Squeeze Me!

Fans of the instrument with folds descend on Houston

A few years back, a classic two-panel Far Side cartoon appeared captioned with the greetings given at both the Pearly Gates and a less desirable (although warmer) destination.

"Welcome to Heaven. Here's your harp," read the Pearly Gates' welcome.
"Welcome to Hell. Here's your accordion," read the other.
Virtually everyone in the world who was offended by that cartoon will gather in Houston for the annual American Accordionists' Association Festival Friday through Tuesday. For squeezebox aficionados, a day that begins at 9 a.m. with 300 accordionists playing en masse at Transco Tower's Water Wall should be a celestial experience. Those less enamored of the tones emitted by 300 bellows-with-buttons-and-keyboards who happen to stop by the waterfall on the morning of July 10 seeking solace may think that they have gone to, well ...

Okay, so the accordion is a key instrument to genres of folk music everywhere from Poland to Louisiana to Mexico. It's a serious instrument with a long and proud tradition -- but still, as Association president Faithe Deffner admits, there's no other instrument whose name's mere mention is as likely to produce grins. "The accordion's effect is camaraderie. It makes people dance," says Deffner. "There have been successful attempts to play serious music, to use it as a chamber instrument, but more important to what the accordion is about are times like the Accordion Fantasy Cruise out of New York a few years ago, when there were 600 accordionists on the fantail of the ship playing 'Anchors Away' as we steamed past the Statue of Liberty."

Deffner traces the history of the accordion to an ancient Chinese instrument called the cheng, which was actually a type of woodwind. It shared with its descendants the use of a free-vibrating reed, although it would take some centuries before anyone realized that it was impossible to blow into a cheng while simultaneously shouting the Cantonese equivalent of Bon temps roulez!

This particular design flaw was corrected about a century and a half ago, when bellows-activated vibrating reeds bearing a recognizable similarity to today's instrument began to appear in various cultures. Although, as Deffner acknowledges, "the accordion's popularity does go up and down," she finds herself president of the 57-year-old Accordionists' Association at one of the instrument's peaks. Much of the reason for the current interest can be traced to the integration of zydeco into pop culture, along with the critical acceptance of acts such as the BoDeans and the "nuclear polka" of Brave Combo. In Deffner's analysis, "the accordion was already embraced by middle-aged people -- in many cases, it was what they grew up with -- but young people just found it recently, and they are doing wonderful things with the instrument."

It's not mere chance that Houston was selected as the site of this year's Accordion Festival. The event is a salute to retired University of Houston music professor Willard "Bill" Palmer, who started the world's first collegiate accordion program in 1945. Dr. Palmer, in concert with longtime partner and fellow UH professor Bill Hughes, was instrumental in establishing classical and academic acceptance of the accordion. Palmer and Hughes, resplendent in white tie and tails, took the accordion out of the beer hall and into the concert hall -- and also co-authored a series of accordion method books that sold more than ten million copies and introduced generations of new players to the mysteries of pre-set chords and "Lady of Spain I Adore You." Palmer's program at UH attracted students from all over the world; indeed, most conservatories and universities that offer degrees in accordion have faculty members who studied under Palmer.

Palmer, a classically trained pianist, explains that he "became interested in the accordion because I knew the instrument had more possibilities than had ever been exploited. Expanding the range of the instrument got Bill Hughes and me involved with design." Those changes included expanding the number of bass buttons from 120 to 160 and adding 52 extra reeds. "We designed about 15 instruments that were marketed under the Palmer-Hughes name," Palmer says, "and we wrote 60 or 70 instruction books that incorporated the changes we had made, so that our instruments would fit with our books."

The team of Palmer and Hughes, along with former Houston Symphony bassist Lee Manno, performed as the Concert Trio and inspired a decade of accordion-mania in the Bayou City. "The 1950s were fantastic," Palmer remembers. "There were private accordion schools all over Houston; some of them had as many as 800 students at one time. There was one season where the Concert Trio performed 110 concerts all over America, playing Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Mendelssohn. The Concert Trio LP was very popular; it was one of the very first high-fidelity stereo recordings, where you could actually hear the very lowest notes of the bass fiddle."

Although unable to play since suffering a severe back injury several years ago, Palmer's contributions to classical music continue through his status as the world's best-selling composer of instructional piano music. Palmer, who now writes on a computer screen instead of a score sheet, is well-known in some circles as the detective who first realized that a "note" that people had been playing for more than 250 years in Bach's Three Part Inventions was actually a smudge on the original manuscript.

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