Introduction and Use of Accordions in Cajun Music
By Malcolm L. Comeaux
The history of the accordion begins with the invention of the "free reed" in either southern China or Laos, where instruments using this reed date back to 1000 B.C. (Marcuse 1975: 730-731). In the free reed, the tongue (lamella) fits in a frame, whereas the beating reed, so common in European instruments, fits on top of the frame. The concept of free reeds was slow to arrive in Europe, and it was not until the late 1700s that they began to be used in instruments there (Marcuse 1975: 734).
The accordion's history begins about 1800 when Europeans began the rapid development of instruments using free reeds. The "handaeoline" was developed in Berlin in 1822 by C. F. L. Buschmann, and its major advance was that, rather than having a human lung force air over the reeds, it used a mechanical one (Macerollo 1980: 8-13). It had only five buttons on the treble side, but Buschmann realized it could hold more. In Vienna organ builder Cyril Demian improved on the handaeoline by placing fixed chord buttons for the left hand, and on June 6, 1829, patented his "akkordion," the first use of the word (Macerollo 1980: 13). Invention of the accordion thus dates back to either of these two dates. Demian's akkordion, however, was little more than a toy. A month after the akkordion was patented, Charles Wheatstone in England patented the concertina (Macerollo 1980: 13-15), at the time a much more advanced instrument than the akkordion. This led to rapid development and evolution of the accordion, to the point that it was soon accepted as a true musical instrument and no longer only a toy or curiosity. By 1835 there were at least six varieties of accordions available (Marcuse 1964: 2). Manufacturing of these instruments began quickly, and to avoid the question of the patent, some manufacturers who copied the akkordion called their instrument "handharmonika," a word by which it now is known in some parts of the world (Marcuse 1975: 742). Many were manufactured and shipped around the world. In some way or another accordions made their way to South Louisiana and were accepted by the Cajuns. It will probably never be known when the first accordion came to Louisiana, or when the first Cajun acquired or played one, nor does it really matter. What is important is that they did come to Louisiana and were accepted by musicians in Southwest Louisiana. This fact greatly changed the music of this area.
The primary musical instrument used in Canada by Acadians prior to expulsion (1755) was the fiddle (or violin), and it remains the main instrument among Acadians in the Maritime Provinces (Chiasson, et. al. 1995: 699-701). Acadian refugees coming to Louisiana either brought fiddles with them, or much more likely, acquired fiddles soon after their arrival (either homemade or purchased). The fiddle was widely used at house dances after Louisiana settlement, and house dances remained popular well into the twentieth century. House dances were undoubtedly crowded and noisy. Although only six to twelve couples danced at a time (Broven 1987: 12), there were many people in and around the house, and they were all talking, laughing, and in general enjoying themselves. In order to be heard above the din, Cajun violinists developed a playing style that required them to bear down hard on bows in order to play as loud as possible (Ancelet and Morgan 1984: 22). It gave this music a unique sound, but acceptance of the accordion was to bring many changes to the music.
Introduction of the Accordion into South Louisiana
There is definite proof of an accordion in Louisiana in 1871 (Fig. 1). Documenting this is a picture of an old German lighthouse-keeper near the mouth of the Mississippi River playing an accordion (Keeler and Waud 1871: 524-26). This is appropriate, since accordions were probably exported from Germany to French Louisiana via the lower Mississippi River.
There is other evidence of accordions very early in South Louisiana. Tisserand (1998: 44-45) illustrates a copy of a daguerreotype, dated "circa 1850," that is located in the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans. A very old type of accordion, only vaguely resembling modern ones (for example, there are 12 buttons on the treble side), is held in the hands of a black musician, but there is no proof that it is truly from mid-century. Another early view of a black accordionist in Louisiana was in 1877 when a black prisoner is shown playing for fellow prisoners and guards (and another has a banjo) along the Cane River in central Louisiana (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper 1877: 264) (Fig. 2). If a black prisoner can have an accordion, and knew how to play it, it should be assumed that accordions were rather widely available by the 1870s.
