Let’s Lay to Rest Accordion Geekiness
My friends, it is time to unburden yourselves of your secret. The one you’ve been harboring for years, hot-faced with shame. Admit it: You love the accordion.
Oh how its chords stab straight to your heart! How it makes you pine for the old country, even if you were born in a cab on the Cross Bronx Expressway. So melodious and moving is the accordion, it deserves much more than snooty snickers. Yet for far too many folks, it is the love that dare not squeeze its name.
Having recently laid Myron Floren – Lawrence Welk’s accordionist – to rest, let us lay to rest, too, the hoary notion that the accordion is, in a word, Myron Floren-esque. Okay. That was two words. The single word is: dorky. “For baby boomers, the accordion got associated with cheesy music from the ’40s and ’50s and blazers and ties and big smiles,” says Doug Nervik, an East Village accordionist who admits the shiny instrument always “sexually attracted” him.
Ahem. Well. Anyway. Says Nervik of the Welk-accordion association: “It’s not that.” Welk’s “champagne music” was just one tiny corner of the accordion world, and the most cheese-chocked one, at that. But beyond the Welk reruns forever defining Channel 21 as the goofball in the PBS pantheon, an astounding array of cultures has called upon the accordion. Gypsy dances, klezmer tunes, Argentina’s tango and Dominican merengue all depend on the squeezebox, as do such polar extremes as polkas and zydeco.
The accordion can handle this range because it is such a versatile instrument. Or, at least, such a loud one. “There was a time, before the electric guitar, when it was the instrument to play down South because it didn’t require amplification,” says Marilee Eitner, a member of New York’s all-female accordion orchestra, Main Squeeze.
I’ll get back to the all-female accordion orchestra, but as I was going to say, since its invention in 1829 Vienna, the instrument has presided over countless country fetes because it has always been, basically, a portable, affordable orchestra.
And that may have contributed to its downfall. “There may have been an economic stigma against it,” says Eitner, “because it was a piano substitute for people who couldn’t afford real pianos.”
Still, there is no denying that the sound the accordion makes when played by the right person – or, in the case of Main Squeeze, the right 14 persons – is thrilling. “It can be sad and silly and it can move you to tears,” says Walter Kuehr, who conducts the orchestra when not presiding over Main Squeeze, his accordion shop on the lower East Side.
Kuehr arranges songs by everyone from Madonna to Stravinsky for his posse, and when I heard them rehearsing, the giggles hit hard. But then tears crept in, too. The accordion may look a little too shiny and sound a little too loud, but there’s a reason so many cultures – and Channel 21 – keep it around. It always manages to squeeze the heart. If that’s dorky, so is art.