In my first post on accordions, I wrote of the sordid history of this instrument and its part in some of history’s greatest bloodbaths. Now we must deal with the present situation.
Before I go on, however, I must do two things: first, I must tip my hat to Dr. Val, who pointed out that both the accordion and bagpipes have the sheng as an ancestor. This makes the legacy of the ancient Chinese instrument all the more despicable. It is the equivalent of being the ancestor of both Hitler and Bob Saget – truly a legacy of shame. Thanks, Dr. Val.
The second thing I must do is to clear up the air. Many seem confused by the term accordion. When I use the word, I am not describing people who drive a car made by Honda. The proper word for these people would be Accordian (with an “a”), or Accorder. I hope that clears things up and I hope the lawsuits will now be dropped.
Accordions and Culture
What initially piqued my interest in this subject was an article in USA Today entitled: Can Accordions be Cool? The article describes a North Dakota town where “the sound of “O Du Lieber Augustin” is as common as anything by Britney Spears, Jay-Z or Garth Brooks.” It goes on:
In Wishek, a town of about 1,100 people, the accordion players include Jason Hochhalter, 18, a muscular high school senior, and Christy Schaffer, 15, a petite, full-blooded German who has been practicing for four years.
“When I was younger, I thought it was something different to do,” Schaffer said. “My grandpa did it. And I thought it would be interesting to play something different, that no other kid was playing.”
Wolff, who grew up in the Minneapolis area, married a German with accordions after taking the teaching job in Wishek in 1988. She thought the accordion would be perfect for performances during Sauerkraut Day, an annual sauerkraut and sausage festival held in Wishek for eight decades.
Wolff started teaching the accordion four years ago, using instruments borrowed from people in town. “It’s just another instrument to be exposed to,” she said.
“I was just going to play it for a day, and then I ended up keeping it,” said Hochhalter, who looks like he would be more at home in a weight-lifting room than a music room.
When other students chimed in and good-naturedly chided him for “stealing” the accordion from another student, he grinned and added, “They’re just jealous.”
The culture of the farming region also helps, Wolff said. Welk, the bandleader whose “wunnerful, wunnerful” show of the 1950s and 1960s can still be seen in public television reruns, grew up in nearby Strasburg. Many older residents converse in German, and wedding dances still feature polkas and waltzes, Wolff said.
Lisa Horner, 17, said the student accordion players are following in their grandparents’ footsteps. “It’s kind of cool,” she said.
The students like modern-day music but all know Lawrence Welk. “My dad watched all the time,” Horner said. “He was like, ‘We’ve got to watch Lawrence Welk.”‘
This sent chills down my spine. I generally have thought of the urban areas as being the places where children are most vulnerable to bad influences, but clearly it is not limited to the cities. How long will it be until the gangs of the big cities grab hold of this as another way to take kids off of the “straight and narrow?” How close are we to being faced with the idea of “Gangsta Polka?”
Sounds far-fetched? It is closer than you think.
Accordions Infiltrating the Mainstream
Example #1: Punk Rock Accordion
In Oakland, California, there is a group of people set on incorporating accordions into the previous musical paragon of rebellion: punk rock. They are clearly wanting to paint the instrument as the distorted electric guitar of the next generation. They have a workshop where they attempt to meld the two seemingly incompatible things:
Are you an aspiring accordionist who canâ€™t seem to find the local scene, the scene that avoids your uncle wearing lederhosen while he plays Lady of Spain? Thankfully, thereâ€™s a place where you can learn to play your music in a friendly group setting: the ongoing Punk Rock Accordion Workshop.
Even the most beginningist beginner will be able to walk away knowing how to play the basic melody and chords from the dayâ€™s song, and youâ€™ll get sheet music to help you practice and to keep you off the street. If you donâ€™t have an instrument, you can borrow one. If you donâ€™t read, donâ€™t worry: most teaching in class is by ear.
Oh yes, and then there are the Cosmic Sausages:
I must confess, I might actually be able to enjoy these guys…hence the danger. I see that even I can fall entranced by the dulcet tones of the accordion.
