In comments, the inimitable Tomb asked the following question:
Alright, Professor Chapin, here’s my latest in what will be a long line of questions from a novice. The history of the bellows that you’ve published so far seems almost entirely centered in England and France. This goes against my (assumingly incorrect) impression that Italian, Greek and Spanish folk music (maybe I should just say Mediterranean music) always seemed to have some sort of bellows wheezing in it somewhere. Are the European southerners the thieves of their northern cousins’ genius?
Thanks for the question! The classic, great names in accordion making are Italian (Castagnari and Salterelle, for example) or German (Weltmeister and the ubiquitous Hohner). This is an almost criminal oversimplification, but it serves for the moment (Andy?). The type of accordion I play has two rows tuned a fifth apart (G/C). This is called a Vienna tuning (more colloquially, “quint tuned”). England, Ireland, and France have great accordion traditions, very visible in the US. But there’s also a great Scandinavian tradition (hello, my Minnesota friends) that I need to learn more about, and an Eastern European tradition. In short, every musical tradition from the Caspians to the Andes, including your Mediterranean faves, has some sort of squeezebox going for it.
|Peeter Joosep on lõõtspill, at
the 2008 Lõõtspillifestival.
Very often, the traditions adopt piano or chromatic accordions for their purposes, or they stay in the diatonic world but modify the instrument to suit their needs. Estonia, for example, has it’s own type of accordion called a Lõõtspill. On this side of the Atlantic, Quebec, Louisiana, and Tex-Mex each have a well-developed characteristic style. And this doesn’t even get into the concertina thing.
So why am I focused on mainly France, and some England? Well, aside from accordions themselves — which are, you must admit, very clever — I am especially fascinated by (enamored with? obsessed on?) the repertoire of Central France, Alsace, Brittany, England, etc. Thus the focus of this page. It’s a small slice of squeeze-world, but it’s where I’m choosing to live.
Over on Melodeon.net denizen Lester Bailey has announced that he’s hung his shingle as an accordion repairer and tuner. Certainly, if you’re near Wendover Bucks (UK) and you find you’ve got a melodeon in a state of disrepair I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Tune-a-Rama. If not, I would still urge you to the site to read the stories of Lester’s melodeons. Very charming, it’s like a phenomenology of melodeon acquisition. Elsewhere on the site, Lester has recordings and videos of himself and his various melodeons playing Morris dance tunes.
Another 3-beat bourrée, which I recorded in 2008. This is a very characteristic bourrée, with recordings of it going back to the 1920s and ’30s. Back then accordionists roamed Paris in unruly bands, terrorizing the population with massive chromatic boxes. This tune goes under a number of titles that all “sound like” On d’onoren Garda or some such. I’m told that it means, “Where shall we tend the sheep?” or, more plausibly, “The Sheep Fold.”
The bourrée is the signature dance of Musique Traditionnelle du Centre France. This isn’t the baroque bourrée of Bach and his suites, and it’s not the jazzy bourrée of Jethro Tull. The bourrée of the Massif Central is a thing about to erupt. It is chaos imminent. Two lines face each other, and seem ever on the verge of colliding. When I took an accordion lesson some years ago, Quebecois multi-instrumentalist Daniel Thonon told me, “The bourrée is a crazy dance! Crazy!”
Here’s a set with a 3/8 bourrée followed by a very fast waltz performed by me in my living room. The waltze I learned from a La Chavannée tape, Cotillon, about ten years ago. The bourrée is in the Massif Central Tune Book (OP) compiled by Mel Stevens. I should mention that for years I have lived under the impression that the waltz I play here was, in fact, a bourrée. Thanks to Chris Ryall at Melodeon.net for disabusing me of that notion. I’m not sure why I thought it was a bourrée, since my sources all list it as a waltz, but there you go.
All I need is a Gaillard accordion,
two rows in G/C, three reeds,
a wet tuning, and the truth.
“Good Lord,” I thought, envious, “That’s quite a thing!” Then I imagined the uninitiated perusing that line (maybe the boys at Homeland Security) wondering, “What kind of thing?”
So there you go. Suddenly it all makes sense, hey? Additional resources for this can be found at Wendy Morrison’s Guide to Squeezeboxes, and, at Melodeon.net, Steve Dumpleton’s excellent Voices and Tunings FAQ.
Further questions, comments, or corrections are welcome.
*This is sarcasm. I love vulgar.
UPDATE: Found this video on YouTube demonstrating wet and dry tuning differences. The guy is something of a character, but he makes his point.
|Me and my Hohner Corso. Love.|
Among the folks corrupted by my accordion influence are those who I’ve actually lent one of my older accordions to, either at my suggestion or their request, so that they might “give it a try.” The truth is, you can have your amazing hand-made Italian or French accordions, but the Hohner brand has brought more people to the bellows than could be counted. At this very moment, an unsuspecting colleague — a mandolin player, no less — is falling under the sway of the red pearloid, squeeze machine, a Hohner Corso, two-row G/C box that I lent him some months ago. This mirrors the way in which I got my hands on my first box, a Hohner Pokerwork, A/D, lent to me by the widow of a deceased accordionist. Out of such beginnings …
The Corso was my primary box for years. A wet tuned French-sounding box, the Corso was perfect for the music I was learning: the bourrées, mazurkas, waltzes, and polkas of the Massif Central region of France. Early on, I committed the arrogance of recording a CD with the Corso. The cover photo, shot by my wife, Bethany, shows clearly just how besotted I was with that accordion. God Lord! I was a happy guy. The music on the CD pains me a bit. I consider it to be a bit of a “trunk novel” situation. But the vision in the music was solid. I was interested in playing French music in a simple, straight-forward way. Even back in 2002, I was aiming for Accordeonaire. On the CD, The instrument sounds great, and that’s what this post is about: the Mighty Corso.
|Aunt Lisle with accordion 1929 (?)
