The ‘Cordeen and Me: Episode 12 — Reflections on the Plague Year

Social Distancing isn’t a problem for accordionists….

Or that’s what the comedians would have you believe. After all, people have been avoiding squeezeboxers for years, right?  A gentleman is a man who can play the accordion and doesn’t. Jon, main human character in the “Garfield” comic, plays the ‘cordeen. Ha ha. The cartoonist trots out his anti-accordionism whenever he can’t think of something actually funny.

And, of course, there’s that “The Far Side” cartoon people keep sending me: Welcome to Heaven; here’s your harp. Welcome to Hell; here’s your accordion. 

Such snarky opinions aren’t new. The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, in its smug, know-it-all House of Lords fashion, stated that “the timbre of the accordion is coarse and devoid of beauty”[i]

Ha ha. Who wants to hear an accordion?

Turns out, it’s everybody.

During the Pandemic of 2020-2021, it is the accordionists of this sickly world who have been the Musical First Responders, all over the country and across the greater globe.

Consider Rich Glauber, the unsung hero of Eugene, Oregon, who strolled the streets playing his button box [ii] to bring much-needed joy to his neighbors.

Think of Mark Nemec, the “Prince of Prague,” who sat outside his empty café and serenaded the depressed townsfolk of Prague, Nebraska, lifting their spirits. [iii]

Praise Miles Hoyle of Hampton Roads, VA, who offered an “Accordion at Your Door” service[iv]  to bring live music back into gloomy lives.

Laud to Mark Swogier of Tonawanda, New York — an old town on the old Erie Canal. It cancelled its “Canal Fest” this year, but Mark floated down the Niagara River playing his ‘cordeen and providing a fest of his own [v]. “We’re together trying to explore meaning, spread some more cheer with the community,” he said.

And who could forget Paul Stein, who sat on his stoop in Brooklyn – a hallowed tradition if there ever was one —  and serenaded his neighbors with the “Emergency Accordion Stoop Extravaganza” for 45 minutes  every evening? Crowds gathered in anticipation and clapped along with the glorious sound.[vi]  For three quarters of an hour, at least, the pandemic was forgotten.

It wasn’t just in the US of Accordion-Mocking-A, either: in far off, severely locked-down Sicily, a man with a ‘cordeen stepped out onto the balcony of his crowded high-rise and began to play – and one by one, people crept out of their apartments and onto their own balconies and sang. There was genuine hope and solidarity in the air.

So scoff all you want, people. It’s the much-maligned accordion that has stared down the virus and brought joy and comfort to a nervous world. And in a quick acknowledgement of that irrefutable fact, three seconds into the June 2021 “I Love New York” TV ad that welcomes tourists back to the city-that-encompasses-everything, you’ll see a young man playing the ‘cordeen in front of the iconic Washington Square arch. [i] In the time of a pandemic, the accordion has gone from musical pariah to tourist attraction.

And why is that? Well, the easy answer is that the accordion is portable and loud and very adaptable to a small Sicilian balcony. You can bring it out on the spur of the moment,  and you don’t have to set up anything.  You can stand outside the eighth floor on numero 23 Via Principe di Delmonte and still hear it on the fourth floor of numero 25. And it provides both bass and treble, so it can fully accompany the neighbors singing Ciuri, Ciuri.  

But there’s something more: something elemental that perhaps we didn’t previously realize. For some reason, independent of nation and custom, the accordion reaches us in a way few other instruments can.[ii]

When we listen to an accordion in times of stress – and Lord knows the unending stress the pandemic has brought us – it seems that our minds open and we forget all the snarky ‘cordeen jokes. The sound of the accordion touches something primal in us, be it a wistful memory or the joy of the moment. And that happens across cultures – in fact, many cultures see the ‘cordeen as their defining instrument.

For example, the website Complete France, in explaining the appeal of the ‘cordeen, tells us:

Indelibly associated with notions of smoke-filled French cafés and Parisian dance halls, the accordion, with its lively melodies and underlying melancholy, is the quintessential French icon, even though it was invented in Vienna by piano maker Cyril Demian in the 1820s. [iii] 

But the website Russia Beyond claims Today, the accordion is associated with Russia, just like bears or balalaikas, and claims it’s a “Russian National Instrument.”[iv] 

And in Texas, according to Wikipedia, In particular, the “accordion” was adopted by Tejano folk musicians at the turn of the 20th century, and it became a popular instrument for amateur musicians in Texas and Northern Mexico. [v]

As the University of Michigan’s website points out:

The accordion has always been a huge part of popular culture and is frequently the centerpiece of the folk music of that ethnicity. Whether you are Irish, French, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Colombian, Brazilian, Argentinean, Dominican, Mexican, Jewish, Egyptian, Algerian, Lebanese, Persian, Indian, or Chinese, the accordion and its relative instruments dominate the musical landscape of that traditional music.[vi] 

And, Good Lord, even in North Korea, accordions are known as “the people’s instrument”.

It is my thesis (everyone should have a thesis) that the reason for the accordion’s ubiquitous ubiquitousness is its sound. The unique sound of the accordion (and here I am not including the monstrous electronic synthesizers disguised as accordions) has a unique pull on our emotions.

This isn’t just a baseless theory: consider the following, from a study called Emotional Connotations of Musical Instrument Timbre in Comparison With Emotional Speech Prosody: Evidence From Acoustics and Event-Related Potentials:

Early empirical evidence for the association of timbre with emotion [revealed that]… systematic change in timbre … led to listeners’ attribution to different emotions. Studies have also shown that timbre could be more immediate to the recognition of emotion than other music cues which usually take longer to process…..[vii] 

Now, if I understand that properly, timbre, which Google defines as “the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity,” can create emotion all by itself – it doesn’t need any actual music to fire up your emotion machine.

