We’re going to take a not-so-wild guess that what you know about accordions likely falls somewhere between Lawrence Welk and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
And if you don’t know who either of those two men are, we’re happy to accommodate – June is National Accordion Awareness Month. Mothers and Fathers get only a day, but the awkward accordion, also known as a squeezebox or concertina, gets 30 days of admiration. “Wunnerful, Wunnerful,” as Welk would say.
Obviously, the accordion has been around much longer than Welk’s “champagne music,” but its origin is the subject of debate between folk, who, well, like to debate about things such as this.
The “idea” of an accordion-type instrument is cited in 1777 when a French missionary introduced the mouth-blown Asian Sheng to Europe. In 1822, Fredrich L. Buschmann patented the “handaoline,” a portable reed instrument, in 1822 in Berlin. In 1829, Cyril Demian of Vienna patented his “akkordion,” German for harmony, coining its well-known name and the instrument that most resembles today’s accordion. Demian’s creation had a small manual bellows and five keys, noting in his patent description more keys could be added – which is what happened as the instrument evolved.
Today, the modern accordion has several configurations including one with a piano-style keyboard, and another that utilize chromatic and diatonic buttons. They come in various sizes and weights with different numbers of keys and buttons depending on playing prowess – as few as eight bass buttons up to 120.
All accordions share two components – the bellows, which move air, and the body, consisting of two wooden boxes on either side of the bellows that hold the reed chambers. Compressing and expanding the bellows allow air to flow across strips of brass or steel reeds while pressing buttons and/or keys to create notes and tone. The sound created as been described by some as “mournful squealing” or “wheezing.”
The instrument has been deemed difficult to play because of the independent coordination of key pressing and pumping the bellows. The right-hand manual typically plays the melody and the left plays the accompaniment. Especially skilled players can reverse these roles.
And much like the bellows that drives its sound, the instrument’s acclaim has expanded, contracted and expanded again around the globe because of its versatility.
The instrument’s popularity began to grow in the 1800s, especially in the playing of dance music, because it was loud and could easily be heard in rowdy dance halls across Europe, beer gardens in Germany and cafes in France. The instrument’s heyday was the 1900 to the 1960s, a period known as “the golden age of the accordion.”
In Central and South America, places such as Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Panama, the accordion was a constant in traditional folk and Merengue music. It also found a toehold in Canada (Inuit), Greece (Rebetiko), Korea (Trot music), Egypt (Baladi) and France (Bal-musette).
In the United States, accordion melodies are woven into Jazz, Tejano, Western, Polka, Cajun and Zydeco music that played Vaudeville and honkytonks across the country.
And, just as a debut at Carnegie Hall is a milestone for a musician, the accordion made its debut in 1939 at the famed New York concert hall. The accordion, too, has a place on the Broadway stage, notably in Fiddler on the Roof, Once, Come From Away, The Sound of Music, Victor/Victoria, Cabaret and many more.
Television variety shows, especially The Lawrence Welk Show and The Ed Sullivan Show also helped fuel the instrument’s popularity.
Big band-leader Welk, also an accomplished accordion player, hosted his popular network and in-syndication TV show for more than 30 years, with repeat episodes still airing on PBS. The program weekly featured accordion virtuoso Myron Floren, a member of Welk’s orchestra, his right-hand man and frequent on-air accordion duet partner. Floren’s trademark song was “Lady of Spain,” and he played it countless times to great applause from Welk’s studio audience. When the program ended in 1971, “The Happy Norwegian” formed his own orchestra and performed more than 200 dates a year nationwide.
The Ed Sullivan Show, TV’s longest-running network variety show, had cultural influence beyond the small screen. Best known for iconic live performances by Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald, Itzhak Perlman, The Supremes and, of course, Elvis Presley and The Beatles, it also made stars of smaller acts, such as the puppet mouse Topo Gigio and comedians George Kirby, Joan Rivers and Stiller and Meara. Add to this list, Dick Contino, dubbed “the world’s greatest accordion player,” who performed on Sullivan 48 times.
Music historians cite decline in popularity of the accordion with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1960s. However, in the last 30 years or so several pop and rock musicians have embraced the instrument as part of their musical repertoire.
Danny Federici, late of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, frequently played accordion on The Boss’s albums and at his live shows, most notably on “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).”
“A Long December” by the Counting Crows features a lot of accordion.
The accordion rocks in “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” by The Decemberists.
Other pop/rock stars that play the accordion: Billy Joel, Barry Manilow and Nils Lofgren.
“Weird Al” Yankovic, a five-time Grammy® winner who has sold more than 12 million albums singing parody songs such as “My Bologna” (The Knack’s “My Sharona”) and “Eat It” (Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) credits accordion lessons for his interest in pursuing a career in the music industry. He jokingly says his parents chose the accordion because “they were convinced it would revolutionize rock.” On 12 of his 14 studio albums, Yankovic has featured a polka medley or an accordion-heavy mashup of popular songs on the album’s theme, such as 2011’s “Polka Face,” a parody of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” In 2018, Yankovic tapped into Broadway’s Hamilton craze by releasing “The Hamilton Polka” a medley of several songs from the hit show sung as a fast-paced polka, accompanied by accordion. The song holds the distinction of being the first polka song to chart on Billboard’s Digital Songs sales list. When Hamilton premiered on Disney+ last year, he released a video version with the song synced to clips from the show.
Despite the success as a renowned accordion player, Yankovic admitted to talk show host Conan O’Brien that the instrument is “not the babe magnet you think it would be.”