Thursday, July 19, 2012

New Non-fiction: Ethnomusicology

Squeeze This! A Cultural History of the Accordion in America by Marion Jacobson

Now here’s something different. The first book of its kind, this is a readable academic inquiry into accordion technology and culture in America, full of technical information about the evolution of the accordion as an instrument and interesting details about its place in popular musical culture. The accordion has had a checkered and colorful fate in America. It debuted in classical concert halls in the late 19th century, and through most of the 20th century suffered a rather steady decline in musical respectability. This was an arc not mirrored in the estimation of the accordion in other places in the world, and so part of what is engaging about this story is that it tells us not only about the history of the accordion but also something interesting culturally about ourselves, about the history of life in America.

In America the accordion crossed over into popular culture on the vaudeville stage in the early years of the 20th century. In that association it picked up some long-lasting negative connotations. It became viewed as part of a novelty act, the accompaniment to corny and shtick entertainment. Accordion music was dismissed for being more sentimental than serious. The connection of the accordion to American urban working-class ethnicity, primarily among Italians and Eastern European immigrants, doomed any aspirations of the accordion to acceptance in high culture. Immigrant tastes were often caricatured as cheesy and tawdry, and more darkly, the accordion became connected with musical entertainment in bordellos and saloons. The accordion for much of the century remained paradoxically both a popular and outsider instrument. It has perhaps always maintained a tinge of that outsider edge even when in mid-century it was manufactured more cheaply and marketed successfully to a white middle-class market.

The inroads into white-middle class musical culture in the 1940s and '50s is probably what those of us of a certain generation remember most about the place of the accordion in American culture. These were the years in which famous accordion players like Lawrence Welk and Myron Floren, Dick Contino and Frankie Yankovic reached a large popular music audience, using what was by then thought of as a traditionally “ethnic” instrument to entertain large audiences with the songs of a uniquely American catalogue. Many in that middle-class audience were the second generation sons and daughters of immigrants for whom the accordion was an important part of their community identity. The songs they heard their parents play were an expression of the world their parents had left behind, their experience in America, and their assimilation to American culture.

Rock and Roll effectively killed the accordion. But Jacobson notes here some recent attempts to incorporate the instrument into rock and popular music. She sees the main legacy and future of the accordion, however, to be its versatility as a “world music instrument.” It has been adaptable to a variety of musical genres and folk music traditions throughout the world. This book is a must for accordion players, but is also a delight for those second and third generation children for whom the music played on the accordion has been so important a part of our young lives, our first introduction to music and our first glimpse into the adult and emotive world of our parents. Yes, the sound of the accordion seems an apposite companion to the most sentimental of songs, but the accordion could also be revved to a pep and polka that got us dancing. Roll Out the Barrel.

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