By Megan Emberton

EmbertonIt was destiny. I was a weary piano student, disenchanted with life at a music school, home for an entire summer because I had felt far too wretched to land myself a spot at any summer festivals. And then we met. The accordion was waiting for me, behind the jewelry counter at a local junk shop. It was very 1960s, gold accents, ridiculous, smelled like mildew, and it was the answer to all of my problems. I hemmed and hawed for a couple of hours, then blew three hundred bucks on an instrument I couldn’t really play. My visiting aunt chipped in because when I strapped that box on my shoulders, my gloomy face lit up for the first time all summer. We were made for each other, the accordion and me.

My instrument and I were relegated to playing outside for the first few weeks. With every push and pull, the bellows would billow a musty plume of dust. My mother said that sunlight exposure is key for getting rid of mold and mildew — oh, and accordions are loud instruments whether or not you can play them properly. I spent a lot of time sitting on a stool in the driveway, getting used to playing a keyboard sideways and negotiating the mysteries of the 120 bass buttons my left hand had to contend with. I am still not sure what the neighbors thought.

Not even a year after finding my junk store accordion, I was looking for a job that would make the coming summer less boring than the last. On a whim I called an accordion store (yes, they exist) and asked if they would hire me. And just like that, I had myself a full-time summer job learning how to dismantle accordions, clean accordions, repair accordions, make online demonstration videos of accordions, talk about accordions, play different kinds of accordions, sell accordions and ship and package accordions. I logged almost four hundred hours in that tiny, grimy accordion-filled shop. That summer I learned just how important the accordion is to so many people. Dozens of people walked in that store every day, from curious passers-by to professional players, from people getting their grandfather’s accordion fixed up so they could try it out, to the CEO of a huge communications company who was retiring and could finally pick up his lifetime love again. The accordion holds a huge place in America’s heart and history.

Once the apple of America’s eye, the accordion’s popularity took a nosedive in the 1960s. The instrument has been trying to reclaim its former glamour ever since, and it just may be getting there. A misunderstood instrument, the accordion is only now starting to win back the hearts of younger generations. With its unmistakable sound, vintage appeal, and quirkiness, more and more young musicians are rescuing the instrument from basements, attics, and ill-deserved notoriety.

There are many different types of accordions, but it was piano accordions that took America by storm in the early decades of the twentieth century. With its handily uniform and familiar keyboard, the piano accordion could suit the needs both of enterprising manufacturers (many of them Italian immigrants who set up accordion factories in major American cities), and the brimful melting pot of squeezers from all over Europe for whom the accordion had come to play an important part in their musical traditions. The instrument’s use in vaudeville cemented the piano accordion as an important part of American culture. Italian brothers Guido and Pietro Deiro were at the forefront of the vaudeville circuit, and their celebrity (Guido even secretly married actress Mae West) marked the beginning of a golden age for the instrument.

The accordion’s connection with immigrants would help herald its decline and unfashionable image. In the twenties, thirties, and forties, most people purchasing accordions were from working-class, often immigrant backgrounds. Those striving for upward mobility in American society often dropped the accordion or switched to an instrument with fewer connotations. But groups such as the American Accordionists’ Association sought to make the accordion a legitimate instrument. In the hopes of moving beyond the accordion’s ethnic associations, method books were written, pieces were commissioned, accordion ensembles were founded across the country, and teaching and learning accordion became a serious business. Come the fifties, the instrument and its “undesirable origins” had been obscured enough to make the accordion one of the best-selling instruments in America. A child with an accordion and lessons was the sign of an respectable — probably white — middle-class family doing well in the world. So what brought the accordion and its runaway mainstream success to a halt?

Rock ‘n’ roll did the instrument in. Electric guitar killed the accordion. The admittedly heavy and awkward nature of the accordion had nothing on the sleekness of electric guitars, and the accordion’s sound — familiar to all from radio and such television programs as The Lawrence Welk Show — was just not hip enough to make it in the new scene. A few early rock ‘n’ roll bands included accordion, but the clunky box was soon replaced by electric organs with a similar sound without the heft. Accordion pedagogues were not interested in aligning themselves with the new rock genre, and the accordion was buried in fuddy-duddiness.

The 1990s saw the sparks of an accordion renaissance, with a new obsession with tango (remember Al Pacino in 1992’s Scent of a Woman?) and increasing globalization giving rise to “world music.” Along with the Argentinian tango, other accordion genres were resurfacing — Cajun, zydeco, polka, klezmer, and conjunto. The global music craze and search for “novel” and “ethnic” sounds paved the way for a re-acceptance of the accordion as a versatile instrument that could add something special to a group.

Fast-forward to the early twenty-tens, and the accordion is an accepted and relished quirk in many bands today: Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire, Zach Condon of Beirut, Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists, and Yann Tiersen and his Amelie soundtrack all spring to mind. Moving away from the norms of the “MTV generations,” youth culture today wants “to be recognized for being different — to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves… style… [is] something you found in a thrift shop…” (that’s according to Matt Granfield’s satirical but enlightening HipsterMattic). The accordion fits right in. The instrument is back, but it stands for something different. No longer a sign of someone’s homeland and no longer a token of white well-to-dos, the squeezebox can start fresh even with its history and associations. With the rising popularity of more accordion-centric genres: Brazilian forró, Celtic music, and a huge gypsy jazz revival, the instrument is ready to be more versatile and popular than ever.

I love the accordion for a lot of reasons. I love its sound. I love how playing it has introduced me to so many people and their accordion memories and stories (and bad jokes). I love how the instrument has been so used in so many different countries for so many different kinds of music. I love that its taught me to go out on a limb — from playing new kinds of music to taking a new job in a new city. It’s a conversation starter, and it has a future. Check your attics, basements, closets, antique stores, or your local accordion shop for a chance at playing an ubiquitous instrument that oozes character and history. There is life in the old squeezeboxes yet.

When Megan Emberton isn’t studying Piano Performance at the Oberlin Conservatory, her musical preoccupations include improvisation, unusual instruments, education, and music for dance. She has accompanied ballet classes for the Royal Scottish Ballet, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Oberlin College, and the Youth Dance Theater of Michigan. The Chelsea, Michigan native is also a student of piano tuning with the Oberlin Conservatory piano shop, and spent last summer interning at a Philadelphia accordion shop. After graduation, she may enroll in the Royal Scottish Conservatoire’s dance accompanying program, or else travel the world and take a deep breath before entertaining the possibility of further formal education. She has been named one of ten Rubin Fellows who will participate in Oberlin’s Rubin Institute for Music Criticism in January.

Published on December 27, 2011.