Grand Ole Accordion: Country Music in Chicago and the WLS National Barn Dance
Until the mid 1940s, a radio station in Chicago was the center of the American country music world.
The WLS National Barn Dance reigned as the most important rural-music radio program in the nation, and inspired hundreds of imitators, including its eventual rival the Grand Ole Opry. The pioneering National Barn Dance though was also full of accordions. I’ve discovered about sixty country-western accordion players, and up until the end of the 1930s, most of those were in Chicago. (Later, Cowboy-Movies and Western Swing took up the instrument and ran with it during the accordion-boom of the 40s and 50s.)
Please consider donating (by their fundraising goal August 29th!) to support the Hayloft Gang: the Story of the National Barn Dance documentary and spread the word about the accordion’s history in early country music. It’ll have Garrison Keillor narrating, and should be a rollicking good time (though Garrison sounds his normal solemn self.)
Big names on the Barn Dance, well-known everywhere WLS’s 50,000 watts could reach (New York to the Rockies on a good night), included Louise Massey and the Westerners, otherwise known as the Massey Family, whose only non-family member was accordionist Larry Wellington – because the need for squeeze was thicker than blood (he married in eventually). They played uptown country music, which might have meant “classy,” or it could have referred to Chicago’s “uptown” where the white southern immigrants settled. Either way, they sold a lot of records, and squeezed country music into places it had never been before (they played New York theatres, making room for later Country acts to play in the City).
Gene Autry, who launched a thousand singing-cowboy movies, also got his start at WLS, and when seeking an accordion player (people did in those days), he found Smiley Burnette, otherwise known as Frog Millhouse, the exemplary “more interesting than the star” movie sidekick. In addition to accordion, Smiley played any instrument he picked up (he’d studied dozens), and had great fun inventing his own goofy variations to entertain the kids.
Other squeezebox standouts were the lovely Dinning Sisters, who brought the tight harmonies pioneered by New Orleans’ Bozwell Sisters to Country music. One of the best of many “sisters” groups, the Dinnings later following the more famous Andrews Sisters into pop music with the million selling “Buttons and Bows” (with Art Van Damme on accordion!) The Dinnings sound is similar to the Andrews’, but they seem to have had much happier family dynamics.
Bury Me Not On The Lone Praire, by The Dinning Sisters:
Augie Klein, the Dinning’s accordionist, was on staff at WLS. He later married one of the DeZurik Sisters (there were a lot of woman on the National Barn Dance, Patsy Montana got started there too). Though sadly accordion-less, the DeZuriks are so worth-hearing I have to include them here. They developed a “trick yodel” style as children, based on imitating animal sounds. Fantastic and unique American artists.
Old Dan Tucker, by the DeZurik Sisters (recorded as the “Cackle Sisters”):
Finally, accordionists should attend to the WLS National Barn Dance because of Lee Morgan and her Midwesterners, who performed in the shows later years – including the very last Barn Dance in 1960. They played pop western numbers with “Dusty Sands” – otherwise known as Morgan’s husband jazz virtuoso Leon Sash – moonlighting on accordion! In 1960 they released an album, Remember Me, and Eleven other Great Polkas and Waltzes, which I would dearly love to hear. (We have to start our own Wikipedia article on Leon Sash one of these days.)
Please support the Hayloft Gang documentary about the Barn Dance, an overlooked, and very influential part of American popular music and entertainment history. (I’d never heard of it.) I really want to see the film when it’s finished. Tell them we sent you, and to include lots of accordions.
Chad Berry has also edited a great book telling the history (and why most of us never learned it) of the Barn Dance. You should check it out, or you could get a copy by making a larger donation to the film project.