Example #2: Accordion Metal
The group known as the Accordion Pimps headline this section:
The pimps claim to have invented “accordion metal”, a synthesis of heavy metal, accordion music and danish “glad-porno”. The great swedish movie “FÃ¤bodjÃ¤ntan” played an important role in the rising of the pimps, especially “the sausage scene” and “Olles” appearance, mostly his reply “JasÃ¥!”
The prophet of the pimps – Roland Cedermark, the witch doctor of the accordion, the man, the myth, the legend, takes accordion music beyond all boundaries, playing his ultra-ripping accordion doom metal like a freaked-out maniac.
Woe to you, Oh Earth and Sea, for Roland sends the pimps with wrath, because he knows the time is short….
Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the pimps for it is an Erik Frank number, the number is “Novelty accordion”.
Whoa. I thought Jimmi Hendrix was a wasted dude…these guys seem to be trippin’ big-time.
Then there is the Finnish band Korpiklaani, who play look like really mean dudes. Below is a picture of Juho, who plays the accordion.
He looks like an angry young man. I am not sure if he is angry because he plays the accordion or if that is just the look someone in a Finnish metal band is supposed to have. All I know is that I hope he does not read this, get really ticked off, come to Georgia and beat me up. I think I’ll lock the doors extra tonight.
Example #3: Rock/Pop
Benny Andersson has lived an especially difficult life. Not only has he carried the weight of being an Accordion player, he also played with the pop band ABBA. There are two of the ten plagues at the same time! ABBA, as you may know, is from Sweden. This raises some interesting questions: why do the Scandinavians seem to be drawn to the accordion? Is Juho unhappy because he just listened to ABBA? Is the goat in Gavle catching on fire somehow related to accordions? Did Juho set the goat on fire? Why don’t they burn the accordions? The questions abound.
Rumor has it that Kevin Hearn plays accordion (as well as piano) for the Barenaked Ladies.
The Aqua Velvets are a surfer band from San Francisco that features the Accordion
Example #4: Polka
As the picture above aptly demonstrates, polka wields an incredible force over people’s lives. What other form of music would make them dress in such embarrassing fashion?
Probably the defining website for polka is the site, Let’s Polka. I have garnished many of the links for this article from that site.
Wikipedia discusses the different styles of Polka:
There are various styles of contemporary polka. Of the US types, the North American “Polish-style polka” has roots in Chicago, and can be identified as ‘Chicago honky’ and ‘Chicago push’ styles. This ‘push’ version or style of Polka features accordion, Chemnitzer concertina, bass, drums, and (almost always) two trumpets. The ‘honky’ variation of this style uses clarinet and one trumpet. North American “Slovenian-style polka” is fast and features piano accordion, and is associated with Cleveland. North American “Dutchman-style” features an oom-pah sound, often with a tuba, and has roots in the American Midwest. “Conjunto-style” has roots in Northern Mexico and Texas, and is also called NorteÃ±o. In the 1980s and 1990s several bands began to combine polka with various rock styles, sometimes referred to as “punk polka”, “alternative polka” or “San Francisco-style”. Irish traditional music has also adopted the polka into its repertory and there it has come into its own distinct flavor. There is even Peruvian Polca.
I really don’t have a lot else on polka, except that some states still allow polka as a form of capital punishment (Wisconsin and Minnesota continue to hold on to this tradition), but most have outlawed it. I am sure The Laundress will have more to say on the subject.
The accordion has evolved into a cultural force. Can we allow the purveyors of this instrument infiltrate new musical styles and influence our children in such insidious ways? I see it much like global warming. It is an Inconvenient Truth that accordions exist and are being put before our youth in ways that may attract them to respect and (God forbid) perhaps even play the instrument.
We have done so well in medicine to prevent disease that can cause harm down the road. I don’t believe it is possible to create a vaccine against accordions (if we could, Flea would write about it), but we need to find ways to prevent any future damage that may be caused by allowing ignorance and inaction on this problem to persist. If we do not act, we will look back at this time of opportunity squandered and hang our heads in collective shame.
If we do act, maybe even Juho will smile.This material, written by me, is free to re-post and share under the Creative Commons agreement. In other words, use it all you want; just give me credit.