and gave piano and organ concerts while still in high school. He was an active performer and bandleader throughout his lifetime, was once designated the official musician of the state of Georgia, and was reportedly the favorite musician of president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It was Jackson’s association with FDR that made him the subject of one of LIFE magazine’s most famous photos — and possibly the best-known accordion photo ever taken. This photo of Jackson tearfully performing “Goin’ Home” as FDR‘s body was carried from the Little White House in Warm Springs, GA, where he died, symbolized the nation’s grief over the president’s passing.

Graham Jackson plays after FDR passes away

Fact: Accordionists Make Money

Soprani Ad: Accordionists Make Money

It’s easy to forget the accordion was once one of the country’s most popular instruments and accordion players were in high demand. But this Soprani accordion ad pitching the accordion’s money-making potential actually appeared in the August 1931 issue of The Etude Music Magazine. I wonder how many out-of-work musicans — keep in mind, this was during the Great Depression — embraced the get-rich-quick pitch: “Big demand in orchestras, radio work and for teachers… You master it quickly. Then watch your earnings grow.” Sounds great! Where do I sign up?

(Found via Lenny Feldmann, the Cordeen Man.)

Quick Links: One-of-a-Kind Accordions

  • Coin-Operated Accordion Arcade Jukebox
    Wow. I’m not sure where to start with this — it’s basically a jukebox/player accordion that sits on top of a barrel. Load music rolls in the barrel, drop a quarter in the slot and marvel as the automated accordion squeezes out classic tunes. Watch this video for a demonstration, but be warned — bidding starts at just under $4,000.
  • Topaz-1: Cold War Electro-Accordion
    Your fancy MIDI accordion is nothing new; Russian accordionists were squeezing electronic accordions (or bayans) back in the 1950s. This model had a built-in loudspeaker and amplifier, tremolo and vibrato frequency control, and more. Look ma, no bellows!
  • The Flaco Jimenez Signature Accordion
    Hohner has a new limited-edition version of its Corona II accordion, developed in collaboration with the legendary Flaco Jimenez. The accordion is tuned to match Flaco’s unique sound, has a noise reduction fingerboard, and sports a shiny gold finish complete with Flaco’s signature.

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Look Ma, No Hands! The Foot Bass

For years, accordionists have been exercising their hands and arms while their poor feet wither away due to neglect. But no more! Behold the foot bass (or “Basse aux pieds”), a 12-key bellows-driven instrument played entirely with your feet. Invented by Joseph Alexandry in 1894, this instrument was (supposedly) popular in the first half of the 20th century and, thanks to renewed interest by contemporary musicians, is poised for a comeback. A brand-new foot bass, built by Harry Geuns in Belgium, will set you back nearly 2000 Euros, but at least your feet will never be bored again.

Foot Bass

Afghanistan, An Accordion Journey

When journalist Gregory Warner took his accordion to Afghanistan, he hoped the music would help him where his phrasebook failed. The instrument turned out to be a better ambassador than he ever imagined.

His fantastic video, “Afghanistan: An Accordion Journey”, shows how his music helped bridge the gap between foreigner and natives by recalling Afghanistan’s own accordion hero, Ahmad Zahir. (Thirty years after his death, Zahir is still Afghanistan’s most popular and enduring musical icon.) I particularly love the scene where Warner performs Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” for a cheering Afghan crowd. Is there any culture where the accordion doesn’t fit in?

An Historic Free-Reeds Collection

It’s been awhile since we’ve mentioned it, but if you’re into the history of free-reed instruments, is a treasure trove of research, photos, sheet music, and much more. A perfect example is Stephen Chambers’ excellent “Annotated Catalogue of Historic European Free-Reed lnstruments from my Private Collection.” From Æolinas and mouth organs to the earliest accordions and concertinas, the collection includes fascinating photos and descriptions of these instruments that paved the way for the accordions we play today.

An Annotated Catalogue of Historic European Free-Reed lnstruments

The Sheng: Father of the Accordion?

ShengTime to brush up on your accordion history! The following piece was written by Yimeng Huang and appeared in a recent Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society newsletter.

I had a great time at the American Accordionists Association festival in August. Besides the great performances, the interesting workshops, the banquet, and other events, we had a little treat in one of the workshops: a short demonstration of the Chinese traditional music instrument, the sheng, and a short sheng/accordion duet. The accordionist was Chen Jun, vice president of the Chinese Accordionists Association, and his colleague played the sheng.

Up until that moment, I had never connected the accordion with the sheng, an instrument that I heard often in traditional Chinese folk music when I was growing up in Beijing, China.

When Chen said that the Sheng has 5,000 years of history and is the father of the accordion, it really intrigued me. The traditional sheng is a bunch of pipes — with holes in them — that are positioned vertically over a sort of cup. From the side of the cup comes a mouthpiece that you blow into (or suck out of — it works both ways like a harmonica).

The instrument sounds to me like something between a flute and a bagpipe. It can play chords, giving it a rich sound. Interestingly, it also uses reeds, and the reeds — like accordion reeds — are waxed onto the pipes. The reeds used to be made of bamboo and nowadays are made of steel.

As for the sheng being the father of the accordion, at first I had my doubts, but after some research, I found many sources that said in the early 1800s the sheng was brought to Europe and inspired the invention of the harmonica, accordion, and reed organ.

As young kids, we were taught to be proud of the four big inventions by the Chinese: the compass, gunpowder, paper-making, and printing. Now we have the accordion added to the list… or is that stretching it a little?

For more information, check out these links:

Thanks to Yimeng Huang and Mara Cherkasky of the Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society for allowing us to reprint this piece!

Jascha Heifetz Cheats on Violin With Accordion

Jascha Heifetz on AccordionBefore Rolling Stone, before Spin, even before Let’s Polka, there was Accordion World magazine — keeping its finger on the pulse of America’s hottest up-and-coming instrument. Zevy Zions sent us this fantastic piece from the November 1936 issue which excitedly discusses violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz’s interest in the accordion and what it means for the instrument:

“THE EMINENT VIOLINIST, JASCHA HEIFETZ, is shown in the above photograph, apparently taking his accordion very seriously. It has become now, not a fad, but a matter of real interest with some of our most prominent musicians in other fields, to take to their bosom our beloved instrument.

Mr. Heifetz is studying the accordion and may soon surprise some of our best players.

A few years ago a photograph like this would have appeared preposterous. Today our Symphony orchestras are accepting the accordion one by one. Three or four of our universities are already admitting the instrument and giving credit for it. A great many of our high schools have their own accordion bands. Our great name orchestras are not only including but featuring the accordion. And now our greatest musicians are taking it up. That is progress.”


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