Upside Down Accordion: a Primer for Accordion-Fools Day
Last week this fine video by Kristofer Yffén made the rounds. Did you notice his curious accordion technique? (Spoiler, um the title of this post.)
Monkey Island 2 – Jojo the Monkey (Accordion version)
Many a novice accordionist has stumbled at this very first hurdle for learning the instrument, “How do you put this thing on?” A surprising number of now famous players made the same flip-a-coin mistake. Rowan, my own co-host on the Accordion Noir radio show is one of those who spent his entire first year playing the accordion upside down.
Since then Rowan has shared several meaningful seconds with beginners and saved them years of effort.
As I study the history of the accordion I have stumbled on some well-known accordionists who either started out and played “lefty” for a while, or stuck with it even when people told them they were doing it wrong. Most famously perhaps, zydeco star Rockin’ Dopsie (“Doop-sie”) always played “Hendrix-style,” and while he didn’t claim virtuosity, he got the job done plenty well.
Helen Carter of the Carter Sisters played for a while that way too:
Helen was befuddled by the accordion. ‘This thing is just totally backwards to the piano,’ she’d complain. Still, under her father’s insistent gaze, Helen kept at the awkward, heavy instrument. And it went a lot easier for her after a date the Carters played in Louisville, where she got some advice from the more studied eye of Pee Wee King. ‘Hey,’ he asked Helen, ‘did you know you’ve got that on upside down?'” (Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: the Carter Family and their legacy in American Music, Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg. (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2002) pg 269-270)
Not all leftist accordionists are to be trusted though. The vid for Gurus and Rockstars by Forest Sun with accordionist Ingrid Serban is either a twisted lie or maybe a selfie camera mix-up which I missed until she pointed it out to me. You can usually tell by looking at a full-size accordion since the (normally) left-hand buttons should slant down, but if they’re on the left they should slant up. Unless I’m confused.
Gurus and Rockstars – Forest Sun & Ingrid Serban
This one I found after I posted about the Russian garmon accordion a few weeks ago. It’s an old man looking very cold. Easy to imagine sad Russian accordion music, no? I had to do some research to figure out that, yes, his garmon is upside down (the photo isn’t simply reversed). Somehow that “self-taught” musician aspect makes it even more poignant.
Other Upside-Squeezers? Sabin Jacques, from Beaumont, Quebec. I’d love to see him demonstrate in person.
Alfredo Gonzalez from Los Tucanes de Tijuana (and before that Explosión Norteña). Marketers take note, these bands have hundreds of photos on their site posing with their fans after every show. That’s some face-to-face music of the people. And his neon accordion rocks.
Historical mystery swaths “Bill (from Ohio)” who played upside-down piano accordion with Cajun/Western-Swinger Leo Soileau in the 1930s. He keeps showing up in books and photos, but nobody seems to know anything more about him? Where’d you go Bill? Back to Ohio?
Literary accordionists have had their sinister moments. In Annie Proulx’s book Accordion Crimes there’s a passing character who had an injured right hand but he notably did not die in the course of what is at times a gruesome novel. “He held the accordion upside down and played a religious number after announcing that music was the gift of God and that he regularly turned down lucrative offers to play to roadhouses, pledging his talent to a higher power.” (pg 173 in the 2003 paperback.) There you go, promise to stay out of bars and you might survive your literary debut.
Finally, despite his ongoing educational efforts, my co-host Rowan’s band The Creaking Planks just released millions of t-shirt-like polyps into the sea with a talented octopus accordionist begging the question of whether “upside down” applies to underwater.
And, I don’t think we’ll get around to another post so then there’s this guy, playing his synth-accordion flat on his lap like a typewriter – no bellows required. I’ve actually thought about something like this for my “author’s photo” if I get my book done. Maybe I’ll be typing “Moscow Nights” too.
Take home lesson from all this? Do what you like and whatever works. But I gather the reason people play accordions right way around is because the chord buttons are arranged so they’re easier to finger with your left hand. There, we’re educational, job done.