The World Accordion to Nerd Culture


The accordion is one of those instruments that has a reputation for being annoying, but seems to have grown in acceptance as of late. One major point in its favor is its versatility. I seem to recall hearing on NPR or a similar station that accordions are used in the folk music of every society. If so, this must be a pretty recent thing, as it appears to have been invented in Germany in the nineteenth century. Maybe what the NPR host meant was that it WORKS in the folk music of pretty much every society. Paul Simon’s Graceland album, for instance, is heavy on African influence, and also includes a lot of accordion. Accordions aren’t native to Africa, but they don’t sound out of place in that style of music. In recent years, however, I think the accordion might well have gained the majority of its popularity with nerdy musicians and audiences.

I would say that one of the major pioneers in bringing the accordion into nerd culture is Mr. White and Nerdy himself, “Weird Al” Yankovic.

He’s been playing the instrument since he was a kid, the story he’s told many times being that his parents enrolled him in accordion lessons because they wanted another accordion-playing Yankovic. Polka musician Frankie Yankovic was not, contrary to popular rumor, related to Al; but he was influential in this decision on his parents’ part. I understand that Al eventually began playing along with popular records on his accordion, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road being a favorite of his. I have to wonder how an accordion-based rendition of, say, “Funeral for a Friend” would sound. Anyway, when Al entered the world of comedic music, the accordion likely worked as a gimmick due to the fact that no one expected to hear much if any of it in pop music.

There’s accordion on every song on Al’s self-titled debut album, but he tended to use it less as he started making his parodies more polished and closer in arrangement to the originals. He’ll still use it for the occasional solo, however, and every album since his first has including a polka medley of popular songs. Well, every album except Even Worse, for some reason.

So is it “even worse” BECAUSE there’s no polka medley?

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention my personal favorite band, They Might Be Giants, which also makes significant use of the instrument.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty significant overlap between Al and TMBG fans, although at least in the early days TMBG themselves weren’t too fond of the comparison. In a way, I can understand their desire to disassociate themselves, since even though TMBG uses humor in a lot of their songs, they’re not comedy musicians the way Al is. I also get the impression, however, that the fact Al himself is a fan of TMBG has only helped both in the long run. TMBG have become nerd icons, even though the members themselves don’t seem to appreciate this categorization. I seem to recall John Flansburgh saying that “nerd” was always a pejorative in his youth, which is part of why he doesn’t like it, but I’m not sure that’s all. I can’t help but remember the scene in the TMBG documentary Gigantic where Ira Glass talks about how he tried to tell the Johns that Belgian expressionist painter James Ensor was an unusual subject for a song, and they just replied, “But he’s a good painter!” So maybe they’re a bit in denial about their own geekiness. As for the accordion itself, I remember John Linnell saying that he took it up because it was portable and he had some good associations, like zydeco music. Its lack of popularity at the time might well not have had anything to do with it, but this is a guy who made prominent use of a carousel band organ on his solo album, so who knows? I’m not musically inclined myself, but people who know these things have said that Linnell rarely if ever uses the bass and chord buttons on his accordion, instead playing it as basically a keyboard with bellows.

When mentioning accordions and nerds, there’s also Steve Urkel from Family Matters.

I’m not entirely sure why they chose to have him play the accordion, but it’s probably just because he was written as an annoying character and it was considered an annoying instrument. The fact that he was also a nerd must have influenced the connection, however, and I have to wonder if Weird Al was on the minds of the writers.

Also, while not strictly related, I found out while searching Google for pictures that Christina Hendricks plays the accordion.

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11 Responses to The World Accordion to Nerd Culture

  1. J. L. Bell says:

    Wasn’t that long ago that only the coolest kids played the accordion. I once heard Weird Al try to talk about that history and get laughed off the “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” stage.

    • Nathan says:

      I can see how it would have been popular at one time, since it was essentially the first portable instrument on which you could play complete songs. Times change, though.

  2. Will says:

    without the accordion we wouldn’t have zydeco or conjunto
    but most Americans e don’t appreciate music outside of top 40

  3. It has been said by John Linnell himself that he doesn’t know how to play the accordion 100% corrrectly, That could have something to do with the fact he doeesn’t use the bass or chord buttons as much. Or perhaps I’m just spitballing about why he doesn’t….I’m just assuming.

