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Accordion Crimes

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Alice 21 Dec 97 - 05:45 PM
Phillip Hawke 21 Dec 97 - 06:31 PM
rastrelnikov 22 Dec 97 - 01:25 AM
Alice 22 Dec 97 - 01:42 AM
Alice 22 Dec 97 - 03:07 PM
Frank Maher 22 Dec 97 - 11:27 PM
rastrelnikov 23 Dec 97 - 01:45 AM
Mark Gregory 23 Dec 97 - 04:26 AM
Alice 23 Dec 97 - 12:03 PM
Alice 23 Dec 97 - 12:11 PM
j. rude 23 Dec 97 - 09:25 PM
Jaxon 24 Dec 97 - 08:46 AM
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Subject: 'Accordion Crimes'
From: Alice
Date: 21 Dec 97 - 05:45 PM

I am reading "Accordion Crimes" by E. Annie Proulx. Anyone else out there read it? Marvelous book for the types who chat on this forum. It is a novel about an old green button accordion from the time that it was made by a Sicillian immigrant to New Orleans and all of its owners until its demise. I was struck by the term she used a couple of times in the chapter about the New England Frenchman. "Kitchen music". Friends and family getting together to sing and play, like "porch pickin'". In that chapter, the accordion owner is looking for a way to learn old time "frenchie" music. "LaMadelaine, everybody had his records- boy, he could hypnotize you. He come out of the woods, learned fiddle from his father - that old fashioned sound. Traditional, hein? But Soucy, he was a genius. Nobody ever played like him, not even this guy they got playing now, Jean Carigan? I switch to hillbilly. There's too many good ones up there. Then the accordion come in strong, so I got interested in that, learned to play a little. In the old days we use to have kitchen parties, everybody come, dance, but the new new houses, the ranch houses? The rooms are too small. So you got to hire a hall, go out to a hall or something got enough room." Interesting comment on how we came to no longer have so much "kitchen music".

Alice in Montana

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Subject: RE:
From: Phillip Hawke
Date: 21 Dec 97 - 06:31 PM

I've read it. It is good, but not as good as her first book. I missed the significance of the passage you've pointed out, but it actually runs couter to my admittedly ill-informed conception of earlier architecture. I would have though the earlier houses would have been smaller than than later ones due to the need to conserve time/heat/building materials, etc. Later "Ranch" houses might have had smaller kithens but, I would have thought, bigger living rooms. Maybe music moves out of homes and into halls when clusters of family groups become communities and want to socialize together.

Is the author historically accurate throughout the book? I'm not able to judge that very well.


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Subject: RE:
From: rastrelnikov
Date: 22 Dec 97 - 01:25 AM

No way did "smaller" rooms wipe out "kitchen" music. There's way more square footage of housing per North American than there ever has been before. I would guess that smaller families and dishwashers are more to blame. As well as television, stereos, radios, movies, telephones, increased ethnic diversity, increased wealth that allows families to be apart more, increased wealth for heavy furniture that is stuffed into our houses and can't be moved aside easily for a dance, increased mobility (so that you don't HAVE to socialize with your neighbors anymore or routinely invite them over -- heck you CAN'T invite in a small fraction of all the people who COULD come over),... in short all the new ways we entertain ourselves make it less likely that there will be neighborhood song and dance parties at anyone's houses.

Still you do have a point -- fewer of the big houses today have any room designed with occasional dances in mind. With a car, it's so much easier to go out to dance.

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Subject: RE:
From: Alice
Date: 22 Dec 97 - 01:42 AM

I think you're right: records, radios, movies, television, etc. Alice in MT

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Subject: RE:
From: Alice
Date: 22 Dec 97 - 03:07 PM

It is important to remember that the quote (about ranch style kitchens) was the opinion of a fictional character in the book, not a statement of fact by the author. What struck me was the way in which the making of music at home was so significant in the lives of the characters. a in mt

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Subject: RE: 'Accordion Crimes'
From: Frank Maher
Date: 22 Dec 97 - 11:27 PM

Hi Alice, Being a Professional Accordion Player I am very interested in that Book,but It isn't on sale here in Newfoundland. I was looking for It tonight in the Bookstores but I couldn't find It. Do You know where I could get a Copy? All the best!! Frank

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Subject: RE:
From: rastrelnikov
Date: 23 Dec 97 - 01:45 AM

I'm kind of interested now... anyone out there who did/does most of their early singing in kitchens? I can only remember doing that twice in my life. Oddly enough, it was in a 90 year old cottage where the kitchen and dining room were joined together (though dances were meant to be held outside on the big verandas).

