My accordion sits in a hole-poked case turned light brown from years of closet life. The case is ridiculously large, like an oversized luggage bag from a bad Bing Crosby movie. The inside is velvet, a deep red luxury for the musical love of my life.
When my grandmother offered me a wooden Silvestri accordion three years ago, I immediately accepted the offer. Who turns down an accordion?
I’ve tried to learn to play the bulky thing. It’s every bit larger than it seems, and you have to possess a superhuman command of your fingers and memory in order to make anything resembling a coherent song come out. I can play “Across the Stars” from Star Wars, a little bit of “Smooth Criminal” and a few folk songs, but any actual accordionist puts me to shame. But I’m content to be bad at the accordion as long as I can say I play the accordion. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
And playing the accordion is certainly worth doing. There’s no instrument like it. It’s a Chimera, the unwieldy combination of a piano, a concertina and a jukebox. The wheezing instrument will always be ridiculous. Calling to mind lederhosen and Italian restaurants, the accordion has the surrealist absurdity of fairytales.
It’s like playing a set of lungs—you push in and out to help the accordion breathe. It’s exhausting. Eventually, you realize you should start playing the keys, and everything gets complicated. Trying to play the accordion has made me overwhelmingly grateful that my lungs operate independent of my will and that I don’t even have to worry about manipulating my vocal chords to create sound. You have to play the piano sideways, manage an overwhelming number of buttons with your other hand and keep pumping the lungs in order to produce music.
My passion for the accordion carries through into my music. I’ve seen more accordion covers on YouTube than is decent, and the instrument’s jolting buzz has slowly invaded my iPod. It blasts me into rapture.
The accordion spans across genres. From polka to metal, the instrument has a wide variety of musical homes. Every song on this week’s playlist will feature an accordion. Sometimes the accordion will take front stage, other times it will contentedly blend in the background. But nowhere is the accordion irrelevant.
I will confess that my playlist will be based on my own experience. I am not brave enough to try and poke into genres I am incompetent in, so regrettably I don’t have any Zydeco or Mariachi. There will be a disproportionate amount of power metal, which is by no means a bad thing, but something I should warn you about.
My final warning: accordions are a wild instrument, and a few of my songs are about alcohol. I am in no way challenging the Student Life Handbook Community Value Statements Section II Subsection B. Just remember that a barrel could be filled with anything, imagine 7up.
Any good accordion playlist starts out with polka. Though polka runs in my family, I’ve not been exposed to it in a meaningful way. Concerned that I was unconnected with my heritage, one day I bought a polka album from the library. Myron Floren was my introduction to the world of polka, and he has guided me through it ever since then. Polka is undoubtedly the bounciest musical genre, and Floren, known as the happy Norwegian, is a class act. “The Thunder Polka” and “Beer Barrel Polka” show the violence and revelry of this genre.
“Cumbia Con La Luna,” “The Irish Rover” and the “I’ll Tell Me Ma Medley” though not polkas, provide a traditional folk basis for our exploration into the screeching, beautiful world of the accordion. “The Irish Rover” is a song about a ship full of ridiculous cargo (who needs four million barrels of bones?) crashing in a storm. It’s a sad song, but played unsettlingly happy.
“Smugljanka” and “Black Eyes” are traditional Russian folk melodies. I have a particular weakness for the melodic construction of these songs. The minor key and major passion strike at my heart in ways I still don’t understand.
After these folk songs, my playlist enters more modern instrumentation. If you are an indie kind of person, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” by the Decemberists, is a horrifying narrative ballad about a man’s intense desire for revenge. It has whales, monks and an incredible accordionist.
“I’m Shipping Up To Boston” marks our transition to Irish Punk Rock, an energetic, angsty genre that absolutely despises the English. Another hallmark of this genre is the frequent use of the accordion. “Another Bag of Bricks,” is somehow the angriest song on this playlist, a hard feat when sharing a playlist with the Decemberists. “What’s Left of the Flag” is a rebellious song that stirs the blood to revolution. Thankfully, I’m not around English royalty often, so this song hasn’t negatively impacted me socially.
Korpiklaani, one of the best bands out there, prominently features the accordion in nearly all of their songs. Classified as folk metal, their sound is driving, lively and folk-heavy. They come from frozen Finland, and their music reflects traditional Finnish melodies. The lead singer’s voice is as gravely as they come, but there is a tender sentimentality to the music. “Metsӓmies,” which translates to “Forest Man,” sings about a god-like lumberjack, which should inspire any of us.
Next on the playlist is Turisas, a folk metal band from Sweden who structures much of their music narratively. “In the Court of Jarisleif” describes the raucous court of King Jarisleif, where the protagonists of Turisas’ concept album rest on their journey to Byzantium. “A Portage to the Unknown” is probably my favorite song on the playlist. While the death growling could be a barrier to some listeners, the thematic integrity of the song combined with its driving melody creates a viking masterpiece.
Like anything worth listening to, the 70s rock giant Styx closes out our accordion adventure. “Boat on the River” has a haunting melody and a simple, folk sound.
There is nothing like an accordion, and while I will probably never be able to play mine with anything approaching skill, the accordion will always hold a special, velvet lined place in my heart.