Blacks, as seen above, had access to accordions, and probably played a major role in acceptance of accordions in South Louisiana. Canray Fontenot, a black Creole fiddle player, related how he had been told that during the days of slavery some blacks learned to play the accordions of their masters (Tisserand 1998: 44), and in a short story by Kate Chopin, published in 1897, three black musicians, two fiddlers and an accordionist, play at a dance for whites (Chopin 1969: 490). Canray, born in 1922, also states that his father, his mother, and his father's father all played the accordion (in Savoy 1984: 326). Thus, the accordion in Creole culture goes rather far back. In the early twentieth century some of the most influential and innovative musicians were black Creoles (Ancelet 1989: 19). Several were accordionists, such as Amédé Ardoin and Adam Fontenot (father of Canray) (Ancelet and Morgan 1984: 23), and many older Cajun musicians mention Amédé Ardoin as having a major influence on their music. There was much cooperation between white and black musicians (Ancelet, et.al. 1991: 150-51; Ancelet and Morgan 1984: 74; Olivier and Sandmel 1999: 130), and many blacks played at white dances, so their influence was probably not insignificant (Ancelet 1989: 19-20; Bernard 1996: 12; Spitzer, 1986: 316-21).
Although accordions were in Louisiana at an early date, their acceptance by Cajuns came later. In a book published in 1861 on a series of controversial incidents on the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, a Frenchman often mentioned fiddles (and fiddle players, although never in a positive light), as well as other instruments, such as mandolin, banjo, and guitar. No accordion or accordion player, however, was ever mentioned (Barde 1981: passim). Twenty years later, a visitor on the prairies encountered a settlement of 150 Cajun families, and found "no less than sixty fiddlers," an amazingly large number for a relatively small settlement (Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly 1881: 566). But, again, there was no mention of accordion players. Although the accordion was introduced in the latter half of the 19th century, and was probably widely available, one scholar maintains that fiddles remained the main instrument of choice on the prairies of Southwest Louisiana until the 1920s (Sexton 1996: 157-159), and this was undoubtedly the case.
One way accordions may have been acquired was through the mail. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (1886: 206) had an advertisement of accordions for sale in 1886. Such a magazine, however, would have been read only by local upper classes, a group that typically had disdained accordions. Accordions were also offered for sale in various early catalogs. The Montgomery Ward Company was distributing catalogs by the early 1870s, and the first Sears, Roebuck catalog was issued in 1894 (Latham 1972: 6-12; Weil 1978: 11). In a reproduction of a 1908 catalog, twenty accordion types manufactured by five companies are offered for sale (Sears, Roebuck 1969: 243-44). Those who accepted the accordion were the largely under-educated Cajuns on the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, with many being illiterate. While it is possible for them to have seen such early advertisements, they probably would not have ordered them by mail, and certainly not before they had acquired some prior knowledge of accordions and how to play them. Accordions made by the Hohner Company were very popular, and any Hohner accordion sold through the 1908 catalog included a free carrying case (Sears, Roebuck 1969: 244). Older musicians, however, always mentioned carrying accordions in sacks, not cases.
I believe that German-Jewish merchants were important in the sale of accordions. There were Jewish merchants with stores in all Cajun towns, and probably the best example was the Mervine Kahn store in Rayne, established in 1884 (Fontenot and Freeland 1997: 139, 324), only four years after the railroad arrived. Many Cajuns bought their accordions from Mervine Kahn prior to World War II. How the first accordions arrived at these stores is unknown. The first ones may have been imported in a speculative fashion by Jewish merchants. More probably Cajuns began requesting accordions, and Jewish merchants found they could import and sell them for a profit. These merchants, with close connections to Eastern firms, and possibly directly with German manufacturing companies, began importing accordions to their rural, unsophisticated, French-speaking customers.
