Accordéon History Book

Philippe Krümm, music columnist and editor of both Accordéon et Accordéonistes and Trad, has come out with a corker of a book. L’Accordéon: Quelle Histoire! (roughly Accordion: What a Story!) is a 120 page book packed with pictures and “iconography” from the 1930s to today. The book is featured at the AMTA website, and is available through Auvergne Diffusion.

This is the second accordéon history book to come out in a the past few months. See the other one here!

My Grandfather’s Accordéonist

Updated below!

Going through some family photos, I found this. I’m not sure what exactly what this group is — a fraternal organization?  a business club? — and I’m not sure why they seem to have a pet accordéonist … but that’s pretty dang cool! My grandfather, Charles Hinnen, fourth from the right, was around twenty-five at the time, and would have been in Zurich, but I really can’t say for sure where this was.

Thanks to Peter Bernard for scanning and cleaning up this photo.
UPDATE: My blogging colleague, Owen Woods points out in comments that the box in this picture is a schwyzerörgeli, a swiss variety of accordéon. I had thought this was a type of club accordéon, but looking at the left hand side of this box it is very örgelish. Woods did a an excellent piece on the schwyzerörgeli HERE.
UPDATE TWO:  I was excited to read the following comment from B.V.:

Hello, this is perhaps the accordion club in Zurich. I am looking for material on this club Zürich-Wiedikon. If you have any other photos, I’d be happy to receive mail from you. Maurice Thöni have led the club in the 1940s. Sincerely B.V.

Ask the Dancers!

How’s the bourrée?  Ask the dancers.

In response to Friday’s post about what it means to play a bourrée well, a number of and worthies responded that you know you’re playing a bourrée well when the dancers are dancing a good bourrée.  This, indeed, is an excellent functional definition of “a good bourrée,” and you could do far worse than relying on utility as your criteria for success. I could (and did) quibble about how, while this is dance music, it’s not just dance music, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s essentially a good point.  Knowing your context — dance, concert, parking lot — changes everything.

A number of folks responded, “Get thee to a dance floor!” It has been a while, for a bunch of reasons. It’s time to do just that.

What Does it Mean to Play a Bourrée Well?

Thanks to the folks at Mel.Net for the discussions that sparked this piece. More than usually, this post expresses confusion, rather than conviction. Any questions, corrections, or suggestions are appreciated.

How to play a good bourrée?
What does it mean to play a bourrée well? I’ve been working hard to figure out what one should do with the left hand (bass and chords) when playing bourrées. I’m not sure why this particular tune form is especially controversial, but it is. It’s also the defining tune form for tradFrench music, much as the jig is for Irish music.
That’s the project. I’m trying to figure out how to play bourrées well. How will I know when I’ve succeeded? What are the criteria?
Well, one could appeal to authenticity. As with most traditional art forms one criteria for success is how well your performance matches the normative standards of the art form. In other words, if I’m playing a bourrée, then I’ll know I’m doing it well when my performance conforms to the ideal of what a bourrée is supposed to sound like. As with many platonic constructions, it sounds very simple, but there are complications.
Some would argue that there is really no such thing as a “French bourrée.” Rather, they would say, each of the many regions of central France has their own normative standards. A bourrée in Limousin is different from a bourrée in Auvergne. There’s truth to this, and it can be seen clearly if you watch videos of folks of different regions dancing bourrées. Some are tight and aggressive, others loose and blousy (h/t Chris). So I could choose one region and focus on that, or I could — looking from a distance — aim at the larger thing, whatever is captured by the generic term, “traditional French music.”
In the 1920s the bourrée moved to the
city and got involved with banjos
and trap drums!
Complicating this is the fact that, while there are regional styles for bourrées and their dances, there don’t seem to be regional styles for diatonic accordion playing. I recently asked Sylvain Piron if there was a particularly Alsatian style of accordion playing (since I play a lot of Alsatian repertoire) and he indicated that there really aren’t regional styles for the diato. Rather, folks emulate the styles of players they admire (e.g., Marc Perrone, Frédéric Paris). This may be because, while the vielle, cabrette, and the bourrée go back to medieval times, the accordion is much younger, and the wide-spread embracing of the diato is even younger still. Emulating admired players rather than regional norms would seem to be the way to go for this distant, obsessive American. I have access to recordings of players going back to 1925, but there’s no realistic way for me to immerse myself in the music of one particular region or another.
And even if I could, normative standards change over time. A bourrée played in 1925 would sound different from a bourrée played today simply because performance practices change. To use the most pressing example, a 3-beat bourrée played in 1925 would have left hands (on chromatic accordions) playing a pretty rigid bass-chord-chord accompaniment. They may even have a banjo (!!!) accompanying with a parallel thump-chunk-chunk. In 2011, however, for many players, the stated goal is to avoid bass-chord-chord at all costs (to paraphrase Stephen Milleret), and replace it with a sort of syncopated, extended, both-hands chording technique.
How to play a good bourrée?
And there’s not even a consensus about that. I can hear bass-chord-chord in a lot of current playing and can see it in tablature published by Trad Magazine and Jean-Michel Corgeron. The duo Musiqu’ à Deux play their bourrées in a clean, straight, traditional style — though still different from the 1925 benchmark. The movement that Milleret’s a part of (Mustradem) seems more intent on expanding the normative standards of tradFrench music, rather than clarifying them. In this way, Milleret, Norbert Pignol, and their mustradem ilk are the Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie of tradFrench, with mustradem being the be bop to La Chavannée’s swing. (And by calling them an “ilk” I don’t mean to imply that I don’t like their stuff. I very much like their stuff.)
If authenticity is a question mark, then the next logical criteria for bourrée goodness would be aesthetics. To quote Le Duke (Ellington), “If it sounds good, it is good.” That’s true, but it’s not especially helpful; and it’s not especially helpful to put aesthetics and authenticity in opposition to one another. The fact is that I don’t want to simply play music that sounds “good.” There’s a lot of music that sounds good. I have chosen tradFrench l’accordéon diatonique for specific reasons that go beyond whether it’s “good” or not. Something about the instrument and repertoire suits me and my psychology. There are associations that come up when I play — rural, France, pre-modern, friendships, happy, obscure. The emphasis towards community. The emphasis away from radical individualism. The music serves others (dancers). Being a part of this tradition means being a part of something larger than yourself. The truth is that, to some extent, authenticity is important to me.
Does this help me know how to play a bourrée? If it sounds good it is good? Not good enough. How authentic is authentic enough?

