Jenny Vincent: the Long View 1913-2016
Here’s a draft from my Accordion Revolution book in progress from the chapter “The Folk Revival’s Betrayal of the Accordion.” The chapter ends with Jenny Vincent’s story. On Mothers’ Day, 2016, at 103 years old she died while I was composing these paragraphs. It felt a bit like a hopeful farewell from her for my book about the accordion she loved. Many thanks to her friend Craig Smith for producing her biography Sing My Whole Life Long in 2007. Too few historic accordionists have been given their due. It’s wonderful that Vincent’s story has had some of the attention it deserves.
One of very few early folk players unafraid to incorporate ethnic music and the accordion into her repertoire was lifelong political activist Jenny Vincent. In league with Sis Cunningham and Zilphia Horton she was another woman who took up folk music and the accordion in the 1930’s. None gained fame or fortune from their work though their stories are as dramatic as other well-known cohorts. Rather than seeking stardom they were grass-roots activists in the politically committed rising of what in the 1960s became known as the “old left” inspired by the failures of capitalism in the Great Depression.
Vincent played hootenannies, fund-raisers and picket lines with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Paul Robeson.1 She took her accordion where you couldn’t take a piano. and played folk songs that reached people more formal music couldn’t. Throughout her career her instrument was a little Hohner Imperial IIA, a 32 bass accordion she found at a Pawnshop in New York in 1948.2 It was ideal for playing simple music in open-air places like picket-lines. The logo on hers read, “PERIAL,” begging the question of whether she modified it so she didn’t have to play an “imperialist” accordion.
She played in veterans’ hospitals during and after World War II. One GI told a Red Cross volunteer, “That girl did more for the morale of the men than any movie actress could.”3 Part of her talent was that rather than focusing on music from her own classical background she played folk tunes that soldiers knew. She also researched and promoted the music of her adopted home in New Mexico.
While supporting the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union she met Taos Public School Teacher Rufina Baca.4 With Baca’s help she introduced traditional Spanish-American songs into local public schools. At that time in the 1940s Spanish was forbidden for students or teachers. As a volunteer Jenny sang these and other songs in schools and continued to do so for forty years. Adults recognized her in the street years later and talked about how they remembered her singing in their classrooms.5
Vincent’s son came home from school once and said the other kids were swearing at him in Spanish and he felt like he was being discriminated against. Vincent asked what language they had to speak in the school? When he said “English” she replied, “So who is being discriminated against?” She suggested he pick up some Spanish. She recalled later, “We told him to go ahead and learn the dirty-words first.” He became fluent, made lifelong friends and eventually was a Fulbright scholar in Venezuela. 6
In 1950 the Salt of the Earth strike began when Latino zinc miners protested getting paid less – from separate payroll windows – for more dangerous work. When striking workers were ordered to stop picketing, wives and family members took over the strike lines. For fifteen months they faced violence, imprisonment, tear-gas and death-threats, and then they won a contract.
Jenny had played the Mine-Workers’ Union’s convention before the strike even began. She took her accordion and sang “Solidarity Forever” and “Union Maid” on the women’s picket line. When unionists were imprisoned, Vincent, her husband and their neighbours risked their property to post a $27,000 bond and free the protesters.7
The strike was immortalized when blacklisted filmmakers created the movie Salt of the Earth (1954). The film stars members of the union and their families and faced violent opposition as two union halls and the home of a union leader were burned by arsonists during the production. Banned from distribution in the United States for decades, only a few copies were passed from one union-hall to another. Now it is seen as a landmark in independant film and the portrayals of working class and Latino issues.
Vincent herself faced the blacklist for joining the Communist Party in 1943 while the US was allied with Russia against the Nazis. In that brief time supporting the Soviet Union was almost seen as patriotic,8 but such excuses weren’t admissible in the Joe MacCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover led witch hunt that followed.
1950s anti-Communism meant choosing between threats of prison or informing on friends. Undercover investigators sent to Vincent’s home were so numerous that they unknowingly reported on other informants. In Jenny’s case infiltrators were paid for stories they simply made up. At least one, Harvey Matusow served time in prison for false testimony.9
As the folk revival reached the pop charts Vincent was at the 1960 National Folk Festival in Washington, DC. While backstage she was subpoenaed to appear before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.10 Tarred by a right-wing press campaign she quoted President Eisenhower about the Folk Festival being “a dramatic reminder that our individual freedoms and national strength come from the interplay of diverse social forces directed toward a common goal.” She added, “I believe our country needs to breathe the full fresh air of freedom, and we will be able to breathe better when this committee, and its counterpart the House Un-American Activities Committee, are abolished.” The Senate’s investigation produced nothing and she was happily invited back to the Festival.11
In 1956 she formed her Trio de Taos with Hattie Trijillo and Nat Flores. For thirty years they played dance music together on mandolin, guitar, and Jenny’s accordion and vocals.12 When she was 100 years old the New Mexican folkloric recordings she made and her promotion and publication of old tunes garnered recognition from the Governor for doing what had been illegal when she started seventy years earlier.13
Vincent lived through more than one lifetime’s worth of the country’s politics. In 1969 while visiting the Highlander Center in Tennessee she and Puerto Rican poet Miguel Torres translated a verse to the song “De Colores,” anthem of the Hispanic civil rights movements in the US. “Los grandes amores de muchos colores me gustan a mi / Love that embraces all colours, all races is greatest for me.”14 I assume she would have been aware of Zilphia Horton’s use of the accordion at Highlander and Horton’s role in the history of that other great movement anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Jenny knew and corresponded with Sis Cunningham, the other major accordionist from their generation of activist folk singers.15 Like these others Vincent faced suffering, hatred, and repression in her activist work and her life. She responded with music and joy and was undaunted.
[I’m hoping to get some of Jenny’s recordings to play on our Accordion Noir Radio show in the coming weeks. (Thanks Craig!)]
2 Only six out of 500 Hohner’s models seem to have had this compact set-up. The bass rows reportedly played root note, major, minor, and seventh chords. Her “Perial” replaced her first little 12 bass she got as a birthday present in Germany in 1935.
10 One of several committees that conducted investigations alongside the more well-known House Un-American Activities Committee.