Early Acceptance of the Accordions by Cajuns
We will never know the name of the first person to bring an accordion into South Louisiana. Since the accordion evolved in German-speaking lands, it is usually assumed that it was a person from this region who first brought an accordion to South Louisiana. Germans were constantly filtering into New Orleans and from there into Southwest Louisiana. The only organized settlement of Germans in Southwest Louisiana, in Roberts Cove, did not occur until 1881, well after the accordion was in Louisiana (McCord 1969: 70). Also, German-Americans from this community were never noted for playing accordions, so they played no role in acceptance of the accordion. German-American wheat farmers from the Midwest came to Cajun country to become involved in the rice industry soon after 1880, and one researcher states it is "probable" that one of these introduced the instrument (Blanchet 1970: 72). Another source states that the accordion "entered South Louisiana by way of Texas and German settlers" (Ancelet and Morgan 1984: 22). There is simply no proof for any of these theories at this time. It must further be noted that accordions were manufactured in places other than Germany, such as in France, and accordions were exported around the world at a very early date. The first accordion could have arrived here in any number of ways, and by whom, when, and how is not important. What is important is that it came, was accepted, and made a major impact on Cajun music.
It will probably never be known when the first Cajun began to play the accordion or who this person was, but it seems that the first individual to bring an accordion to South Louisiana did not teach Cajuns or black Creoles to play it. People on the prairie of Southwest Louisiana developed a style of playing that was not smooth and easy, as was done in Europe, but rather they began playing with fast choppy rhythms in a syncopated style that had many fast runs. It evolved into a style not found elsewhere in the world, and based on the style, probably first developed by black Creoles and then taught to Cajuns. The first Creoles to develop accordion skills were probably descendants of small independent black farmers who lived on the prairie west of Opelousas. This is the only large settlement of small independent black farmers on the prairie, and it is in this area where many of the early black accordionists originated, and where many, especially those using the old diatonic accordion, are now found. This region has always been a "hotbed" of accordion players, both white and black.
Although there were undoubtedly accordions in South Louisiana at an early date, they at first did not make an impression on Cajun musicians. One reason is that the first ones imported were in the keys of A and F (Comeaux 1978: 118; Savoy 1984: 13). The fiddles could not be tuned to those keys (the strings would have to be strung too tight, and thus tended to break), so the accordion had to be played as a solo instrument. It did not receive much local attention. Good quality accordions, made with excellent reeds and good quality bellows, began to be imported in the early 1900s. The first of these was the "Monarch" brand, and later the "Sterling" and "Eagle" were introduced, and they were widely accepted by Cajuns. These were called les tit noirs ("the little blacks") by their users because of their color, and they became the basic model for all Cajun accordions after this time (except for the color). It was in the 1920s that accordions in the keys of C and D began to be imported (Savoy 1984: 13). These could be played with the fiddle, and now the accordion, already well known and widely used, exploded in popularity. Accordions lost popularity in the 1930s, and when they again came in vogue in the 1940s, none were to be had from Germany.
No accordions were imported during World War II, and few were imported for many years after the war because German factories were devastated, and some accordion factories were located in the Russian sphere of influence. Since no new accordions could be purchased for a considerable time, local Cajuns began repairing and refurbishing old accordions, and soon began making accordions (Comeaux 1978). The quality of these first accordions was not particularly good (because the reeds and bellows were often taken from Hohner accordions, or from very old accordions). Quality, however, has improved greatly since 1980, and now the accordions are made by true craftsmen using the finest of imported bellows, reeds (both from Italy), and woods. They cannot be called truly "homemade" (Fig. 3). There are at present 29 persons in Southwest Louisiana making accordions (and one in Texas and another in New Orleans), and their accordions are sold around the world.
Unfortunately, Cajun music was often derogatorily called "chank-a-chank," and throughout the first half of the twentieth century (at least until the mid-1960s) this music was not valued by the local intelligentsia. It was considered the music of unsophisticated, rural, under-educated whites. Anyone who played it, or listened to it, received ridicule by the educated and the press. It was not until this music was accepted on the national level, particularly at national folk festivals, that the educated in Louisiana realized that it was a unique music style and worthy of respect. This national recognition also gave local Cajun musicians respect and pride in their music and their skills, and acceptance grew rapidly among all people in South Louisiana.
Some black Creoles from Southwest Louisiana, steeped in French culture and tradition, also accepted the accordion, but took the music along different lines. This Creole music was first called "la-la," but now it is universally known as zydeco. Many of the black zydeco musicians use large piano accordions or triple-row button accordions (especially those living along Bayou Teche), but the small diatonic accordion was always popular with black Creoles on the prairies, and several of these folks in recent years have received recognition in the zydeco community. Zydeco music is thus played on all types of accordions, but small diatonic accordions, similar to the ones made and used by Cajuns, seem to be gaining in popularity in zydeco music.
