“Germans invented the accordion,” Beutle explained to Messermacher. “A thousand things they invented, but accordions most of all. Because Germans think, Germans have brains. There was this feller, a musician, a German violinist, he ends up playing in the court orchestra in Russia, not Catherine the Great but around that time, he plays the violin. But because he’s a German, Jesus Christ, he notices things, he notices when he hangs up his bow on a nail back in his room she also makes a nice little tone. From this he invents the nail violin, very beautiful tones, I have heard it. A circle of wood with nails sticking out, you run the bow on the nails and ooo aaa ooo aaa, a beautiful tune. One day this feller gets a strange thing from China, somebody gives it to him because interested in things he is—naturally, he is a German—and he sees a round bowl with some bamboo pipes sticking out, and on the bowl a mouthpiece. He blows on it. It’s a fine sound. This thing the Jesus Christ Chinese put reeds inside the pipes, same as in the accordion, little reeds stuck on one end with wax, the other end can vibrate like this.” He trembled his hand at Messermacher. “The German violin player learns the playing of this instrument, die liebliche Chinesenorgel, and from this he passes to other Germans the idea of the accordion—the free reed. That’s how it begins. Later comes the bellows.” (91–2)
By now readers of my blog will know how vital the sheng mouth-organ is to the ensemble accompanying north Chinese Daoist ritual—and I suppose it was the sheng that obscurely reminded to read Annie Proulx’s miraculous 1996 novel Accordion crimes.
The book has long been popular with ethnomusicologists (e.g. this review), despite being a novel—or rather, near the fiction end of the spectrum from non-fiction to fiction; or near the readable end of the academic—engaging spectrum (cf. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s Sardinian chronicles, another engaging classic). Like ethnomusicologists, Proulx focuses on change and social function. In her Acknowledgements she lists an impressive array of sources, experts on their regional genres—it’s amazing that all her detailed research took only two years.
On an epic scale, in the tradition of the Great American Novel, Accordion crimes has all the rich detail of ethnographic thick description. Indeed, it’s timely that I should get round to reading it now, since it discusses the tribulations of poor, ill-fated immigrants. The human cast includes immigrant Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish (cf. the equally poetic Carson), Mexicans, French, and Norwegians—all against a backdrop of xenophobia, misanthropy, brutality. Their sad, tough, gory, gruesome tales are connected by the history of an old two-row button accordion for over a century, with other roles played by
- a club style accordion
- a little one-row button accordion
- a chromatic accordion
- a piano accordion
- a bandoneon
- a concertina
- a Chemnitzer.
As I observed about that other ethno classic Lives in jazz, the book gives a perfect combo of music and social detail. Hooked on taxonomy, Proulx can never resist long lists; likely to be tedious in academic hands, hers never fail to enthrall. While poetic, her language is never pompous.
The novel opens with compelling detail from 19th-century Sicily:
It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance at the glancer.
He had cut the grille with a jeweler’s saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had made all the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kid-skin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sewed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. (17)
As the old accordion-maker arrives in New Orleans in search of fame and fortune,
In and out went Caramele through the scores of dives, tonks and jooks and barrelhouse joints that lined these streets, the accordion maker lurching after him through the musical din of drums and ringing banjos, shouters, pianos clinking away, squealing fiddles and trumpets and other brass snorting and wailing from every interior, and sometimes a string quartet sawing crazily. On the streets children watched and fought for discarded stogie butts, black street musicians and white played for coins, singing improvised songs of insult at those who failed to toss a whirling coin. (42–3)
In “Spider, Bite Me”, Abelardo recalls to his son Baby,
“The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you’ve got a dance. It’s the best instrument for dancing in the world, the best for the human voice.”
[…] On the weekends [Baby] played for dances with Chris, mostly rancheras and polkas; they sang in the classic two-part harmony, primera y segunda. […] The dances were exhausting, the strain of playing and the lights, the sweat and heat and thirst, the noise like pouring rain.
