When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fetes Krist Novoselic later this year, it'll be well-timed recognition. Not for his band—Nirvana certainly doesn't need the publicity—but for his instrument. He may be the first accordionist ever inducted, an honor that comes at a time when the accordion is experiencing a striking resurgence in popularity.
Proudly accordion-centric acts like Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, and The Lumineers win Grammies and top chart spots. Older ones, like Flogging Molly, They Might Be Giants, and Neutral Milk Hotel, now enjoy cherished-cult-icon status. In 2009, Carnegie Hall hosted its first solo accordion performance in 30 years.
Accordion diehards and retailers say it really does feel like a comeback for the instrument, whose previous heyday ended in the ‘60s. What’s surprising isn’t so much that the accordion’s hip now; it’s how culturally dominant it used to be.
European immigrants introduced the instrument to the US in the 1800s, but it really started to take off shortly before World War I. “It was considered very cool,” said Joan Grauman, a board member and historian for the American Accordionists’ Association. “Beautiful actresses were portrayed in cigarette ads holding a gorgeous accordion and a cigarette.”
In 1922, Italian immigrant Carlo Petosa founded the Petosa Accordion Company in the basement of his home. It joined the scores of similar stores and schools popping up all over the country. “Some towns had as many as four accordion schools in a couple of blocks,” said Grauman, who also added that by the 1950s the accordion was likely one of the most studied instruments in the country.
By 1938, the AAA was founded in New York, and its first president, Pietro Deiro, became fondly known as the “daddy of the accordion.” The group’s initial goal was to show the public that the instrument was as serious as any other. A year later, it succeeded by helping to facilitate the first-ever accordion performance at Carnegie Hall.
The Petosa Accordion Company survives till today, as the only US-owned-and-operated accordion manufacturer around. Many of its rivals started to die out as rock and roll came to prominence in the ‘60s. Acts like The Beatles popularized the guitar-drums-vocals setup that remained the pop-culture standard for decades to come, though ironically, according to Grauman, both Elvis and John Lennon played the accordion before beginning the guitar.
Petosa’s clientele has transitioned over the decades from early-century players who were trained in classical accordion from a young age, to lone solo accordionists pursuing it as a hobby, to, now, players affiliated with musical groups. Nirvana’s Novoselic just stopped in the store a few months ago. Owner Joseph M. Petosa said the age of customers has also changed, with 60 percent now under the age of 30, whereas 10 years ago it was only 10 percent. And over the last three years, “we’re almost selling more accordions then we’re making,” Petosa said. The company has responded to demand by introducing a second, cheaper line of instruments.
Shenandoah Davis is one of the recent musicians to join the accordion world. The 28-year-old grew up playing classical piano and studied opera performance in college. She discovered the accordion six years ago, and after only a few days playing it, was swept up into a country-rock band called Jack Wilson and the Wife Stealers.
Davis believes the rise in popularity of the accordion has a lot to do with today’s anything-goes music industry, enabled by the Internet. “I think in general people have felt a little bit braver about what kind of music they’re creating,” she said, “and more interested in stepping outside of the realm of what pop or rock music is supposed to sound like.”
There’s also the fact that the instrument is in line with the so-called “retromania” of the new millennium. While the accordion is, as Petrosa says, “one of the only instruments that’s basically found in every style of music throughout the world,” it’s largely associated with European and American folk music. Which, of course, is cool again, as seen in the popularity of acts like Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters and Men.
Jamie Maschler, who has worked for the Petosa Accordion Company for a little over two years, knows the versatility of the accordion better then most. She has played the instrument since she was four, when a door-to-door salesman brought a kid-size accordion to her Colorado Springs home. She spent years perfecting and competing with pieces by such challenging classical composers as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but has since discovered her love of the collaborative, rock and pop musical scene. Now, in addition to her work at Petosa, she focuses her time not on classical music, but on performing with a number of alternative bands.
Talents like her seem to be increasingly valuable. Gabe Hall-Rodrigues of the band Jared & The Mill says that while busking at the music festival at South by Southwest this past year, a number of agents approached him about their needing an accordionist for studio work or to play with a band. “It shows that stuff is going on,” he said. “And if anything, there’s not enough young accordionists to meet the demand of some of these things.”