The authors of a study published in 2006 in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded “Our findings show that timbre (instrument identity) independently affects the perception of emotions in music after controlling for other acoustic, cognitive, and performance factors.”  [viii]

…and that “Listeners’ consistent ratings … of the instrument sounds across experiments further indicate that timbre is a primary cue of conveying musical emotions. “

Putting it more simply:

In a way, sound is like touch at a distance. Waves of vibrating air travel through space and make contact in the ear drum where they vibrate a very few small bones like trees in a breeze. Our brains couple sound with emotional information, storing it as a bundle. Over time, specific sounds elicit pre-conditioned emotions. [ix]

Remember that: sound is like touch at a distance.

Without getting too mired in scientific analysis here, I can quote Sounding Emotional: How Timbre Choices Affect Emotion in Music, as posted by a website advising film composers how to create emotional effects:

Various bodies of research show that different musical instruments evoke certain emotions. The reason for this is contested. The emotive connotations of instruments might be something we’ve been ‘taught’ culturally by theatre or opera, and subsequently in films and games. However, there seem to be broader commonalities between emotions and the specific categories of timbre, which may apply cross-culturally. [x]

I have foraged relentlessly through the World Wide Web, searching for a scientific study of the “specific categories of timbre” inherent in the ‘cordeen — and come up empty. Alas, no one seems to have grappled with this critically important subject – so PhD students, there’s a dynamite dissertation topic.

 But actually,  I have a stronger proof, and you’ve already seen it: one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century — on April 12,1945 in Warm Springs, Georgia: Navy Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson pouring the grief of the nation from his accordion the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died.

fdrdeath

What other instrument could possibly have expressed the same depth of sorrow so simply, yet at the same time offer the solace of music? There’s no recording of the event – but you don’t need one. You can still hear it, can’t you? It is perfect. It is comforting

The accordion is pasta alla Norma, pierogies with lekvar, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, chicken soup with two matzoh balls, a cheesesteak wit’ whiz  – it is musical comfort food. No matter what it is playing – whether it’s that tune your grandpa sang in the bathtub, a hot gypsy jazz lick (as played by Dallas Vietty, of course), a Norwegian halling, a French musette, or a Colombian vallenato — the accordion is the musical equivalent of Mom’s meat loaf — Nonna’s pasta with gravy – bread just out of the oven.

But there’s something more: in this time of pandemic, when so many of us have been deprived of the simple pleasure of human touch, the accordion gives you more than just  touch at a distance; it is the only instrument that you actually hug – you hold a violin under your chin & wrap a guitar strap around your neck – but you hug an accordion. It’s literally bound to you, like a fragile newborn in a front-facing baby carrier. And it hugs you back — It rests against your heart, dependent upon you, and you give air to its lungs. And when you move with it, it sings.

“Everything will be all right,” it assures us. “We’ve been through troubles before….”


[1] https://theodora.com/encyclopedia/a/accordion.html. I can’t let this pass without quoting the following from Wikipedia: In 1917, using the pseudonym of S. S. Van Dine, the US art critic and author Willard Huntington Wright published Misinforming a Nation, a 200+ page criticism of inaccuracies and biases of the Encyclopædia Britannica eleventh edition. Wright claimed that Britannica was “characterized by misstatement, inexcusable omissions, rabid and patriotic prejudices, personal animosities, blatant errors of fact, scholastic ignorance, gross neglect of non-British culture, an astounding egotism, and an undisguised contempt for American progress”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclopædia_Britannica_Eleventh_Edition.  And more on that “timbre” business later.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8UytQzyNkU

[3] Website since deleted. Trust me.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f631SjlyJN8)

[5] https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nys/buffalo/news/2020/08/09/tonawanda-accordion-player-spreads-cheer-from-the-water

[6] https://abc7ny.com/accordion-paul-stein-stoop-concert-good-news-in-new-york/6131051

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IBqI7G-VQg).

[8] Check our Betsy Johnson’s meditation at https://insighttimer.com/betsyjohnson/guided-meditations/consider-the-accordion. Ms. Johnson definitely gets it.

[9] https://www.completefrance.com/travel/what-s-on/what-makes-the-accordion-a-french-icon-1-5953847

[10] https://www.rbth.com/multimedia/pictures/2017/05/29/how-the-accordion-became-russified_772202

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tejano_music

[12] https://ums.org/2014/09/26/artist-spotlight-why-we-love-accordion-and-you-should-too

13 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00737/full

[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2683716

[15] https://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/features/the-psychology-of-sound )

[16] . https://medium.com/the-sound-of-ai/sounding-emotional-how-timbre-choices-affect-emotion-in-music-27cbcf70f759

Copyright © 2021 Stephen A. Hirsch

All Rights Reserved

 

2 thoughts on “The ‘Cordeen and Me: Episode 12 — Reflections on the Plague Year

  1. There’s nothing better than someone writing beautifully about something they love.

    But if there is, maybe it’s one of these:

    “4th of July, Asbury Par” (Bruce Springsteen)
    “Back Street Girl” (The Rolling Stones)
    “Boy in the Bubble” (Paul Simon)
    “Constant Craving” (k.d. Lang)
    “Piano Man” (Billy Joel)
    “Road to Nowhere” (Talking Heads)
    “Rocky Raccoon” (The Beatles)
    “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (The Band)
    “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (The Beach Boys) …

    Hmmm … what do all these have in common?

    Like

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