Back in the Mesozoic Era, when I was a college professor, I team taught a course in American Popular Culture with a guy I’ll call Tony.
It was a night class, made up entirely of adults, and after class we’d unprofessionally go out with our students, down a few beers, and tell stories. Or rather, we’d listen to Tony. He was in the music department, a brilliant jazz musician, and one of the funniest guys I ever met. He would regale us with stories about how he wrote the musical score for a porn film called “Water World”, the contents of which I’ll leave you to imagine. It so embarrassed him that he spelled his last name backwards in the credits. Or of growing up in the legendary Italian North End of Boston and taking lessons on the ‘cordeen — his first instrument. Tony never referred to the accordion any other way, and when he told his story of Noni’s pride when he played ‘cordeen for the Bishop, we collapsed in laughter.
I thought of Tony when, in my sixties, and for no apparent reason, I decided to study the ‘cordeen myself. My other musical tastes ran to symphonies and opera, and I’ve played classical piano for over half a century. For most of my adult life, the accordion has been the subject of musical ridicule – something you played when you were terminally uncool. My desire to play it made no sense at all — which is probably why I decided to do it.
So one warm autumn afternoon a few years ago, I drove the 30 miles into Philadelphia to buy a ‘cordeen of my own.
If you take a leisurely walk down South Street in Philadelphia, you’ll discover all sorts of interesting storefronts. Yes, it’s THAT South Street, as in “Where do all the hippies meet?” (Google that if you’re under 50). There are a bunch of dubious eateries, a fair share of tattoo parlors, some particularly bizarre clothing shops, and, of course, bars, pawnshops, and sad looking social welfare agencies.
Head toward the river to 2nd Street and turn right. You’ll find yourself gazing in the window of Liberty Bellows, a narrow three-story shop literally crammed to the rafters with accordions: it is one of the few remaining accordion shops in the country. It’s not far from the Italian Market; Rocky probably trained nearby. And Mike, the guy who runs it, went to Princeton and Wharton. I wonder what his Wharton professors thought when he announced he was opening an accordion store?
But he’s smart (yeah, go figure, Princeton & Wharton). You see, you can’t get accordions just anywhere. Big on-line music stores survive by provisioning the national overstock of guitarists: Sam Ash and Sweetwater don’t even sell ‘cordeens. There are a ton of used accordions available on eBay – but most of them are low-end models that have been languishing in closets since the demise of The Herbert Brozinski Accordion School in 1962. Most people selling ‘cordeens on eBay don’t seem to know anything about them. For example: “ I don’t know the model or the age. It seems to play ok but I don’t play so I can’t judge it. I am selling this to play but nothing beyond that it looks good.”
Fills you with confidence, doesn’t it?
If eBay is too risky for you, you can mouse over to Amazon and buy a cheap Chinese accordion with an ersatz Italian name on it. Don’t be surprised, however, if it’s a cleverly disguised listening device, silently sending your family secrets back to Beijing.
No, the place to buy an accordion – especially a used one — is at a bona fide accordion shop, if you can find one. Liberty Bellows is your only choice in the Philly area, unless you want to drive out to New Jersey and Accordion-o-Rama (really!). Because if you want to buy one of these previously owned beasts, you’d better buy it from someone who knows what he’s doing. The accordion is a surprisingly intricate piece of machinery – a modern instrument has hundreds of finicky parts – and the store staff has to be able to bend, coax, twist, and cajole them into working order.
Certainly, I had no idea of what I was doing or what to look for. So I walked innocently into Liberty Bellows’ front door and announced, “I’d like to buy an accordion”.
I was greeted by a lavishly pierced and tattooed young woman who smiled distractedly beneath the ring in her nose.
“Sure. Are you looking for piano or button? Do you know what reed configuration you like? Stradella or Freebass? How many switches? How many keys? Are you looking for a 120 button or something smaller?” She kept speaking, but I had already lost her.
That’s when I learned that there is no standard instrument called an accordion. Yeah, there are upright, spinet, and grand pianos; and there are Bb and Eb and A clarinets – but they’re clarinets and pianos. Accordions have a sometimes bewildering assortment of things to push, twist, and pull, and what you find on one isn’t likely to be on the other.
For example, I had never heard of a “button accordion.” Since my accordianic experience was thus far limited to The Polka Dots of Binghamton, New York and the Lawrence Welk show, I had no idea there was a whole race of ‘cordeens without keys. Button accordions have two or three rows of buttons where the keys would be, and apparently are very popular in Cajun and European circles. I wasn’t interested; I already knew the piano-style keyboard well. I’d just concentrate on learning the buttons. How hard could that be?
“I know I want one with a piano-style keyboard,” I offered. “But I don’t know much else.”
My young friend quickly deduced I was an accordivirgin, and gave me the sweet, indulgent smile one reserves for older idiots.
“OK,” she said tolerantly. “Let me ask you a few questions. What kind of music do you want to play?”
I had never really considered this. You buy a piano, you can play pretty much anything. Apparently, that was not the case here.
“Um. Folk music, I guess. Klezmer. Old rock n’ roll, maybe. Standards. I want to be able to carry it around and play it at parties.”
She looked at me with an expression that indicated she did not wish to attend any parties in which I performed. “You’ll probably not want a full-sized instrument then. Maybe a 60-button?”
I looked around at the accordions stuffed into every inch of space – on the floor, on shelves, in showcases. They were all different. I had never considered variety in button count, either.
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, a full-sized accordion has 120 buttons. If you get a 60 button instrument you can’t play any diminished chords.”
