June is International Accordion Awareness Month. If that news has got you formulating wisecracks, just remember that plenty of ground has been covered there, and accordions are far more than mere novelty instruments.
Accordions have been the butt of jokes since the rise of rock & roll music in the 1950s. If you hang out with musicians much, you may even notice a bumper sticker that reads “I PLAY THE ACCORDION … AND I VOTE!” The mockery may have hit a high point in the 1980s, when the cartoonist Gary Larson immortalized it in The Far Side: The devil says to the newly deceased person, “Welcome to hell. Here’s your accordion.”
Accordions came to represent a hopelessly square lobe of musical enthusiasts, but their cultural significance is too great to ignore. Accordions were huge in American music for decades. Many of the amplifiers used in the 1960s were built with “accordion” inputs along with guitar inputs.
Indie and roots rockers have also embraced the instrument, and you can find it on seminal albums like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea and throughout the work of the acclaimed rock band Los Lobos.
And as long as we’re talking about accordion heroes toiling at the margins of rock, let’s not forget Weird Al Yankovic, who for nearly three decades has been releasing albums of parody songs and revved-up accordion medleys of chart-topping hits.
If any of this has piqued your interest, you owe it to yourself to borrow Squeeze This!, a remarkable exploration of the history, symbolism and cultural importance of the accordion that, among other things, offers up the unlikely and delightful phrase “accordion industrial complex.”
Author Marion Jacobson points out the accordion’s “wholesomeness” as a major factor in its failure to find a place in the American youth culture of the 1960s. Indeed, the instrument, which originated in Germany in the early 19th century, was mass-produced in the Midwest in the 20th century and factored largely in the benign and edgeless cultural stylings of Lawrence Welk.
But the accordion is essential to many musical genres of varying levels of chastity. Tangos thrive with accordions. Polkas, of course, require the instrument. Louisiana’s zydeco music relies heavily on accordion, and Mexican pop music showcases the instrument. So does Klezmer music. One of my college roommates, a supremely gifted musician and all-around nice guy, is skilled at accordion, clarinet, ukulele and saw. That unlikely combo makes him highly sought-after in Klezmer circles.
In fact, the important role the accordion played in many forms of ethnic music played by immigrants is essential to the plot of Accordion Crimes, by Annie Proulx, the same writer who brought us Brokeback Mountain. The novel charts the immigrant experience in America through the descendants of Mexicans, Poles, Africans, Irish-Scots, Franco-Canadians and others, who all come to own an old green accordion.