Although accordions were dependable and did not tend to get out of tune, probably the main reason they were accepted by Cajuns and Creoles was the fact that they were loud instruments—in fact very loud when compared to other folk instruments. Even when fiddlers bore down hard on their bows, they could not make it play loud enough to be heard over a large crowd. Fiddles were acceptable in a confined place, such as a room at a house dance, but when dance halls began to gain acceptance in the late 1800s, dancers could only hear music from the fiddle when they were immediately in front of the band (they went in a counter-clockwise fashion on the dance floor). Electric amplification of music began in the early 1930s (Savoy 1984: 115-16, 118; Post 1970: 46ff). At that time fiddle players began to change their style to a lighter one, but by then the accordion was firmly entrenched, and fiddles (although quite loud with amplification) had taken a back seat to accordions in Cajun and Creole music in Southwest Louisiana. Other instruments were added to Cajun bands, and today it is common to hear drums, guitars, steel guitars, a small triangle, and the like, but accordions remain the main instrument that defines a "Cajun" band.
The accordion goes back to the latter half of the 19th century in South Louisiana. How, when, and by whom it was first introduced is unknown, but the influence of black musicians cannot be discounted. The accordion was accepted on a limited scale by Cajuns sometime at the end of the 19th century, and became very popular by the 1920s when accordions were imported in keys that were compatible with fiddles. It is the instrument by which most Cajun music is identified, especially that from the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, and this music has had an impact on the national scene.
Limited in keys and notes, the diatonic accordion's acceptance greatly simplified old Cajun songs, and those songs it could not play were abandoned (Ancelet and Morgan 1984: 23; Savoy 1984: 13). Cajun music lost much, but gained in other ways, as it continued to grow and evolve. There was a brief time in the 1930s when the accordion, and Cajun music in general, began to lose favor, but it was revived in the 1940s, and today is growing in popularity and recognition, not only in South Louisiana, but around the country, and indeed around the world. It is no longer considered "chank-a-chank" music, and rarely is this derogatory term used today. Many very young musicians are learning to play the accordion, and bands now are having a hard time finding fiddle players. Many Cajuns now play the accordion as if to make a political statement—"I am a Cajun."
Older Cajun tunes are still being played, and new sounds are constantly evolving. Excellent quality accordions are being hand-made by local artisans (and inferior copies are made and sold by German manufacturing firms), and many youngsters are learning to play it. The future of the accordion in South Louisiana, and in Cajun music, is firm.
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There is no proof or evidence that this photo was taken at mid-century. It could have been taken much later, with a musician holding an old instrument. Also, if it was taken in Louisiana (and it probably was), it was probably taken in New Orleans, and not in Southwest Louisiana.
2. Tisserand (1998: 44) reported on a WPA interview where an accordion was mentioned long ago, but it stretches credulity in some respects. It was from a woman reportedly born in 1827, who as a young girl went to dances where an accordion was played by a black musician. It would thus have probably been prior to 1847. But, if the interviewee was truly born in 1827, that would have meant that she was well over 100 at the time of a WPA interview, and 1847 is terribly early to find the accordion in South Louisiana. This was reported for the lower Teche, an area today not noted for accordion players.
3. Accordionists in Black Africa also play in a highly syncopated style, and while not identical to that found in Cajun music, it is rather close.
4. According to Larry Miller, an accordion maker from Iota, it was Mr. John J. Mrnustik, an owner of a music store in Houston and an immigrant from Eastern Europe, who first began making accordions sometime in the 1950s. He would only make them when he had an order for five or more, and he sold them locally and to Cajuns in Southwest Louisiana. His widow told Mr. Miller that he made "over ten accordions." Mr. Sidney Brown, of Lake Charles, is the person recognized as making the first accordions in Louisiana. He had been repairing accordions, and may have picked up the idea of making accordions from Mr. Mrnustik.
5. The best studies of zydeco are by Tisserand (1998) and Spitzer (1986: 300-410).