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Subject: RE:
From: Mark Gregory
Date: 23 Dec 97 - 04:26 AM

Maybe you'll be interested in this article Annie Proulx's Musicology by Graeme Smith. You can find it at my Australian Folk Songs site:

it discusses the question of authenticity amongst others

Annie Proulx's Musicology

Graeme Smith
© all rights reserved

The central protagonist of Annie Proulx's Great American Novel, Accordion Crimes, is a diatonic button accordion. In 1891, a Sicilian accordion player and maker meticulously puts together his master piece and, full of hope of musical fortune, takes the instrument with him to America. Over the next hundred years the instrument is owned by Texas Mexicans, Maine and Quebecois and Cajun French, Chicago Poles, Midwestern Germans and Irish. Eventually, the accordion disintegrates, perhaps a symbol of the disappearance of the working class subcultures in which it was played.

An accordion made a cameo appearance in Proulx's The Shipping News, accompanying the rich and grounded domestic sociability of the woman who helps the misfit Quorn to rebuild a social self in provincial Newfoundland. Proulx's interest in other "roots" musical styles is also apparent in her collection of short stories Heart Songs. The title piece is a bizarre documentation of a Yuppie new homesteader coming across the startling old time kitchen music of a backwoods family and comprehensively and disastrously misreading the social dynamics and family structure.

Proulx's sardonic view of insider/outsider relations, mapped onto the tight and brutal integrity of local worlds, similarly informs Accordion Crimes. The book tells the story of the racist exclusion from the American dream of various immigrant ethnic communities. But each of them are also trapped in racism, particularly against African Americans, but also against other immigrant groups - Irish, Poles or whomever. In the epigraph to her book Proulx quotes Cornel West: "Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be "white" - they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity."

The one hope of assimilation was invisibility - learn the language, change your name. Even if assimilation were possible, the cultural costs were enormous. On this brutal historical path the musical styles which various immigrant communities developed and made their own were both defence and nostalgic comfort. But more than this, they provided ways of working out emotionally satisfying compromises with the contradictory and uneven progress of modernisation to which emigration had exposed so many. Proulx is a keen fan of 'old timey' music styles, and she shows impressive erudition in her evocation of Tex-Mex, Cajun, Polka and other musical styles played on the Sicilian's green diatonic accordion.

Diatonic accordions were developed in the early nineteenth century and penetrated popular music-making with a speed unparalleled until the appearance of the electric guitar. They have a couple of rows of buttons on the right hand end which each play a major scale when you alternately press and draw the bellows, like a bellows-driven mouth organ. At the other end, eight brass buttons give a rudimentary accompaniment of a few primary chords. From Nigerian Ju-ju and Columbian Vallenata to Clinton Chenier's Zydeco and Sharon Shannon's contemporary Irish traditional music, this instrument has proved versatile enough to play in many musical languages. But it was also limited enough to accomplish its primary musical task - to reach an audience with a bright, penetrating tone, a clearly articulated rhythmic style, and a powerful melodic clarity.

Diatonic accordions evoked the sounds of home and its social relations, but they also spoke the voice of modernity - of industrialisation and the metropolis. Their manufacture and their voice depended on industrial techniques, the tight, Swedish blue-steel reeds made the sound, not the gut and wood of traditional instruments. In contrast to unreliable nature, which had betrayed the emigrant, accordions spoke of control and power.

The American ethnomusicologist Charles Keil 1 argues that Urban Blues, American Polka, Greek Rembetica, and any number of other urban popular styles, share a proletarian aesthetic which can be read as compensation; that as people lose control of their daily life they wish to feel it in their music and so the music becomes increasingly streamlined. So from Muddy Waters to B. B. King, from Nacisco Martinez to Flaco Jimanez, from polka players like Lil Walter Jagiello to Frankie Yankovic, from Irish accordionists, Joe Flanagan to Paddy O'Brien, we see modernised musical styles driven by an urge to smoothness and control. 2

This aesthetic dynamic is well illustrated in Proulx's book. The Tex-Mex player, vain, defensive and patriarchal, works in the space between the old-style playing of Martinez and that of the modern traditionalist and world music star Flaco Jimanez. Quebecois accordion music is transformed from a kitchen music to a virtuosic art form by dedicated revivalists, but as the style evolves and gains in social status, so the players on which the music claims to be based are excluded. As the century wears on the diatonic accordion is superseded as a voice of modernity. Its once exciting sound, the punchy or gasping bellows shuffle, is overtaken first by smoother, louder, more sophisticated accordions, and then by the globalised languages of country, soul and rap.

