I once got into a hot dispute with an accordionist, and it didn’t end well. Around the time of our tenth anniversary, Rich and I often went dancing in a small club in Cleveland’s Little Italy, where local bands played ballads made popular by Rat Pack crooners. On a whim, we hired their best band — accordion and all — to play at our anniversary party. A few weeks before the festivities, we dropped in to listen to the band only to discover, to our horror, that the accordion player had made his new girlfriend lead vocalist, and her screechy voice had caused the rest of the band to walk out.
We couldn’t inflict the girlfriend’s ghastly voice on our guests, but the accordion player refused to take “You’re fired” seriously, insisting he’d show up and play, refusing to return our hefty deposit.
What to do? A Sicilian-American friend said, “What you need is a fifty-dollar man.”
“What’s that?” asked Rich.
“What instrument does he play?”
“Well, he’s going to have a hard time playing the accordion with ten broken fingers.”
Yikes! “For five dollars,” asked Rich, “will he just break the keys of the accordion?”
Not to keep you in suspense, we didn’t hire a fifty-dollar man to harm man nor instrument. We let the musician keep the deposit, figuring that having to perform with his no-talent girlfriend was punishment enough for his sins. To my surprise, few of my guests seemed sorry to hear there would be no accordion music at the festivities. It seems the instrument isn’t universally held in high esteem.
“A gentleman,” remarked Tom Waits, “is someone who can play the accordion but doesn’t.” Ambrose Bierce called it “an instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.” My brother Mike, a jazz musician, says, “In heaven they play harps. In Hell they play accordions.” General Norman Schwarzkopf weighed in with the remark, “Going to war without France is like hunting without an accordion.” Huh?
But the world didn’t always sneer at the box-shaped, bellows-driven instrument. In fact, when it burst on the scene in 1822 Berlin, it was quickly embraced with rapture in just about every nation and musical genre, finding its way into folk tunes, music hall numbers, classical compositions, and later jazz and pop. In America, its popularity peaked in the 1950s, in large part thanks to Dick “the Legend” Contino, the “Rudolph Valentino of the accordion.”
Think the accordion can’t be sexy? I saw Dick Contino play one night at that club in Little Italy, and let me tell you, it was steamy stuff. He sported thick, wavy silver hair and a satin shirt which, as the first tune really began heating up, he suddenly ripped off and flung aside. This revealed a form-fitting sleeveless t-shirt and an abundance of chest hair; everyone leaned forward with baited breath, sure that he’d catch that hair in the accordion’s bellows. Of course, he never did, and pretty soon we forgot all about it as we lost ourselves in his passionate music. By the time he got to “Flight of the Bumblebee” his fingers were moving so fast they became a blur.
It was rock ‘n roll that killed the accordion’s popularity. Suddenly the guitar was king, and the accordion was downgraded from cool to quaint. Oh sure, it cropped up in a few hit songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, but mostly it languished as a novelty, kept alive by old-school music venues and celebrations such as the Cotati Accordion Festival, which I attended this weekend.
“I go every year,” said a women who’d danced at the festival despite a dislocated shoulder and mild concussion. “I always tell people how much fun it is. I say, ‘It’s really great. You should come too.” And they always say —” Here she imitated their condescending tone. “‘Uh, you go. And, uh, enjoy yourself.’” We both laughed. Because the Cotati Accordion Festival is a total hoot and her friends and family (like mine) had no idea how much fun they were missing.
This was its 32nd year, and the festival has never been more popular, drawing dozens of top performers from around the world, a crowd of several thousand a day, and vendors selling everything from kettle corn to kitsch figurines. There was an ongoing musical jam session in one tent, a polka dance hall in another, a zydeco dance party at a nearby bar, and two stages filling the air with music guaranteed to make everyone smile and tap their feet.
Are accordions finally making a comeback? Absolutely, says Canadian Martin Hergt, owner of Tempo Trend in Victoria, British Columbia. And it’s all thanks to a phenomena some are calling “the accordivirus,” a sudden outbreak of accordion fever that became highly contagious during the pandemic lockdown.
“People were home,” he told me. “They pulled out their old accordions and started playing again. They ended up wanting lighter ones, or something different. Their kids started taking lessons. We got emails from all over the world. We’d never shipped so many accordions. And it’s still going strong.”
In the early afternoon, all the female accordionists were invited onto the main stage to play “Lady of Spain,” the song that launched Dick Contino’s career, became a signature tune on the Lawrence Welk Show, and has been sung by everyone from Bing Crosby to the Muppets. The audience, sitting on hay bales, folding chairs, and the grass, cheered them on, and when they followed up with "Beer Barrel Polka," we all sang along. Yes, even Rich and I joined in; with a crowd that large, I figured no one would notice how off-tune we were.
“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is,” said Rich.
As the musicians packed away their instruments, an announcer from an adjacent stage said, “And now, presenting the annual Dick and Judy Contino Accordion Scholarship, we welcome Judy Contino.” My head whipped around. And there she was — the widow of “the Legend,” who passed on to the Great Music Stage in the Sky in 2017. Later I introduced myself and told her how much I loved her husband’s music. We agreed the festival was a great way to help keep accordion music, and his memory, fresh.
So OK, I’ll admit the accordion may never again be mega-hip. It won’t garner lavish praise from music critics at Rolling Stone, Billboard, or Mojo. Fashionistas won’t have themselves photographed holding one in an amusingly provocative manner. And even if they read this post, my family and friends will not speak in awe and envy of my good fortune in attending this year's Cotati Accordion Festival. But I know what it’s like to sit on the grass, belt out an old favorite tune with thousands of other voices raised with mine, and embrace the whimsical, cheerful world of accordion music. And that’s hip enough for me.
JUST JOINING US? THE NUTTERS' WORLD TOUR SO FAR
IN PROGRESS: THE NUTTERS' TOUR OF CALIFORNIA
The Accordion Is Hip Again. Yes, It Is! (Cotati)
Boonville: A Town So Remote It Has Its Own Language (Anderson Valley)
Can't Stop the Madness, But Let's Slow It Down a Bit (Thrift Shops)
It's Only a Movie. Or Is It? (Bodega Bay)
Why I Spray-Painted My Shoes (Theme Weddings)
Please, Please, Please Don't Ask Me to Sing Karaoke (San Anselmo)
Keeping It Strange & Wonderful for Future Generations (Fairfax Festival)
Why Isn't Anyone Banning My Books? (Alameda)
When Pigs Fly (Yes, They Can!) (Sacramento Pig Races)
Do You Believe in Magic? (Macabre Market)
My Close Encounter with the Skeptic Society (Outer Space)
The Nutters' Guide to Modern Comfort Food (My Kitchen)
Relationships: Do Humans Stand a Ghost of a Chance? (Hangtown)
For Nutters, There's No Place Like California (Petaluma Chicken & Egg Day)
Can Artificial Intelligence Help Me Plan the Next Nutters Tour?
SPRING 2023: THE NUTTERS' TOUR OF SPAIN
Spain Never Runs Out of Offbeat Curiosities (Zaragoza, Barcelona, Tarragona)
I Travel Deep into the Heart of Nuttiness (Palencia & Pamplona)
Road Warriors: Let the Good Times Roar (Léon & Oviedo)
Travel Alert: You Can't Always Get What You Want... (Madrid & Burgos)
Gobsmacked at Every Turn but Embracing the Chaos (Jaén & Valdepeñas)
All Aboard for the Nutters Tour of Spain (Packing & Organizing)
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