In Scott P. Richert’s otherwise fine article “Polka Can’t Die” (The Rockford Files, November 2004), I was somewhat pained by his only slightly veiled disdain for the accordion. Polka without accordion? As soulless as Bach on a Moog synthesizer!
His aversion does place him in some traditional company. A Daumier cartoon has a character whose snooker game is disturbed by the sound of an accordion saying, “One does not yet have the right to kill the people who play this instrument, but there is hope we will soon get it!”
Invented in the early 19th century, the accordion became wildly popular with the lower classes of Europe. Probably the vast majority of the immigrants to this country loved it. From the hard-driving R&B that Zydeco musician Clifton Chenier was doing in the mid-50’s to the tasteful jazz playing of Art Van Dam or the traditional Irish accordionist playing slow airs that should make a stone weep, the instrument has a versatility, subtlety, and emotional range that, to my ears, even approaches the human voice.
I’m afraid the ’lectric guitar is the folk instrument of our brave age. The match is perfect.
New Orleans, LA
Mr. Richert Replies:
My remarks about the accordion (as my friend Mark Kennedy has probably guessed) were in jest, particularly the final lines: “To a standing ovation, they leave the stage as the next act, a zydeco band, starts to set up. I want to stick around, but the children decide it’s time to leave: The zydeco band has an accordion.” I am, in fact, a fan of the accordion, at least in the right place and at the right time (and played by the right musician). Both zydeco and polka are almost unimaginable without the accordion—almost, but not quite, as the Polkaholics have shown. (And we should remember that, while the accordion predated the polka, the first polkas were played not on the accordion but on violins.)
The trouble today is that most people’s experience of the accordion has been in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and most emphatically at the hands of the wrong musician. And unfortunately, those experiences have tainted the music most closely associated with the accordion in the popular imagination.
The danger is that the polka, a musical form that has as many varieties as there are European ethnic groups (and American regions), will wither away because of those experiences. By adopting the “folk instrument of our brave age,” however, the Polkaholics have gotten people interested not only in polka but in polka played on accordions. My children are a case in point: They are just as happy to sing along to Frankie Yankovic’s “No Beer Today” now as they are to listen to the Polkaholics’ “Old Style Beer.” But that wouldn’t have happened without the Polkaholics.
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