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Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America

Marion Jacobson

No other instrument has witnessed such a dramatic rise to popularity -- and precipitous decline -- as the accordion. Squeeze This! is the first history of the piano accordion and the first book-length study of the accordion as a uniquely American musical and cultural phenomenon.

Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Price: $29.95
Author: Marion Jacobson
Length: 304 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-02
Excerpted from Chapter Six: Out of the Closet, from Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2012 by Marion Jacobson and reprinted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Those Darn Accordions and the Accordionista Raids

On a balmy May evening in 1990, ten accordionists gathered outside an elegant restaurant in San Francisco’s popular and heavily touristed North Beach neighborhood. With piano accordions strapped to their chests, fingers poised on keyboards, they awaited a signal from their leader, Tom Torriglia. “C’mon, we have to move quickly, before the maitre d’ has time to throw us out.” They marched in, storm-trooper style, encircling the tables of diners and blocking the waiters’ access to the kitchen. Food service halted. Then the band let loose with “Roll out the Barrel,” each accordionist extending his or her bellows to the fullest to produce maximum volume. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!” announced Torriglia. “Come join us this evening for a performance by Those Darn Accordions!” After announcing the particulars of the event, the accordionists filed out, ambling down Columbus Avenue in search of their next target with a television cameraman in tow.

The seemingly spontaneous performance was organized by members of the all-accordion rock band Those Darn Accordions. When the band first formed, in 1989, it was a thirteen-piece “novelty band” that intended to give a single appearance at a nightclub in San Francisco. Then Linda (Lou) Seekins, an early band member, generated interest in the idea that gave rise to a widespread interest in the band’s activities in and beyond San Francisco. Her preoccupations were not artistic—her music concerned features that transcend barriers between the accordion and rock and highlight the crosscultural identity of the accordion. Seekins and the band produced a highly stylized music and mode of performance that has been widely imitated by other accordionists.

When she was in her twenties, Seekins had moved from her native Los Angeles to Austin, Texas, and found work as a waitress at the Broken Spoke, a legendary dance hall where country and western stars like George Strait, Ernest Tubb, and Asleep at the Wheel made regular appearances. Seekins was well aware of the riches of country and western music, as well as the diverse musical scene she inhabited in Texas: rockabilly, alternative music, and various styles of polka. She was especially attracted to the lively sound and feel of the accordion in bands she heard at the Spoke, and she decided to master the instrument herself. In her spare hours—she worked part-time as a geologist—she also carefully studied Lawrence Welk’s programs, still in syndication on public television. She admired his technical skill and his success in introducing the accordion to television viewers. But she realized that his smooth, tepid sound had been unpopular among her generation. She had grown up on rock, and Welk’s music was too “cornball.” But her experiences in the Austin music scene suggested that ethnic polka music could be just as fast and furious and uninhibited as rock.

In a publicity stunt orchestrated by their manager to promote an upcoming concert, Those Darn Accordions barges in on unsuspecting diners in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. (Source: Getty Images)

Five years later, moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, Seekins found a way to make her case publicly. She had joined a country and western band called Thee Hellhounds (sic), which played an eclectic repertoire that ranged from Beatles songs to polka to the theme song from the 1950s television show Perry Mason. She decided to call up everyone she knew who played the accordion to play together at a nightclub concert. Another band member, Tom Torriglia, a music journalist who ran his own public relations business, determined that he could garner a great deal of media coverage with “accordionista raids.” The restaurant owners apparently appreciated the publicity and began paying the group for return appearances. “Then Apple computers called and asked us to barge in on their early morning seminars,” said Torriglia.