[…] Though so many turned to the big-band sound and the strange hybrid fusion of jazz, rumba and swing, would rather listen to “Marijuana Boogie,” the Los Angeles Latin sound, than “La Barca del Oro”, there was an audience that liked their music, found value in it. These new ones, many of them veterans back from the Korean War, some of them university students, embraced conjunto, and this music was not for dancing but for listening. It had a meaning beyond itself. (173–4)
The changing tastes lead to a heated argument between Baby and his put-upon sister Félida (191–8):
She passed her arms through the huge straps. […] She stared at the ceiling, said, “por Chencho, Tomás, por Papá Abelardo,” then sang the heart-wrenching “Se fue mi amor,” which Carmen y Laura had recorded in the last year of the war.
Her bellows control technique was extraordinary, with dramatic swells and choking, sforzati explosive effects. She scratched and rubbed and struck the keys, ran the back of her nails across the folds of the bellows. The accordion gave the perfect illusion that a bajo sexto and a bass as well as a highly original percussion player supported the accordion, and from it came the melting harmony of the missing sister’s voice to twine and burn with the sweet, smoldering fire of Félida’s sad voice.
“Hitchhiking in a wheelchair” (199–276) is fascinating too, as Dolor makes a pilgrimage to Canada in search of old-time French music:
The music was stunningly brilliant, joyous with life and vigor. The dancers sprang over the floor and now and then they would draw back and give room to a step dancer whose rigid back, erect head and straight-hanging arms accentuated the clattering, tapping, rapping, knocking, flinging feet whose steps stuttered in and out of the music. He wished Wilf could hear the fiddler, the sound like a flock of birds, a flight of arrows striking all around him, from a growling, clenched-teeth mutter on the G and D strings to harmonic shrieks and stair-tumbling runs—Jean something, a taxi-driver from Montréal.
This leads to “Don’t Let a Dead Man Shake You by the Hand” (277–349) , where Proulx expounds on Cajun and zydeco in Louisiana; and “Hit Hard and Gone Down” on the Polish folk scene (351–426):
The Chez family from Pinsk lived across the street; later they changed their name to Chess, the two boys grew up to work in businesses, a junkyard, bars and nightclubs, finally making phonograph records featuring black singers moaning the blues, and by 1960 the good Polish neighborhood had turned black on all sides. (354)
“There’d always be somebody’s polka band—two violins, you know, the bass fiddle and the clarinet, no accordion at all, they’d just play all afternoon and we’d dance. No music pages, they play from their heads, they were geniuses. You know, the dancers used to sing out a line of a song, or not even sing it, just shout it like, and the musicians they had to catch it, know it and play it back in the same key. Oh, they were so good. Well, your grandfather, he sees after a while there is some money starting to come to the polka band players and there was all kinds of palces that wanted polka bands—Polish Homes, the Polish Club, not the culture evening but the Saturday night dance, little dance halls all over the place, the union halls, bars and Polka Dot restaurant, the Polish League of War Veterans, a lot of restaurants, Polonia Hall—oh, there was plenty of polka dancing, and a lot of fun, and weddings, weddings, weddings, everybody was getting married and you gotta have polkas.” (371)
Hieronim’s wake was something, the last of its kind in the neighborhood, in the old, old Polish style, and nobody would have known how to do it except Old Man Bulas from the Polish Club… He was the leader of the singing and knew the hymns, scores of them all written down in his śpiewnik, a thick, handsome book wrapped in black cloth. (383)
This is soon followed by a memorable wedding:
He told his wife that it was necessary to balance the solemn death rites of Hieronim with as much of the old wesele style as possible… (385)
But again, tastes are changing (404–14). As promoter Mrs Grab warns Joey:
“We don’t want nothing weird or extreme, you know? There’s rules now, the association’s made rules. […] Only one song in Polish. Most people don’t understand it, but one song gives a nice ethnic flavor. That’s what we want to stress, ethnic flavor. Let me tell you something, Joey. Ethnic music is not that old-time stuff anymore. These days everybody is ethnic, might as well make money on it. […] They don’t want that mournful folk music sound no more or those complicated couple dances going into cricles and weaving around and slapping their asses and crossing into the next lane. No more of that Kozaky na Stepie, Cossacks on the Steppe, stuff. Everything gets mixed up unless you got a Ph.D. in Polish clogging. It’s no fun.”
[…] The spare applause had hardly died down when a big guy jumped up, his thin long hair pasted to his sweating forehead, and began to shout at them.
“This is not Polish polka, not Polish music. I am a Pole from Poland and in Poland they would laugh at you as I do now—Ha! Ha!—for saying this garbage you play is Polish.”
