Between Covid isolation and being immersed in writing a novel for the last two years, I somehow missed the release of Accordion Revolution; a People’s History of the Accordion in North America from the Industrial Revolution to Rock ’n’ Roll, by Bruce Triggs.
The book is a gem. Well-written in a conversational style, it is simply packed with information about the accordion’s rich history in North America. Before reading the book, I knew that the accordion had once been popular, especially in the late 1940s and 1950s, but I had not understood how popular and for how long. Its roots go way, way back.
An amazing amount of research went into Accordion Revolution. Triggs writes in detail about the accordion among different ethnic groups, including Irish, Scottish, French, German, Eastern European, Latino, and Jewish, and he includes profiles of significant artists from the various groups. Glance at any chapter, any page, and you are sure to learn something.
A few examples: Minnie White was woman in Newfoundland who played accordion as a teen. But when she married, she put away her instrument for almost 40 years as she raised six children. Then, at 55, she decided she didn’t want to “sit in a rocking chair and knit all the time,” so she started a band and began booking shows. Her band played for 13 years at a local motel, and she appeared on television and radio and at festivals. In 1993, she received the “Order of Canada” for her role in “preserving and reviving the unique culture of Newfoundland.”
Then there was African American sailor Matthew Henson, who sailed with Robert Peary on his quest to reach the North Pole. At one point, he evidently brought out his concertina for an “evening of Inuit entertainment” in an igloo on the Arctic Ocean. He sang hymns he had learned onboard when he ran away to sea at age 12.
From more recent years, I was interested to learn that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys hired accordionists “to insert sounds strategically amidst his grand compositions,” including on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” As Triggs points out, Wilson’s “use of accordions and other instruments, including the Beach Boys’ voices, was more as layered textures than as recognizable rock instrumentation.” Surprises like this pop up throughout the book, as well as intriguing historical photos.
I initially ordered the Nook electronic version of Accordion Revolution. Soon I ordered the paperback as well. It’s nice to be able to pick up the book, flag interesting pages and, most important, leave it on my coffee table for others to pick up and learn about the accordion!