A Brief History of French Accordion

The information in this post comes from some disreputable sources (liner notes and websites), and from conversations with musicians during my trip to Alsace. Any comments, corrections, or questions are welcome. In fact, I’m very aware of the gaps in my knowledge. I would love to know more.
Cabrette et Vielle

Most people, when they imagine French accordion music — if they imagine it — think of Parisian cafés, Edith Piaf, expatriate artists, and the time between the wars. That isn’t the music that’s captured my heart — though the two are related. The accordion music of rural France (musique traditionelle du centre France), centered in Auvergne and the Massif Central, was originally played by a duo of bagpipe (cabrette) and hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue). Around one hundred and seventy years ago, the accordion was invented and adopted by many musicians of central France.  

This led to consternation and conflict. Flyers were posted asking dance organizers to refrain from hiring accordionists, as the accordion was only barely a musical instrument. “Help us drive out the accordions that are overwhelming our region,” wrote one bagpiper. “[Accordions],” he continued, “are good for little more than accompanying a dancing bear and are absolutely unworthy of limbering the legs of our delightful Cantal girls.” 
Unfortunately, the hurdy-gurdy and the pipes could, apparently, not compare in sweetness to the newfangled squeezing instrument. The hurdy-gurdy and pipes also suffered in comparison because they are notoriously difficult to keep in tune. The accordion, having steel reeds, stays in tune for years. It almost seems unnatural.
Enter the accordion!

Thus the accordion entered France, an invasive species, like so much wheezing cheatgrass. Then, during the last half of the 19th century, a wave of migrants traveled from Auvergne to Paris seeking opportunity.  Like black musicians in the American south moving north to Chicago, the Auvergnat formed their own communities and brought their music with them. Some things changed.

The accordionists formed into large bands and added a rhythm section (often including, yes, a banjo). They adopted the fleeter, more harmonically flexible, chromatic accordion, as opposed to the more limited (but, if I may, far more charming) diatonic accordion. They played music more swiftly and with more ornaments than ever before. The rural music they’d brought with them became florid, smokey, and urban. Still beautiful, but in a completely different way. This music, bal musette, became the Next Big Thing in Paris, and, once Edith Piaf emerged, provided the soundtrack for fifty years of Parisian life, legend, and cliché.
Jean Blanchard’s recording

of solo accordéon diatonique

But the original kernel continued to exist. As with much ethnic music, it seemed in danger of dying out until, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the same folk music wave that brought blues to the fore in Britain and the United States inspired artists such as Jean Blanchard, La Chavannée, and others. They combined all of the instruments of French dance music — accordion, pipes, hurdy gurdy, recorder, and violin, as well as voice — into bands, and looked at the bourrées, mazurkas, and waltzes in their simpler forms. The results were sublime.