To give you an idea of the sound, here’s a cut.
“Aunt Lisle’s An Dro” is actually a pair of An Dros (a traditional Breton dance), with the first being traditional, the second being a composition of my own in honor of my Great-Aunt Lisle, who played accordion (but not An Dros), or at least had her picture taken playing an accordion.
UPDATE: Rikke van Ommeren in the “Polka Groove” post is playing a Hohner Corso — better than I ever have or will. I love my Salterelle, but the Corso was in no way an inferior box.
UPDATE II: Here’s a picture of me playing it for students in my first year of teaching at Hall-Dale High School. I was a hairy guy.
(Thanks to my colleagues at Melodeon.net — Chris Ryall, Guy, and Quebecois et many cetera — for help on this. Any corrections would be welcome.)
Accordionist (and multi-instrumentalist) Frédéric Paris and La Chavannée, the organization he’s associated with, have been a huge influence on me since I first discovered their cassette tapes at the Button Box around 1998 (when I bought my first accordion, the Hohner Corso). Forgive me, please, if I seem to lapse into hagiography. This is literally life changing stuff for me. I would not be an accordionist without them. An incalculably positive impact on my quality of life.
Perhaps one of the more beautiful accordion videos on YouTube, even with the sub-pristine recording quality. Below is Dominique Rivière playing a Frédéric Paris tune, “Le Canal en Octobre,” from Paris’ CD Rue de l’Oiseau.
Rivière is playing a chromatic button accordion, different from the type I play. It’s unisonorous, meaning that you get the same pitch on a button whether you’re pushing or pulling the bellows. This is as opposed to bisonorous, typical of diatonic accordions like mine, where you get a different pitch depending on the bellows direction.* Rivière is a versatile musician, with his finger-style guitar and bouzouki work being just as intriguing as his accordion playing.
*Trust me, accordion geeks found those two previous sentences very meaningful.
As so many folk songs say, “You sailors take warning!”
I’m currently in a doctoral program at the University of Maine, and it happens that one of my advisors, Richard Ackerman, plays piano accordion. On the last day of class, he suggested we bring our accordions and jam a bit during break. We did, and it was good. I’m French trad, he comes from boogie woogie piano … we meet at the schottisches. Shuffle and lope along. A good time!
Apparently, one of my colleagues was deeply impressed, went out and bought a small piano accordion. He had come from Wisconsin and loved polkas — he had asked me to play a polka — and the accordions had just made him very “happy.” Fantastic! My goal exactly.
Still … the slope is a slippery one. Consider the consequences! First you’re making a guy happy with your polka. Then he’s buying piano accordions, and not even consulting his wife about it. I like to think she would have steered him to a button box.
“So what is that you’re playing?”
I get that all the time. They’re pointing at my accordion.
“Isn’t that supposed to have … like … piano keys or something. Is that a concertina?”
|Saltarelle Pastourelle III, a magnificently fine button
accordion, or melodeon, or accordéon diatonique.
photo by Brigid Chapin
No, it’s not. It’s a diatonic accordion. A concertina has hexagonal sides with buttons on … nevermind. They glazed over at “diatonic.” So, it’s a kind of accordion, I tell them, and send them on their way. I don’t tell them that there’s disagreement on this topic even in the accordion community!
I belong to a fantastic on-line forum, based in England, called Melodeon.net, and there, it seems, any rectangular, free-reed box with buttons and a diatonic push-me-pull-you (bisonorous) action going on is a “melodeon,” not an accordion. An accordion would be … well … not entirely sure, maybe unisonorous piano keys or buttons. Historically, “melodeon” has been used for button accordions with one row of buttons, like Cajun accordions, but my guess is that, at least in England, the word “melodeon” has gotten legs.
In France it’s an accordéon, which is where my nom de blog comes from, though it’s a rogue derivation, a figment of caprice. A person who plays accordéon is an accordéonist, properly. Colloquially, though, a person who plays a melodeon is called a diatonist, because the kind of accordéon a melodeon is, is an accordéon diatonique. Which is what l’Accordéonaire plays, though he is a figment of caprice. In America, he plays an accordion of some sort, and it’s not a concertina. That’s something else.
Just had some coin to spend so I treated myself to downloads of Bernard Loffet’s two CDs, Action! and Moteur! and, honestly, I can’t say enough nice stuff about them. I got them on Amazon for $9 US each. They are top notch Breton music, in every way. Action! it seems, was recorded at an actual dance, and the shuffle-ish feet action really adds to the energy. The recording is very clear, and the melodeon sounds amazing. What a sound his machines get! Also, Action! features a pach pi that I recently put on YouTube … I’m not saying it means anything … just had one of those, “Hey, I play that!” moments. Moteur! (the older of the two) begins with Perroch’s “Scottish du Regret,” done very nicely — cocktail accordion style — with a lot of swing and variation. The rest is a marvelous clinic of Breton accordion. And, again, beautiful sounding accordions, beautiful playing.