Friday, March 4, 2011

A Brief History of French Accordion

The information in this post comes from some disreputable sources (liner notes and websites), and from conversations with musicians during my trip to Alsace. Any comments, corrections, or questions are welcome. In fact, I'm very aware of the gaps in my knowledge. I would love to know more.
Cabrette et Vielle
Most people, when they imagine French accordion music -- if they imagine it -- think of Parisian cafés, Edith Piaf, expatriate artists, and the time between the wars. That isn’t the music that's captured my heart -- though the two are related. The accordion music of rural France (musique traditionelle du centre France), centered in Auvergne and the Massif Central, was originally played by a duo of bagpipe (cabrette) and hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue). Around one hundred and seventy years ago, the accordion was invented and adopted by many musicians of central France.  
This led to consternation and conflict. Flyers were posted asking dance organizers to refrain from hiring accordionists, as the accordion was only barely a musical instrument. “Help us drive out the accordions that are overwhelming our region,” wrote one bagpiper. “[Accordions],” he continued, “are good for little more than accompanying a dancing bear and are absolutely unworthy of limbering the legs of our delightful Cantal girls.” 
Unfortunately, the hurdy-gurdy and the pipes could, apparently, not compare in sweetness to the newfangled squeezing instrument. The hurdy-gurdy and pipes also suffered in comparison because they are notoriously difficult to keep in tune. The accordion, having steel reeds, stays in tune for years. It almost seems unnatural.
Enter the accordion!
Thus the accordion entered France, an invasive species, like so much wheezing cheatgrass. Then, during the last half of the 19th century, a wave of migrants traveled from Auvergne to Paris seeking opportunity.  Like black musicians in the American south moving north to Chicago, the Auvergnat formed their own communities and brought their music with them. Some things changed.
The accordionists formed into large bands and added a rhythm section (often including, yes, a banjo). They adopted the fleeter, more harmonically flexible, chromatic accordion, as opposed to the more limited (but, if I may, far more charming) diatonic accordion. They played music more swiftly and with more ornaments than ever before. The rural music they’d brought with them became florid, smokey, and urban. Still beautiful, but in a completely different way. This music, bal musette, became the Next Big Thing in Paris, and, once Edith Piaf emerged, provided the soundtrack for fifty years of Parisian life, legend, and cliché.
Jean Blanchard's recording


of solo accordéon diatonique
But the original kernel continued to exist. As with much ethnic music, it seemed in danger of dying out until, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the same folk music wave that brought blues to the fore in Britain and the United States inspired artists such as Jean Blanchard, La Chavannée, and others. They combined all of the instruments of French dance music -- accordion, pipes, hurdy gurdy, recorder, and violin, as well as voice -- into bands, and looked at the bourrées, mazurkas, and waltzes in their simpler forms. The results were sublime.



6 comments:

  1. Really great post, Gary. This is terrific information. Just the sort of thing to bring my Francophile wife on board (she's already commandeered my Presswood Pokerwork)!

    I'd like to look for the Jean Blanchard album, is it still in print?

    Chris

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  2. It is still in print! If you click on the caption for the photo you can download it from Amazon. (iTunes also has it). It's really a fantastic thing, clacky mechanisms and all. I remember seeing it about ten years ago and kicking myself for passing on it. God bless the age of the MP3, I say.

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  3. Gary, as with the other posts, thanks for the education. I had no idea the accordian was as recently invented as 170 years ago...I thought it was older, much older.

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  4. Could you give me any website adres which you used to write this post? I'm writing my master's thesis and site like yours (I mean any blog) are not good to my bibliography

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  5. Like leaves on a tree they are only there for a while but the root is firmly planted for many years. Good read

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