Secrets of a Squeeze Box Junkie
When she reached fifth grade, my niece took up bass fiddle for the school orchestra, an odd choice considering she had to wrestle the gargantuan instrument case onto the school bus two or three times each week.
I admired her choice and marveled at the courage it took for a young child to choose an instrument that might invite ridicule. And yes, from a certain immature vantage, playing the bass might be a catalyst for pre-teen cruelty.
I know because when I reached age 12, my father granted early release from piano lessons if I would take up the accordion. I did. That brought out the cruel streak in any number of juveniles, one in particular who followed me around the hallowed halls of junior high making squeeze box motions and a wheezing sound through his pimply nose.
Across the Bridge
The sad thing was, I liked squeezing it, and was pretty good in a play-by-ear sort of way. But I lacked the fortitude to face accordion detractors, who were legion, and associated accordions with Lawrence Welk and Grandpa’s beer polkas.
When I discovered Cajun Country in the 1990s, I realized I’d been a fool to put my accordion away. There’s a reverence for the instrument in the French parishes, both the piano one like I play that’s used in most zydeco bands, and the smaller melodeon that adds zest to traditional Cajun music. I still didn’t play much, but was secretly glad my accordion hadn’t sold for next to nothing in the 1980s when I placed a classified.
Even so, if a friend cracked so much as a half smile when I brought out Old Blue, I’d put the thing away and remember all too vividly how it felt to be the butt of stupid accordion jokes. Despite the distinct comeback pattern of accordions in respectably cool recordings during the 1990s, I’d race back to the closet whenever Hollywood or the New Yorker magazine or a rerun of the Andy Griffith Show used the accordion as shorthand for geek. And it happened constantly.
Not long ago a junior federal agent on “The Good Wife” is learning to play the accordion. Translation: he’s a dork. Haven’t script-writers read the statistics? Accordions aren’t hot, perhaps, but respectably lukewarm and climbing.
Then something happened in my own accordion odyssey. I bought a house on the coast. Embraced in all sorts of ways by new friends, I find it’s safe to get back in the straps. Not only do musician friends tolerate my accordion, they actually ask me to bring it to musical gatherings.
I’m dreadfully out of practice and arthritic in the right hand I recently broke, but these musically open-minded people seem interested in the accordion’s sound, or at least its portability. The French don’t call it a “poor man’s piano” for nothing.
I think the coastal culture is musically inclined, and doesn’t discriminate. The parks are filled with jazz and halls with symphonies and blues. I heard a Bay choir sing at a Long Beach photo exhibit last month, and I couldn’t believe the sound a few voices and an expert pianist could create. The St. Rose de Lima Choir filled the night with a joyful noise, and it would have taken paralysis of the soul not to move in time.
Musicians, like artists, eddy up to the shore. And there’s an equal opportunity attitude that I cherish. As a decades-out-of-practice accordionist, I should.
A friend recently joined the bell choir at her Long Beach church. We were scheduled to take a long road trip, and she considerately asked if it would bother me, the driver, if she brought along a computer amp that serves as a metronome. “Of course not,” I said, wondering how she’d manage bells in a car.
The bells were imaginary, but the tick-tock, tick-tock of the virtual Seth Thomas was not. Until you’ve driven across Mississippi and Alabama with the person in your passenger seat playing bop-the-gopher to the unwavering sound of the crocodile from “Peter Pan,” you haven’t suffered true road fatigue. Believe me, it’s not like waltzing across Texas.
But I would not have complained for anything. I was paying her forward, if you will. If others let me squeeze in their living rooms, the least I can do is allow imaginary bell-ringing in my car.
Rheta's new book will be officially hitting the shelves on April 1st! In the meantime, Pass Christian Books (300 East Scenic Drive, Pass Christian) has a limited number of signed copies!
The official book launch party takes place at Pass Books on Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 from 6pm - 7:30pm with refreshments and hors d'oeuvres. If you haven't met Rheta yet, here's your opportunity!