Now the bandoneon and tango make an appearance, as Joey meets a migrant from Buenos Aires, who muses:
“Piazzolla, with his little zips like the plastic zipper of a cheap jacket, his plotted silences, the squealing like rubbing two balloons together. That is a serious, unsmiling, hard music; the faces of the dancers frown furiously; and his tempo, the beat is like climbing cement stairs in a skyscraper with fire behind the doors. And there is that quality of a paper comb that sets the sutures of the skull trembling. Those passionate swellings are musical hives…” (416–18, cf. Alexei Sayle, no less).
“The Colors of Horses”, with Basque and Irish musics as well as Appaloosa horses playing a major role, is another too, er, deaf ‘orse. More fantastical lists:
…descendants of the ice-age horses painted on the cave walls of France, of the fabled horses of Ferghana, between the Syrdarya and the Amudarya rivers on the steppes of Central Asia in Uzbekistan, of Rakush, the spotted horse of the warrior hero Rustam, celebrated in Persian miniatures and in Firdousi’s epic poem the Shah Namah, of the Chinese Celestial Horses from the Extreme West, the Blood-Sweating horses, of the galloping mounts of the Mongol Horde and Attila the Hun, of the Andalusian horses of Spain shipped to Mexico for the conquistadors’ savage forays, of a shipload of spotted horses from the Trieste Lippizan herd landed on Vera Cruz around 1620, of the horses abandoned by the terrified Spaniards after the Pueblo revolt of sixty years later and traded north by an agricultural people more interested in sheep, to the Shoshone, Cayuse, Nez, Percé, Blackfeet, Blood, Arikara, Sioux, Cree, Crow, of the North American steppes known as the Great Plains, had been bred down to dog meat. (443–5)
The evocation of Irish song (483–5) is worthy of Cieran Carson. Now we return to the original, battered old green accordion:
The silent reed suffered from a grain of rust jammed between the reed tongue and its vent, and this he eased out with a silk thread from his fly-tying box. The steel reeds were coated with islands of rust and he scraped at them with the blade of his knife but was afraid of lodging more fragments under the reed tongues. He cleaned the reeds with his toothbrush, blowing out the dust until he was dizzy.
He could see it needed everything—new bellows, new reed, new springs, reed plates reset, grille replaced, and more. But it had a wonderful voice, sonorous, plangent, shouting in grief to the mountain slope. (486)
The final section, “Back Home with Reattached Arms”, is moving too, with Norwegian immigrants making an appearance:
His own parents had been obsessed with the prescriptions of a book, The Emigrant’s Guide to Preserving Norwegian Culture, written by a homesick settler in Texas, a book that dwelt on the merits of the Norwegian language, twice-daily prayers, Norwegian hymns, clothes, food, and, after the fortune was made, return to the “elskede Nord” country. Daily they had sung “En Udvandrers Sang,” “O Norges Son” and others. His mother wished to live in a Norwegian community where land was owned in common by all. But Gunnar shouted for independence and his own land, purchased a mighty, star-spangled flag… (496)
That discussion of the sheng, with which I opened, reminds me of the Li family Daoist band’s concerts in German churches in 2013, the two mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out (my book, p.339).
Passages like this draw the reader towards archive recordings:
Abelardo had hundreds of records, his own recordings of the 1930s, a few with Decca, then with Stella, then with Bell, then Stella again. “In those days I sang in Spanish; those men with the record company said to me, ‘we can’t tell what you’re singing, so don’t sing anything dirty.’ So of course I sang all the filthy ones.”
[…] He had old recordings of Lydia Mendoza, of the great accordion players, the records of Bruno Villareal, half blind, a little tin cup wired to the side of his accordion, playing in 1928, “the first recording with the accordion as the star”, Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez, Los Hermanos San Miguel, dozens of Santiago Jiménez discs.
[…] He would make them listen to all those old labels: Okeh, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Ideal, Falcon, Azteca, especially the Ideals made in the garage of Armando Marroquín up in Alice. (148–9)
Of course, like all those books about Daoist ritual, it misses a lot by being silent—it cries out for a good playlist. More stimulating than this one is a Songlines list, but one is drawn back to the great 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. And let’s all explore youtube—here’s a Polish tango from 1931:
But if we have to use words to evoke music, this is just the way to convey its messy exhilaration and flawed humanity.