Across the Bridge - March 2016
Secrets of a Squeeze Box Junkie
Award-winning columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson pulls out her long-neglected accordion, discovering that here on the coast, it's revered and not reviled.
Soon as I could, I put the accordion away and tried to forget its bass boat sparkle and amazing durability. In the 51 years I’ve owned it, the only repairs it ever needed were recent ones to the dry-rotting straps.
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.
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