In The Shipping News, Proulx displays her fascination with the detail and physicality of boat-craft, instructing the reader on such matters as thwarts and gunwales. Similarly, in Accordion Crimes, she captures the obsessiveness of accordion makers and players in her fastidious descriptions of construction and tuning techniques - of skived kidskin, obdurate walnut and mephitic dust. She describes how a player who moves from a diatonic accordion to a Parisian musette, has "to learn this myriad of buttons, to cast from his mind the old simple pattern, to train his fingers to dance [to gain] the sonority of the instrument and the rich possibilities of the chromatic scale." The musical instrument is another prosthetic of the musician's body, the pleasures of the music are those of the heavy metal guitar or the street machine, the yearning for power and control over one's own environment and circumstances, however fleeting and illusory this may finally be.

From 1890 to 1990 the accordion has only a century to pass through many hands, and Proulx gives most of its owners violent ends to move it quickly on to a new community. Controlling powerful, dangerous machines is part of daily existence for Proulx's accordion players, and few writers can match her evocation of the poetic potential of the chain saw and the pick-up truck. Her protagonists' untimely deaths are like a string of industrial accidents. They have nothing but their bodies to sell; eventually full payment is demanded. The accordion is thus both another machine and another body, with its own expressive breath. Its voice, aching or bitter, its gasping and sighing like the body in self-absorbed passion: "it sound like my women", says Pollo, the Louisiana creole.

As the old green accordion declines and fragments, so too do the worlds of its players, whose children and grandchildren are now reeling from the decimation of American heavy industry. In Accordion Crimes, Proulx casts a bitter eye over the physical and cultural price extracted from these people for the right to survive as Americans.

Graeme Smith is postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Sociology and Anthropology at La Trobe University and he plays the diatonic button accordion. This piece is extracted, with permission, from Arena Magazine.


1. Charles Keil and Stephen Feld, another critical ethnomusicologist have recently assembled a collection of essays and dialogues entitled Music Grooves ( University of Chicago Press, University of Chicago, 1993). This book is a good entry point to Keil's (and Feld's) work. Keil's ideas on proletarian streamlining come from his essay "Slovenian Style in Milwaukee" in Folk Music and Modern Sound, eds. W. Ferris and M. Hart, University Press of Missippipi, Jackson, 1982.

2. Graeme Smith "Modern Style Irish Accordion Playing: History, Biography and Class", Ethnomusicology, Vol 41, No 1, 1997 (forthcoming).

Those interested in Popular Music Studies could go to the web site of IASPM, RPM online (The Review of Popular Music), The International Association for the Study of Popular Music, or Australian readers could e-mail the Australian Branch secretary Karl Neuenfeldt

© Australian Humanities Review all rights reserved. for copyright notice.

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Subject: RE:
From: Alice
Date: 23 Dec 97 - 12:03 PM

Frank, I first became aware of the book by stumbling on a review while doing a search on the web for harmoniums. I found it here in paperback at a large chain bookstore. Try a web search?? alice

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Subject: RE:
From: Alice
Date: 23 Dec 97 - 12:11 PM

Mark, I just read Graeme Smith's review on your web site. THANK you!! alice

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Subject: RE: criminal accordions
From: j. rude
Date: 23 Dec 97 - 09:25 PM

accordion crimes is also a history of racial and ethnic hatred. perhaps this accounts for the extreme dislike of the instruments in some circles. some of my best friends are accordionists or act like they are.

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Subject: RE:
From: Jaxon
Date: 24 Dec 97 - 08:46 AM

We used to sing in our kithcen on Friday nights. My father would bring home some of his friends from the bar and they would sit in the kitchen singing Irish songs until the wee hours. When I'm learning a new song I practice it in my kitchen just before I take it out in the new world. With no rugs and plenty of tile I get a little natural reverb and a sense of how it will sound out in the real world. Merry Christmas to all.

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