Few musical instruments receive the same lack of respect in the U.S. as the accordion. Its golden years in the first half of the 20th century long gone, today most of us only see accordions when tuning into a documentary about street buskers in Prague or Paris.
But now the accordions are coming out of the closet.
The Accordion Club of Central Oregon is proof of that. Fifteen members strong and growing, the new club has members from 40 to 80, some lifelong ‘squeeze box’ players and others just learning the instrument.
Yes, people are still taking up the accordion – and loving it.
Jim Linn of Redmond, who has played piano for 41 of his 46 years, began to teach himself the accordion two years ago with the encouragement of his wife.
“I just love the way it sounds,” says Linn, who leans towards hymns in his repertoire. Since he doesn’t read music, he learns by listening to songs and playing along on his Sofia Mari 48 bass accordion.
“I love playing with these guys,” he says. “Every time I learn something new.”
The club includes its founder, Karl Kment, 81, a Redmond retiree who has played since childhood and previously owned several music stores.
“I started taking lessons when I was eight,” says Kment. “My father was career military and recuperating from an injury in the hospital when a group of accordion players came to entertain. From then on he decided I was going to play.”
While he did sometimes feel sorry for himself when other kids were playing and he was practicing, the dedication did serve him well: Kment played professionally from age 12 to 18, joined the Navy band and continued weekend gigs for the rest of his life. He still practices several times a week.
“Sometimes when you close your eyes you think you hear an entire orchestra. I love that," Kment says.
Ron Windsor, 67, is a part-time Prineville resident who began playing the accordion when he retired in 1995. His Strausser button box accordion is more limited in its range of notes than the full keyboard type some others play, but that’s fine with him.
“I don’t read music and I don’t write music but I make up songs,” Windsor says with a smile. “If it’s in my head, I can play it.”
The club meets at Cougar Springs Senior Living Community in Redmond, with practices that end up more like performances because of the attendance of many facility residents.
During one recent club meeting five players show up, sometimes playing solo, sometimes trying out tunes together.
Member Colleen Halverson flips pages of a music book, looking for a new song.
“Have we played ‘My Wild Irish Rose’ yet?” she asks no one in particular. “Might as well, I have an Irish name after all.”
Kment deadpans, “Yeah, Halverson – that sounds real Irish.”
The musicians have an easy camaraderie, each trying out their own favorites and learning from each other. Kment leans towards romantic standards that prompt visions of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly dancing under a starry sky, but leads the group in an impossibly fast “Beer Barrel Polka” as well.
The five accordions are dramatically different, the colors, shapes, and features varying from instrument to instrument. When the fingers start flying Linn shakes his head and smiles, watching the others and trying to keep up.
Accordions are a democratic instrument. The musicians play cowboy songs, church hymns, dance hall favorites and serenades. Few sounds are as cheerful as “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” on an accordion. Cougar Springs residents and assorted family members in the audience smile in recognition of favorite tunes, tap their feet and clap along.
Club member Lillian Jones, 69, had put aside her accordion for many years to raise a family and work. Currently a Realtor in a slow real estate economy, the La Pine woman has taken up the accordion again, both for herself and to give lessons.
“The accordion’s been considered kind of lame by kids since rock and roll got big,” she says. “Everyone wanted to be a guitar player. But in the past five years I’ve been seeing more and more interest in accordion playing.”
Kment agrees. “Oh, yes. We’re coming out of the woodwork and dusting off our instruments.”
-- story and photos by Leslie Pugmire Hole