For the un-initiated, diminished chords are that dark and menacing sound that plays in the film soundtrack when the terrified co-eds realize the ax murderer is in the basement. I didn’t think it was a big sacrifice. If you can’t push a button for it, you can play it on the keyboard. A 60 would be easier to carry. And who needed 120 freaking buttons, anyway? Surely they weren’t all necessary. It made sense.
“Of course, a sixty will also have a smaller keyboard.”
“Fewer keys. Sometimes narrower keys, too.”
And that’s how I learned that full-sized 120 button ‘cordeens might have 37 or 41 keys. A 60-button job might have 34. It wasn’t even uncommon to find 48 button beasts with 22 keys, or even fewer!
Now this was an issue. What if, after achieving virtuosity in a few months, I’m chewing on an appasionata melody and just run out of keys? I’d have to think about that. But she changed the subject.
“Are you interested in a musette? Or maybe more of a polka sound?”
“Musette. It’s a kind of vibrato. You hear it a lot in French café music.”
“Oh, yeah. It’s that Edith Piaf kind of sound.”
“Who?” she asked.
I explained. She explained. Turns out there’s all kinds of musette. You can get French Musette, or you can get Italian Musette, or you can even get German musette. The difference is in the “wetness.” French musette is “wetter” than Italian musette. And way wetter than German musette, which probably makes your ‘cordeen sound like beer and pretzels. The Brits don’t have a musette of their own, and are apparently content to stay dry. You may make any assumptions about European nationalities that you wish.
Anyway, I didn’t understand any of it.
“It’s the way the accordion is tuned. To get a musette, you need to send the sound through more than one reed. On a three reed musette, one reed is tuned a little above the pitch, one is tuned at the pitch, and one is tuned slightly below.”
I mused on musette a moment. “You deliberately tune them flat and sharp?” All I could think of was the painful sound my piano made when one string was slightly out of tune with its neighbor. “That would sound terrible on a piano!”
“Well, it’s not a piano. It’s an accordion. And the further away from the pitch the higher and lower sounding reeds are, the ‘wetter’ the musette is.”
I agreed that I’d like my new ‘cordeen to slosh around at least a little.
“OK, I think we have what you want. I’ll be back in a moment.”
She rooted around in a storage room, digging like a paleontologist among the heaps of instruments. Then she reappeared, and I thrilled to my first sight of my first love: a sleekly celluloid, ivory colored, 60-button, 24 key, vintage Hohner Verdi IA, made in Germany in the 1940s.
It was beautiful. I put my arms through the straps and rested it on my knee like a fragile newborn. I moved the bellows gently and pressed a key. It made a noise. I smiled. I tried not to think it might have been made by a Nazi.
I ran my fingers over the 60 shiny black buttons on the left. Uh oh. I looked up with concern.
“I don’t think it fits,” I said. “I can’t see the buttons.”
I suppose there are better ways to brand yourself as an idiot, but that one worked fine at the moment.
“No, you can’t see the buttons, ” she said, barely suppressing her amusement. “You have to learn the buttons by feel.”
“There are 60 of them! How can I tell which is which?”
“You need to learn them. That’s how you learn to play.”
And that’s where I learned the basics of the Stradella system. Now, Stradella sounds like the name of the assassin in a Verdi opera, but it turns out there was no Signor Stradella, theoretical accordionist. Stradella is a town in northern Italy that seems to have produced this arrangement of ‘cordeen buttons by immaculate conception — no one knows who the actual inventor is. – some time around the beginning of the 20th century
It was then that she initiated me into Accordianic Mystery, and it was a good thing I had a musical background – including music theory. To wit: a 60 button Stradella system ‘cordeen has 5 rows of 12 buttons each. You can only understand the first row in relation to the 2nd row, which contains your bass buttons. C-D-E-F-G, etc., except… hold on there…..the buttons are next to each other, but the notes aren’t. Unlike the piano keyboard I’ve been used to for over fifty years, each button is a 5th away from its nearest neighbor. So the bass note next to C is G, and the one after that is D! As part of my all-too-brief introduction to ‘cordeen fundamentals, my new friend told me this 2nd row is called the “fundamental.”
Back to the first row: that’s the “counterbass.” Each button there is a major 3rd up from its friend in row 1. So the counterbass of the C button is E, unless, of course, you’re moving your fingers in the other direction, where it’s the counterbass of F, which is A. Got that?
“How do I know what button is what?” I asked her.
She shoved my finger to a button in the middle of the 2nd row.
“Feel that? The depression on that button? That’s your ‘C’. And there are little bumps on the E and the A-flat.”
“That’s it? How do I find the others?”
I was afraid of that.
“So the other buttons are the chords?”
“Yes. If you move your finger on the diagonal down in the other direction, you get the major, minor, 7th, and if you had them, the diminished chords, but you don’t.”
OK, that made sense. How hard could it be? I thought for a moment, and, with the serene confidence of ignorance, said, “I’ll take it. Thanks.”
She took it to one of the Liberty Bellows technicians (I was surprised to see there were three of them! Was there that much demand?), and he bent, coaxed, twisted, and cajoled it and pronounced it fit to be sold.
She put the Verdi in its very ugly case, I took out my plastic, and we made the transaction. For $485, I had joined the Fraternity. She walked with me to the door, dodging ‘cordeens along the way.
I smiled stupidly and looked at her and her piercings and tattoos. I’ll never get used to it. I’m an old guy – I can’t reconcile myself to all that bodily iron and ink.
She said goodbye, and she knew I was looking at her critically. Her eyes were perfectly defiant: go-ahead-and-judge. See if I care. She sold accordions in an accordion shop in a tiny hole-in-the-wall in South Philly. And then I realized how it all made sense and why I wanted to play the ‘cordeen in the first place: the accordion is the raised middle finger of musical instruments.
Copyright 2017 Stephen A. Hirsch