The Old-Time Herald Volume 14, Number 5

By Paul F. Wells
collection of Paul Wells

Accordions. Melodeons. Concertinas. Squeezeboxes. Windjammers. Button boxes. Stomach Steinways. Belly Baldwins. A dizzying array of names for a dizzying variety of instruments, which are all essentially similar in construction and operation: two mechanical keyboards—one each for the right and left hands—connected by a bellows that, when activated, forces air through banks of metal “reeds” that are tuned to different pitches. The variations on this basic scheme in terms of pitch, tuning, number of keys or buttons, size, shape, decoration, and other features are seemingly endless. Some instruments (“single-action”) sound a different note depending on whether the player is expanding the bellows (the “draw”) or contracting it (the “press”). Some (“diatonic” instruments) are capable of playing in only a limited number of keys while others (“chromatic”) can play in all keys.

Accordions and their relatives are members of the free-reed family, a group that also includes harmonicas and old-fashioned parlor organs. The first accordions were developed in Europe in the 1820s and 1830s and were soon available in America. By the mid- to late 1830s, American music publishers had begun issuing self-tutoring method books for learning to play the accordion. These typically contained a few pages of basic pedagogy on the instrument, followed by a selection of popular contemporary dance tunes, marches, blackface minstrel pieces, and song airs intended as building blocks for the repertoire of an aspiring player.

The popularity of accordions spread widely and rapidly. The range of cultures and musical traditions in which some form of squeezebox is used is as diverse as the instruments themselves: Irish, German, Polish, Cajun and Zydeco, Quebecois, Czech, English, Norteño, Slovenian, Scandinavian…you get the idea.

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