My accordion

Sam Smith 1990 – One of the nicest things that happened over the holidays was that my youngest son asked me whether I still had my accordion. It was the first time in about two decades that anyone had inquired after my accordion and even then it was only with derision. The accordion is an orphan instrument not unlike the oboe, which has been called an ill wind that nobody blows good. It is an instrument so derogated that one of its affinity groups is known as the Closet Accordion Players of America. And it is an instrument that, six months after our marriage, brought my wife running down to the basement crying, “I can’t believe you have one of those” after I had discovered it behind some boxes and taken it out for a spin.


Kathy, after all, had been raised in Milwaukee and too many of her friends had taken accordion lessons at Lo Duca Brothers and then stood on risers at the Milwaukee Auditorium with 200 similarly possessed youths playing interminable choruses of tunes like “Lady of Spain.”


My curiosity about the accordion went back to college days when I played drums with Larry Yanuzzi, already so proficient a musician that he had the stage name of Larry Vann. Larry actually played a Chordavox, which was not really an accordion at all, although it looked like one, since electronics had supplanted the need to push and pull the bellows.


Later, when I was getting interested in the piano again after a disastrous childhood introduction, I was assigned as navigator on a Coast Guard cutter and bought an accordion as my sea-going piano. I would practice on the bridge — the only space far enough from the rest of the crew — while on duty in home port.


The accordion player’s right hand is directed to a small keyboard, the left manipulates up to 120 buttons that play the bass notes and chords. On my accordion, the C note button has a small inset fake diamond to provide a tactile clue to home base. The buttons above and below it are not the next notes in the C scale, but rather five notes distant based on the scale of the lower button. Thus the buttons immediately above C are G, D A, and E. From each root note there extends a diagonal row of buttons which play the major, minor, seventh, and diminished versions of the chord.


The five note gaps are anything but arbitrary; in them lie some of the most profound magic of music, part of a journey around what is called the cycle of fifths. In fact, the history of western music is in part that of exploration ever further around and across this circle. If one is playing an accordion, it is also a trip ever further away from the little button with the fake diamond inset.


Despite some years of piano lessons, I had little sense of the true structure of music. I was unable to absorb it intellectually. But as I pressed the little black buttons, I soon became aware of what was going on. What had been, at the piano, a seemingly arbitrary collection of notes revealed their meaning in my left hand. With surprising frequency, the buttons I needed to push were close to each other and part of a pattern. I thus discovered that there was, after all, a system, as I learned music theory through my fingertips.


I also learned why the accordion was no longer so popular. If you play a simple folk song you will perhaps use only the C, G, and D chords, but if you are playing modern jazz you may be hopscotching around the cycle of 5ths in a manner that would be extremely difficult on a squeeze box. Further, as music developed so did the number of chords. You will not find a button for a C augmented 9th chord on an accordion. It is an instrument best suited for traditional music faithful to traditional rules.


After the Coast Guard, my accordion rested untended. Even after I gave up drums entirely in favor the piano, it only came out occasionally. One of the few paid gigs in which I used an accordion was a 4th of July parade in Hyattsville, Maryland. I had protested to the leader of our band that I couldn’t really work a whole parade on accordion, but he pointed out something I had missed having never been in a marching band: in a parade you really only need to know one or two tunes. So I played “Maryland My Maryland” and “Bill Bailey” 62 choruses each on a trailer pulled by a John Deere tractor. Then the accordion went back into the basement.


Now it will soon by going to San Francisco where it may eventually make the eclectic rock sounds of Captain Tonic even more so. It’s a good idea, for rock is a throwback to simpler chordal times, which helps explain the squeeze box’s recent revival. I’m glad my Scandalli will play again. A soundless instrument is like an empty house. After all, if you had 120 buttons including one with a fake diamond, mother-of-pearl decoration, a case lined in shiny blue velvet, and the ability to play endless choruses of “Lady of Spain,” would you want to end up silent in somebody’s basement?

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