April 24, 2012 | by Ezra Glinter
On a recent Tuesday afternoon I was sitting with Walter Kuehr in the back room of Main Squeeze Accordions on Essex Street, asking questions about the accordion business. He said he mostly does repairs these days, and he conducts the Main Squeeze Orchestra, a fourteen-piece all-female accordion band he founded in 2002. Photos of famous accordion players line the wall: Myron Floren of the Lawrence Welk Show; John Linnell from They Might Be Giants; Texas conjunto star Flaco Jimenez; “Weird Al” Yankovic. They’ve all played in Main Squeeze, often in exchange for instrument repairs. On a shelf piled high with books and accordion music there’s an advance copy of Squeeze This: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, a study of the piano accordion by ethnomusicologist Marion Jacobson. She was once a student of Kuehr’s, and they keep in touch.
“Something drew me in,” Jacobson said later, recalling her first visit to Main Squeeze, in 2001. “I had been thinking for some time that the accordion would be my next instrument. How could I not have this thing that makes even the simplest melodies sound so danceable, so rich?” Though Jacobson got her ruby-red Delicia Carmen elsewhere (she traded for it with her piano, which is now the house instrument at the Brooklyn music venue Barbes), she returned to Main Squeeze to learn how to play.
In most respects, Jacobson and Kuehr couldn’t be more different from each other. Kuehr is a lean, white-haired, beret-wearing man in his mid-fifties, with blue eyes and a clipped German accent. He was born in Frankfurt, where he started playing accordion at age six. When he moved to New York in 1989 he worked as a dishwasher and food deliveryman before opening Main Squeeze in 1996.
Jacobson was born on Long Island and grew up in the DC suburbs of Maryland. In the late 1980s she was a classical-music critic for The Washington Post, and later got a PhD in ethnomusicology from New York University. While Kuehr comes across as an iconoclastic accordion impresario, Jacobson seems like a levelheaded academic. But this much they have in common: both are accordion people.
“Anybody holding an accordion and walking into an accordion club or convention will be welcome,” Jacobson told me, explaining accordionists’ unusual sense of unity. “There’s this idea that because you and I play the accordion we’re all in this together.” William Schimmel, a prominent New York accordion virtuoso and tango revivalist, agreed. “If two bass players got on the same a subway car, chances are they wouldn't speak to each other. But if two people with accordion cases get on the subway chances are they’ll hook up. It’s that kind of community.”
The accordion hasn’t always inspired such camaraderie. For much of its history the instrument was the object of contention between its ethnic and pop-culture proponents on one side, and those who wanted it to be taken seriously as a classical instrument on the other. Despite the solidarity avowed by Jacobson and Schimmel, there isn’t always much connecting the different streams of accordion music, or the currents within them. Today, the accordion might be taken up by Balkan, klezmer, or zydeco musicians, neo-vaudeville acts like Portland’s Vagabond Opera or burlesque performer Suzanne “Kitten on the Keys” Ramsey, ethnic-flavored indie bands like Beirut and Gogol Bordello, or classical and jazz musicians with a flair for the exotic. What is it, then, that accounts for accordionists’ sense of solidarity? The answer, it seems, has to do with Lawrence Welk.
Milquetoast musician, bandleader, and host of an eponymous show that lasted more than twenty years, Lawrence Welk is probably the most vilified figure in all accordiana. With his pomaded coif, powder-blue suits, and opioid waltzes, he is accused of typecasting the accordion as unbearably square. For proof of Welk’s influence just take the accordion-playing Steve Urkel, a practitioner of the Welk-approved lifestyle if there ever was one. When Urkel is wooed by fellow accordionist Myra Monkhouse in the fourth season of Family Matters, she plays an autographed “Myron Floren Polkamaster,” named after Welk’s accordion-wielding sidekick. By the time ABC cancelled Walk’s show in 1971, its main sponsor was the dietary supplement Geritol.
It was not always thus. As Jacobson relates, the accordion was once not only respectable, but glamorous. One of its earliest twentieth-century popularizers was the Italian immigrant Guido Diero, a vaudeville celebrity who was married for a time to the movie star Mae West. Guido’s younger brother Pietro was also a prolific accordionist who recorded 147 sides for Victor Records, arranged the accordion School of Velocity instruction book, manufactured a bust of his own head, and minted Pietro Diego coins as collectors’ items.
Later in the century other immigrant communities produced their own stars, like Cleveland’s Frank Yankovic (of no relation to Al), who popularized Slovenian-style polka (SSP), hosted his own TV show (“The Yankovic Hour”), received the first Grammy award in the Polka category, and beat Duke Ellington in a battle of the bands. In 1947, when Columbia didn’t want him to record the Shelton brothers’ “Just Because,” he trashed the studio before agreeing to buy the first ten thousand units himself. The record sold over a million copies.
Jacobson argues that the performance of SSP and other immigrant styles wasn’t simply a means of expressing ethnic identity. Rather, the incorporation of jazz, pop, and other American genres made the accordion a means moving closer to the mainstream. But for the next generation, which grew up during the era of electric guitar and British invasion, even the most Americanized polka was too close to the old home. Lawrence Welk and his Geritol didn’t help, either.
That gestalt has changed in the past few decades. The rise of “world music” in the 1980s and ’90s brought about a renewed interest in the accordion, along with a backlash against electronic music making by artists like They Might Be Giants and David Byrne. Avant-garde musician Guy Klucevsek boasts projects with names like “Four Accordions of the Apocalypse” and Bruce Springsteen uses the instrument to burnish his working-class image. All the while organizations like the American Accordionists’ Association hold conferences and competitions and a thousand virtuosi take to the Internet to show just how fast human fingers can play “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
But is there anything that unites these strands, aside from anti-Welk sentiment? Among the accordion players I surveyed, answers ranged from a simple “no,” to factors like “geekiness, ethnic flavor, enthusiasm, and upper-body strength.” Many accordionists mentioned the need to overcome the perception of the instrument as a joke, and the difficulty of being accepted outside niche musical communities. “When you play an instrument that can cost as much as a compact car and has more moving parts than one, you want to be taken seriously,” one player wrote in an e-mail. Another confessed: “We are lonesome cowboys, I guess ... We fight prejudice that the accordion is a cheesy instrument that can only play polkas for retired people.”
Accordion players also display a newfound playfulness that winks at the banality of Welk, the self-seriousness of the AAA, and the cornball cheesiness of Oktoberfest polkameisters everywhere. “I think the younger generation sees it a lot more ironically than we saw it years ago, they have a lot more fun with it,” Schimmel said. “They don't walk around with a chip on their shoulders.” Jacobson spots in all-female accordion acts like the Main Squeeze Orchestra evidence of empowered female sexuality, a theory perhaps supported by a Main Squeeze member’s Ryan Gosling–memed Tumblr called “Hey Girl. Accordionists are foxy.” And self-made iconoclasts like Kuehr continue to forge ahead with a thousand wacky projects, such as conducting fourteen accordionists in a recital of works by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. When I left the store, he handed me the flier.
Accordionists may be a flock of odd birds, but their devotion to their instrument is compelling. Today they tread a fine line between ironic hipster coolness and the age-old covenant of nerd-dom. Both of these qualities can be attractive and repulsive simultaneously, and it’s often hard to distinguish which is which. But there’s only so much cultural baggage you can drag along with you, especially when you’re hoisting a thirty-pound instrument aloft. To most accordionists, the thing just looks great, sounds great, and is a blast to play. So how could it not catch on? When Kuehr invited me to his Main Squeeze concert, I told him I just might go.
Ezra Glinter is a staff writer for the Forward and a very amateur accordion player.