No popular musical instrument has been more frequently maligned than the accordion. Despite gaining hipster cred in the 1990s, its role in pop music remains underappreciated and misunderstood. As portable as the guitar and better able unaccompanied to summon a band or lead a dance, piano and button accordions and their kin anchor popular forms across the globe, from vallenato (Colombia), forró and baião (Brazil), tango (Argentina), conjunto and norteño (Mexican/Texan), merengue (Dominican Republic), and cajun and zydeco (Louisiana) in the Americas to funaná in Cape Verde, Celtic and Irish, ceilidh (Scotland) and bal musette (France), polka and its relatives in central Europe, to the music of the garmon in Russia and Central Asia.
That’s nothing like an exhaustive list, and that’s not to mention virtuoso individual players in forms not defined by accordions. For instance, Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) first recorded his blues on an accordion. It was Paul McCartney’s first instrument, and he reportedly long favored it for composition. Whether associated with ABC-TV’s Lawrence Welk or Nigeria’s jùjú maestro I.K. Dairo, with schmaltz, or with cool, the accordion is the essence of pop culture.
Even if we acknowledge the accordion’s dominance of music beyond Anglo-American pop, it’s more likely than not that the nooks and crannies of the typical aural memory of pop/rock from the 1960s through the 1980s bear no conscious trace of the squeezebox. But they’re there if you listen for them. Sometimes it’s to invoke music halls, older generations, or the New York City exurbs of Long Island and the Jersey Shore. Sometimes it’s to invoke traditions outside of pop and rock. And sometimes it’s just because nothing else sounds quite like an accordion. The Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Tull, and the Who all have accordion songs. So do Elton John, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, ELP, and Styx. The Dead once toured with an accordion player. So did Fleetwood Mac. The more you look and listen, the more you find. And since the ’90s, they’re pretty much everywhere.
This list of essential songs is capacious but by no means exhaustive. To keep it manageable, I have included only artists and bands who flourished at some point between the 1960s and 1980s, even if some of the songs date from later. After this era would be a different and even longer list, spanning everything from alt-country to hip-hop. The current list is in chronological order by date of release or performance.
The Beatles – “We Can Work It Out” (1965)
Most Beatles’ accordion is on the White Album, lending frontier texture to “Rocky Raccoon” and old-time kitsch to Cry Baby Cry. But on this #1 single, released as a double A-side with “Day Tripper”, they make it a pop instrument, like the sitar George Harrison would play on Norwegian Wood during the same year. Although Paul McCartney was the band’s resident accordionist, it’s John Lennon who sits in here on harmonium. Also, check out McCartney’s 1991 Unplugged performance with Paul “Wix” Wickens on accordion.
The Beach Boys – “God Only Knows” (1966)
Accordion fills by Carl Fortina, self-proclaimed as “the most-recorded accordionist in the world“, are integral to the densely layered chamber pop of this landmark recording. “I want you at all of my sessions,” Fortina recalls being told by Brian Wilson. “Every time you play, my records go gold. You’re my good luck charm.” Among those records—some of them indeed gold—are “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Dance, Dance, Dance”, “Tears in the Morning”, and the Van Dyke Parks collaboration “Cabinessence”.
The Young Rascals – “How Can I Be Sure” (1967)
Led by blue-eyed soul heartthrob Felix Cavaliere and the first of several New Jersey artists on this list, the Young Rascals released a string of immortal and oft-covered singles during the late ’60s. The swirling orchestration of this ballad gets its Paris-café vibe from an unidentified concertina player.
Fairport Convention – “No Man’s Land” (1969)
From the first of a trio of albums that invented British folk-rock, “No Man’s Land” predates Fairport Convention’s renovation of British roots music and composer/guitarist Richard Thompson’s enduring partnership with accordionist John Kirkpatrick. It’s Thompson on the instrument, and the influences are American more than British. But in treating the accordion as a lead instrument in a rock band rather than a background, Thompson and his bandmates set a template for accordion pop/rock to come.
The Band – “Rocking Chair” (1969)
The first and one of the few virtuoso accordionists in a rock band, multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson’s playing floats the longing in this song from their self-titled second album. At the same time, Hudson also effortlessly conjures the rural scene being longed for. And the accordion’s singing harmonizes with the high notes of Richard Manuel’s lead vocal and the harmonizing of the other members.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – “Mr. Bojangles” (1970)
The sentimental pop counterpart to the aching “Rocking Chair”, this cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s tribute to a New Orleans street performer was a top ten single in 1971. Walker claimed to have met the titular homeless white man in jail. The man explained that he had borrowed the name from famous early-century African American performer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to provide anonymity with the law. Regular band member Jimmy Ibbotson carries the mellow country-rock vibe. In the video’s live performance linked here, the accordion is played by later member Bob Carpenter.
The Band – “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (1971)
Bob Dylan recorded his version earlier in 1971, and there’s a live version with the Band and Bob Dylan from 1972, but the one from Cahoots is my favorite. Hudson’s carnivalesque stylings join the Arkansas twang in Levon Helm’s lead vocal to conjure the self-mocking lyrics of an American abroad. Jerry Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead covered this one a number of times; some of the best, unsurprisingly, was when keyboardist Bruce Hornsby strapped on his accordion for the occasion.
Harry Nilsson – “Gotta Get Up” (1971)
B-side to “Without You”, the biggest single of Harry Nilsson’s career and opener on his most successful album, Nilsson Schmilsson, this ode to getting too old to party all night and still be standing early the next morning is a caffeine- and speed-driven complement to the stoned psychedelic pop of Pet Sounds. Accordion by English legend Henry Krein, presumably during the album’s London rather than the Hollywood sessions.
Bruce Springsteen – “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” (1973)
A founding member of the E-Street band, Jersey native Danny Federici learned to play the accordion as a child from watching the Lawrence Welk Show. His playing on this homage to the Jersey Shore channels postwar schmaltz into Bruce Springsteen’s sound just as the lyrics memorialize its culture as simultaneously banal and transcendent. Federici was so closely identified with this song that he played it with Springsteen just before his death from cancer in 2008. Don’t miss Charles Giordano’s stellar work on later Springsteen, especially the 2006 Seeger Sessions.
Bob Dylan – “On a Night Like This” (1974)
The lead track on Planet Waves (1974), Bob Dylan’s first collaboration with the Band since the 1967 sessions that produced the Basement Tapes (officially released two years after Planet Waves), “On a Night Like This” is a rollicking, zydeco-tinged workout with an intense outro duet for Garth Hudson’s accordion and Dylan’s harmonica. Dylan would work with veteran Dominic Cortese on Desire, but it was not until his multi-album work, first with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and then with multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron after 2005 on the “Never Ending Tour”, that the accordion has featured prominently in what we might call the neo old-timey music of his late style.