Mad (Men) About Accordions

I’ll admit, I don’t watch a lot of TV these days unless it’s Sesame Street or baseball, so when a friend asked me if I watch Mad Men, I just shrugged and replied, “That’s the one with the guys in suits, right?” When his jaw dropped and he said, “YOU MEAN YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE ONE WITH THE ACCORDION?!?”, I figured I should probably catch up.

Indeed, in the third episode of season three — “My Old Kentucky Home” for anyone looking it up on DVD or iTunes — office manager Joan Holloway hosts a tense dinner party where, after prodding from her husband, she reluctantly pulls out her accordion and sings “C’est Magnifique.” (And does it quite well.)

Joan plays accordion on Mad Men

It turns out that Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays Joan, is no newcomer to the accordion; she’s been playing for a few years. In an LA Times Magazine interview last month, she talked about how she got into the accordion:

“I started taking lessons four or five years ago. It is such a rich instrument for one person. You can get so much out of it, like a one-man band. I also think it’s a very romantic instrument, and it channels all the things I love—French culture, Tom Waits—and all the things I try to make my house look like. It’s something I’ve always been interested in.”

For an in-depth deconstruction of the Mad Men accordion scene, check out this essay from ethnomusicologist Meredith Aska McBride, who puts the performance into its 1960s context.

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

Hacking an Electronic Melodeon

Electronic melodeonEyeing one of those fancy, but pricey, electronic accordions? Why not build your own? Lee O’Donnell did just that. He took a toy melodeon (diatonic accordion), replaced the keys and reeds with electronics, and wrote some software to generate sounds with every push and pull. The result is a very capable electronic accordion, capable of producing everything from the sound of a traditional accordion to a retro 8-bit video game.

(Found via Hack a Day)

Shawn Feeney’s Musical Anatomy

What if we didn’t need musical instruments? What if they were a part of us, natural extensions of our bodies that allowed us to extend and transform our voices into something altogether different? That’s the idea behind artist Shawn Feeney’s Musical Anatomy series. He imagines bodies with musical anatomies, referencing musicians from a variety of genres and traditions — a bluesman with a harmonica mouth, a jazz musician with saxophones where his nose and mouth would normally be, and so on.

Astor & Pollux

The drawing above, “Astor & Pollux,” depicts a pair of Siamese twins joined at the bandoneon, with faces modeled after Argentine tango legend Astor Piazzolla. Check Shawn’s site for more strange and wonderful imaginings; you can also pick up a poster of “Astor & Pollux” for $10.

Minding the Accordion Store

Forget the recession; running an accordion shop is a challenging business even in the best of times. Last week, the Chicago Tribune had a great profile of the Italo-American Accordion Company in Oak Lawn, Illinois, which has been in business for nearly 95 years. Joe Romagnoli took over the business in 1948 and made a name for himself by selling meticulously hand-crafted instruments. Today, his wife Anne runs the business, but it’s a far cry from the accordion company’s heyday. According to John Castiglione, who runs Castiglione Accordions in Warren, Michigan:

“The market is more scattered than it was in the ’50s, when the accordion was the No. 1 instrument and everyone took lessons and there were schools… People still buy, but for all intents and purposes, you don’t find stores selling just accordions.”

At Italo-American, they’re lucky to sell a handful of instruments a month; most of their business comes through repairs. But Anne, who’s now 83 years old, refuses to retire and makes a spirited accordion sales pitch to anyone who walks through her door.

“If you have an old accordion, put life into it. The accordion is a happy thing. There is no other instrument this self-sufficient. You play guitar, you need people. But you can take an accordion to a picnic. You can’t take a trumpet to a picnic!”

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Accordion Babes Return for 2010

West Coast Accordion Babes Pin-Up Calendar 2010Forget puppies or creepy babies dressed in animal costumes. Instead, treat yourself to a calendar with some class — the 2010 West Coast Accordion Babes Pin-Up calendar. We picked up our copy at Cotati last weekend and, like last year’s calendar, it features a year’s worth of artsy photos of professional accordion babes showing off their bellows. And if that wasn’t enough, each contributed a track to the calendar’s companion CD, resulting in a fun mix of folk, jazz, gypsy, pop, and more.

Artists in this year’s edition include Big Lou, Jessica Fichot, Tara Linda, and the ladies of Those Darn Accordions. The calendar is just $20 and can be ordered here or directly from many of the accordion babes themselves. I recommend acting fast — last year’s calendar sold out in just three weeks!

The annual Accordion Babes calendar is put together by San Francisco accordionst Renée de la Prade of the band Culann’s Hounds. Renée’s become a fixture as a street performer in San Francisco, belting out tunes on her Irish button accordion; check out her recent feature and audio slideshow on the SF Chronicle website.

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.)

Name That Accordion: Sonova?

Time to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and settle in for another edition of “Name That Accordion.” Today’s accordion comes from reader Alper K., who believes this accordion is originally from Romania, but has been unable to identify the brand. The nameplate isn’t clear to me — is that “Sonova”? “Sonora”? “Fonova”? Click here for more photos and leave a comment if you have any ideas.

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

The Art of the Accordion Case

Artsy Accordion CaseI’ve run across some colorful accordion cases over the years, but I really like this one from Alaska artist Tam Johannes. An accordion player herself, Johannes has been “jazzing up” her cases using a combination of mosaic and decoupage, incorporating everything from tarot cards to game pieces. We’ve recently cast aside our hard-shell accordion cases for soft ones (more comfy and easily portable), but I’m guessing there are some readers out there with funky cases of their own. Leave a comment — even better, show us a photo — if you do.

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