It seems like a hundred years ago. But it was only last year. I can’t forget it. There I am, at a restaurant. I am playing Christmas music on an accordion with a band. There is no virus, no social distancing, and everyone is happy. I am out and about in public. What a notion.
I play accordion because my granddaddy played it before me. This instrument is in my lineage. And it’s in our history as a civilized race. Thus, I believe that as long as we have young accordionists, there is still hope for humanity.
A few children approach our stage.
“WHAT KIND OF INSTRUMENT IS THAT?” asks the redhead.
“It’s an accordion,” I say.
“WOW! IT’S SO HUGE AND DORKY LOOKING!”
“That’s not very nice…”
“IT SOUNDS LIKE A DYING TOAD!”
“NO,” says another. “IT SOUNDS LIKE AN ANIMAL GETTING RUN OVER BY A CAR!”
“Hey kid,” I say. “Santa told me you’re getting nothing but underwear and deodorant this year.”
This kind of accordion shaming is nothing new. I’ve been ridiculed since my childhood. I have heard all the classic jokes.
Such as: What do you call a successful accordionist? A guy whose wife has two jobs.
Or: What are the first words an accordionist says after he knocks on your door? “Pizza delivery.”
But I don’t care. When I play accordion, I play for my mother’s father—the man who fought in Europe, and won a Purple Heart for his valiance. He was a farmer, a storyteller, a wood carver, a musician who could sing in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and Cajun. And when he played “Lady of Spain,” it was magic.
Of course all this accordion business can be embarrassing to admit at, say, dinner parties. Like a party I was at a few years ago. The attorney sipping gin remarked: “I’m learning guitar, I got one for my birthday this year.”
“Yeah,” added the thoracic surgeon. “I played a little saxophone in high-school band.”
“Well,” I said. “I play the accordion.”
They laughed softly. Then, one man handed me his glass and said, “I’ll take a refill on this gin.”
No. People prefer guitarists. A guitarist can walk into a crowded party and females will hurl themselves at him.
An accordionist walks into a room, and suddenly a snowbird named Ethel is attached to his arm, talking about her grandkids in Sheboygan.
Even so, I am what I am. I started playing accordion because my family was funadamentaliat, and every Saturday night from my infancy we watched what all evangelicals watched. “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of any show that features 38 guys who all look like your father’s dentist, singing for an hour about Hawaii. But there was, however, one thing I liked.
Myron Floren. The gentle Dakotan would appear on the screen, wearing a 120-bass PANaccordion, and I would almost mess my britches. He would play “Tico Tico” at a lightning fast tempo. His hair was greased with industrial cement, his teeth were porcelain, he was a god.
One Christmas, my parents got me a small 12-bass accordion. I would lock myself in my bedroom and practice “La Valse de la Belle” for hours.
Then, I would apply an entire can of my father’s pomade before going to baseball practice.
When I became a better accordionist, I entered the fourth-grade talent show. I played “Cajun Surprise,” followed by “Louisiana Joe.” I played superbly.
I expected applause. Or at the very least, a key to the city. But when I finished, the audience made no noise.
A man in the front row mumbled, “What’s all that sticky junk in your hair?”
I almost gave up the instrument for good. But my granddaddy told me that I couldn’t.
“If you don’t play the accordion,” he said. “Then pretty soon mankind won’t have any accordions left. The world is depending on you, son.”
So with that kind of responsibility on my shoulders I started taking gigs. My first professional gig was a funeral. I was 14. They paid me 10 bucks. I’ll never forget it.
It was a Pentecostal service. The preacher asked me to play something mournful. So, I played “Peace in the Valley.”
One woman started crying, then another. And when the preacher’s baritone voice began singing with me, I almost forgot which song I was playing.
Since then, I have played my accordion for all kinds of occasions. Cajun soirées, country dances, beer festivals, Polka parties, quinciñeras, weddings, funerals, and one used car auction. And I have met interesting people along the way.
Like the 9-year-old boy that day I was telling you about, when playing with my band, who visited the restaurant stage while I was squeezing out “Jumbalaya.”
“Hey, I like your accordion,” he said. “It looks really old.”
“It is old.”
“I play accordion, too,” the kid explained.
And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Will you play something for me?” I asked.
He agreed. I removed the instrument and handed it to him. The accordion was almost as big as he was. He strapped it to his chest and played a melody so sweet it made my heart hurt. He got a standing ovation—which almost never happens to accordionists.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” I asked.
“My grandpa taught me,” he said.
Even in these troubled times there’s still hope for the human race.