The band, now calling itself Those Darn Accordions, swelled to eighteen members, including an electric guitarist and drummer. All of the members had day jobs and little time to practice. Former band members I interviewed recall being poorly rehearsed and underprepared. Most of the band members appeared ill at ease onstage. “Everyone had to have sheet music on stands and the music would keep falling off. It was just not a band,” recalls Paul Rogers, a current member. Early video footage supports this appraisal. Whether the band was performing rock covers in earnest or as parody depends on the perspective of the viewer/listener. In a performance of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” seventy-four-year-old cable car mechanic and band member Clyde Forsman “sings” lead—or rather, chants the words in an inexpressive monotone, reading from note cards. The band plays the guitar and keyboard lines as Stewart wrote them, but they sound (and look) cluttered onstage. Entrance cues are often missed, and there is a lack of cohesion in the arrangement. No monitors are present onstage, and it often appears that the band members cannot hear each other or perhaps are not listening. Performances of Jimi Hendrix songs and other rock covers proceed in the same fashion, although the band sounds slightly more polished on their recordings. Yet the band is clearly enjoying its performance, egging on Forsman as he casts sultry looks at the audience.

The band continued to find engagements—not only in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Torriglia’s publicity efforts had paid off in nightclub gigs—but at music festivals. They appeared at South by Southwest (Austin) and Summerfest (Milwaukee). But the band members were responsible for their own travel expenses, and the financial burden caused nearly half of the members to drop out. Although they did not release their first album until 1992, they made use of the Internet to garner numerous television and radio appearances in the 1990s. They have been the subject of profiles in the New York Times, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Stereo Review. Most authors of these profiles and reviews seem to be “in on the joke,” never taking the band to task for their sloppy musicianship and theatricalized performances. Yet this slew of admiring coverage of this band contributed to a national wave of “accordion revival” stories: “Band Wants to Tune Up Accordion’s Status” (Chicago Tribune, November 24, 1989), “Raiders of the Night on a Mellifluous Mission (the New York Times, January 23, 1990) and “Those Darn Accordions Redeem a Ridiculed Instrument” (San Francisco Chronicle, February 3, 2005). These headlines echo some of the quasi-moralistic and spiritual themes sounded around the accordion in the 1990s and 2000: enhanced status, or even redemption, and the idea of the accordion as a “mission.”

When Tom Torriglia felt that the accordionista raids had saturated the media, he explored a novel strategy for legitimizing the accordion and heightening its visibility—making the accordion the “official instrument of San Francisco.”

San Francisco’s Official Instrument

A native of the Bay Area, Torriglia had played accordion on and off since his childhood. He had taken lessons at the Pezzolo Brothers’ accordion school in San Francisco’s Mission district and performed with his father at weddings and parties. Unlike other teenaged accordionists in the age of rock ’n’ roll, he never experienced humiliation, and he looked for opportunities to show off his skill at school pep rallies and talent shows. He wanted others to share in his sense of pride and self-worth as an accordionist. Aware of the city’s unique history as an accordion center, he proposed that San Francisco adopt the accordion as its official instrument. According to his research, the city had yet to bestow this distinction on any instrument.

A San Francisco city supervisor agreed to schedule the proposal on the city’s official calendar, but she insisted that Torriglia first present a position paper making the case for his proposal. Torriglia then delivered a compelling twenty-page report that presented the history of the accordion in San Francisco since Guerrini opened the first factory there in the early 1900s. Torriglia’s account of the process that followed is vivid, offering a unique snapshot of accordion culture and civic life in San Francisco:

I called a press conference. I called all the old folks from the accordion clubs and musician’s union: “Come on down, we’re having a rally in support of the accordion becoming the official instrument. We’re going to play Italian songs and polkas. It’ll be fun.” I called every freakin’ accordion player in the Bay Area—like forty or fifty of them. I sent out press releases. I had every medium there, radio, television, newspapers. Time called. Then CNN picked it up, and that was it.

The city officials are ready to vote, but they have to have public comment. All these people show up: saying “I hate the accordion!” in front of the Board of Supervisors. They bring up Lawrence Welk. Then the younger people: “the accordion is cool.” People just went on and on…

Marion Jacobson holds a Ph.D. in music and ethnomusicology from New York University. An accordionist herself, she has performed with klezmer bands and accordion bands, and in old-timey jam sessions, but her favorite spot for gigs is the New York City subway.

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