An Accordionist in a CCC Camp
My sweet uncle, Joe Fazio, was my accordion teacher when I was a teenager. When he died, I inherited everything he had that was accordion-related and discovered a 1937 issue of The Accordion World. The magazine was fascinating on many levels, but I was especially drawn to a first person account by a man named Tommy Joyner, who wrote of his experiences as an accordionist in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
In 1933, at the height of the Depression, Joyner tried and tried to get a job but always got “the same old discouraging answer, ‘Nothing Doing.’” To cheer himself up, he started learning to play the accordion, using only an instruction book, and practiced for five to six hours a day. By the end of a year, he could play “any pop song of that year” as well as “light classics, overtures, and a few technical novelties.”
Then, to his joy, a friend told him, “Boy, oh Boy, haven’t you heard, my good box-squeezing friend? Our President has just applied his signature to the C.C.C. bill!” From 1933-1942, the CCC was a voluntary public relief program for unemployed, unmarried men. The Corps built parks and did forest conservation, as well as other public works, and gave millions of young men, ages 17-28, employment during the Depression. It also helped shape our modern state and national park system.
Joyner eagerly signed up and after about a week in camp started looking for fellow musicians. He found two guitarists whose artistry “was nothing to work up a sweat over,” yet they were popular and drew crowds. He imagined how popular his accordion could be, so he sent for it.
When the camp had a talent show, he signed up and was surprised at the applause he received before he even began. “These men really knew what accordion music had to offer,” he wrote. He played “Blue Moon” and then “modulated into a medley of jigs, reels, and polkas” and finished with “Charles Magnante’s dizzy accordion solo, ‘Tantalizing.'” It turned out that the Educational Advisor was a musician and admirer of the accordion, and he gave Joyner a position as his assistant.
One night during a raging storm, the workers hurried to shelter. One young man, though, remembered a tool he had left behind and ran back to get it, catching his foot and breaking his leg. He was eventually found unconscious, the water around him beginning to rise.
Taken to the hospital, the delirious young man kept asking for Joyner to play for him. His comrades quickly brought him, and he played "Ave Maria" and Wagner’s “Evening Star” to “not a dry eye in the room.” The young man recuperated. Joyner wrote, “Whether the accordion had anything to do with his getting well, I really can’t say, but he is now an ardent admirer of the accordion.”
Joyner left the CCC after two years and went on to play in an accordion orchestra, do radio and stage work, and create compositions for the accordion, including the “Magnante-Deiro-Overture,” dedicated to what he called “the world’s best accordion players.”