  4. Bruce says:

    Hey, nice post. I’m actually writing a book about accordions in pop music so I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s an interesting time for the instrument as it’s recovering from its anglo-north-american “dark age.” For fourty years it was not cool to play the accordion. Why? It really was popular before about 1960; since it was introduced to the US in about 1840 it joined in pretty much all of popular and folk music. Then electrical amplification came along, and the fact that it was portable and loud didn’t make up for it being really tricky to amplify. I think that amplification difficulty, connected with the invention of the electric guitar, was the reason became “old fashioned” and thus nerdy, that’s a theme of my book.

    The whole “accordions are used in the folk music of every society” thing is very interesting too. The accordion is young, being only as old as the industrial production of sheet metal in the early 1800’s. But it did travel remarkably quickly literally all over the world within two decades, and was incorporated into music by “folks” all over. So, a question is of course, “What makes something ‘folk music?'” Then we get into fun stuff like, “old-timey” bluegrass is only as old as “modernist” be-bop jazz, are either of them folk-music? African American musicians played accordions before the blues was invented, and the blues wasn’t included in some early “folk music” references because it was too newly commercial, so is the blues folk music? A guy just sent me 400 old country & western records that included the (very common apparently) accordion from 1920-1950, who knew? I love how flexible our view of what is given “heritage-roots-folk” status is, depending on stuff like what we imagine the past to have been like, what got recorded (and what folks have written books on), and what we like to listen to. The arbitrariness of how we classify things and how “factual” we think classifications are, is always very interesting to me.

    So, accordions have been seen as uncool, but now they’re turning around and gathering credibility as the “outsider” cool instrument. For six years now I’ve helped watch this oddball wave on the Accordion Noir radio program up here in Vancouver, Canada, and it’s been a trip to watch as perceptions change. Yours is a nice look at the topic, thanks for chipping in.

    • Nathan says:

      Thanks. I suppose folk music can be written at any time, but I was thinking more of traditional music when I mentioned how new accordions were.

      • Bruce says:

        Yeah, as I read more and more (trying to put the accordion in context, it being an industrial-age instrument), I keep coming across examples of how arbitrary boundaries like “traditional” are. I guess folk-music scholars have been debating this for a hundred years, but it relates even to modern music.

        Like the banjo, which came from African instrumentalists, but certainly spread widely (even among African-Americans probably) due to it being adopted by (white) black-face minstrels in the 1840’s. Is the banjo a traditional instrument, if it was spread by what really was the first pop-music in North America? The trading back and forth that has gone on even quite recently between “traditional” and “popular and commercial” makes the lines quite vague, but also richer and more interesting.

        I like the fact that some traditional Irish songs came to Ireland from travelling American (black-face again) music-hall performers. It’s all just so weird and…real. Lots of traditional repertoires contain once-commercial music. Then there’s songs that really are old that get revived in pop songs. I did find it remarkable to get my head around how much music in the world adopted this new instrument (the accordion). It came during a time of massive migration from Europe, and the mostly poor immigrants took this cheap, portable, durable instrument along to entertain them. Millions and millions of accordions were made from the 1890’s to the 1900’s. Any music they could play, they pretty much took over.

        Really the pattern is exactly like the electric guitar. It was loud and cheap, and pretty easy to start on, and you could fire a horn section and hire one guitar player. Electric keyboards and synths are the same today, and dj’ culture too. When they can hire music without paying any musicians, that’s the ultimate, the jukebox and karaoke I suppose brought the idea up to date. All these changes in musical instruments, styles, and technology keep happening, we only see a sliver of our present but the echos go back, it’s amazing to catch even a glimpse of the variety of things that have gone on in the past, and how familiar some of them seem. (The sheet-music publishing industry was freaking out when juke-boxes and radio came along – how would they make money? Totally familiar.)

        I’m procrastinating, should be writing my book, ah well, thanks for the chance.

      • Nathan says:

        You’re welcome.

  5. I’m replying to say that this is probably the most uninformed essay on accordion history I’ve ever encountered. As the kids of today might say “OMG!” Here is a book that might be informative, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00BEMSEUQ?btkr=1.

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