Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hop and pray

The accordion. A much maligned instrument. In working-class Philly in the '50s, however, it was the affordable introduction to the world of music. I learned music theory and dexterity on the keyboard by playing Clarinet Polka and zillions of Polish folk dances in small books with pictures of men in handlebar moustaches on the covers. Polkas and obereks had plenty of sixteenth and thirty-second notes. If you could master them, you could tackle just about any other piece of music, including classical. Years later, this led to the pinnacle of success: playing Pachelbel's Canon in D at my daughter's wedding. I kid you not. I'm sure Pachelbel was smiling - it was quite a unique moment.

I found this photo in my archived picture album. It was taken about ten years ago. There was less of me then. I haven't played the old squeezebox in a couple years. It's sitting in Jenn's house right now. The case is providing a good resting place for her home phone.

Why am I writing about my old accordion? Because the music of my past is still with me, bred in the bones. My musical dad and uncles and cousins are all gone but the happy sounds of music I grew up with are still very much alive.

That's why I jumped at the chance to take my granddaughter, Sophie, to a polka mass this past weekend. It was held under the wooden beams of a park pavilion in a nearby town. Wielding two umbrellas against a summer thunderstorm, Soph and I sloshed in and claimed a picnic bench as our church pew.

Nothing like a Polish-American event - accordions, drums, and communion wafers surrounded by an American flag, potted geraniums, and a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign hung high. I'd like to think that Jesus would have felt right at home. He hung out with crowds like these, real people who work hard and pray hard. People who know what it's like to sweat and get their hands dirty. Simple values, simple lives. I mean this in a good way. I came from people like these.

It was touching to see old and young singing along to the slower songs and faster polkas. I couldn't keep still. Sophie was in awe. I cried. We danced our way out after singing America the Beautiful and listening to the Polish national anthem. When the old folks sang the anthem, I heard my own grandmother's voice again, remembering how she used to break into song when I was a kid. Summer days, hot kitchens, a tall glass pitcher of beer on her dining-room table, and babci singing.

Sophie loves to sing, just like her great-great-grandmother. And she loves to listen to my polka tapes when we ride in the car. It's a welcome alternative to the world of Disney. Sophie loves Pachelbel's Canon too.

Na zdrowie.


Anonymous said...

Hey, E! Good to see you back :)
I'd love to hear you play. Our favourite accordian music is Weird Al's polkas. Not strictly traditional, I know, but...

Anonymous said...

What lovely memories you make with your grandbabies!

dkearns72 said...

This was truly lovely. The part in the middle describing the "salt of the earth" people made my day! Thank you!

geogirl said...

Sounds like Sophie needs to learn to play the accordion. :-)

pogonip said...

It's a pity accordians aren't as appreciated here as much as in Europe where my rocker French cousins have an accordian in their band. Sounds like you had a lovely experience together!

Eternally said...

The accordion is just magical. An incredibly full sound from a portable, affordable, versatile instrument. Very proletariat. Like you said, very salt of the earth. But what a sound - - it must be like stapping a party to your lap.

I imagine you grew up learning to play back when people were still wondering what to make of rock 'n roll, and whether that new sound would persist or whether it was a fad. I guess it wasn't a fad, and it's tough for a lot of instruments to fight for musical space with a full drum kit. Accordion, was one of those, not maybe as adept at carving out a musical turf with other amplified instruments that could be heard over the drums.

It didn't have to be that way tho. Did you know that the Ampeg amplifier company made guitar and bass amps through the 50s and 60s that had dual inputs, one for guitar or bass and another for accordion? Ampeg was a NY company with accordion-playing engineers that just didn't know whether the future belonged to rock music, or accordion, so they decided to keep a foot in both camps. But the writing was on the wall. Ampeg went on to produce the massive 300 watt SVT bass amp in 1969, which was coupled to a huge cabinet of eight, 10" speakers. Those same amps are still much used today, as the tone is a staple for all sorts of popular music.

I think it would be pretty cool had Ampeg kept the Accordion input around for those SVT amps. All those rockers since 1969 - someone would have taken the bait, plugged in an accordion, and created a massive 300 Watt gorilla of accordion fury. Could have changed the face of pop music.

But accordion is far from dead. Tejano music is full of accordion. Good, fun stuff. And zydeco? OK, neither of those are likely to be the next big thing in popular music. But both are a dance party waiting to happen.

It's great that you get to share your music with the grandkids. It's so cool that they will always associate such a fun, emotive instrument with you.

Mater, someday, I'd love to hear you play, whether that was a polka or any other handlebar-mustache influenced piece. I bet you really do bring the rock.

The Mater said...

These comments are great! Accordions rule!!

Eternally, wow, did you stir my memory bank - my dad had a custom-made four-string tenor electric guitar and we often plugged into an AMPEG, both of us, when we played together. It was the time of Les Paul and Mary Ford and Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show.

Ampegs, electric guitars, Hammond B2s with Leslie speakers (a little later) - ah, those were the days, my friend. Thanks so much for sharing some really good data.

"Elaine, North Philly", yes, I was on American Bandstand with Dick Clark too. Philly chick.

BOSSY said...

Ohhhhhhh, those moments are filled with such grace. Glad she was with you.

Wayne said...

Cousin E-
I loved the post and the picture. I came across an advertisement recently that my mom saved when her Dad was opening Mientus music studio on Hunting Park Avenue. It was a very simple ad, on 8.5x11 paper with drawings of musical notes and instruments, but I bet it was one of the proudest days of his life!