This piece is republished here in anticipation of the return of some pieces from the former archive website that have been requested by visitors, this is HARMONIKA. It was written for One World Books' first 'Other Hundred' compilation, a book filled with inspiration and internationalist spirit. I was very proud to have been associated with the project. This first, unnerving, post-Brexit week, I've been reading it again.
From the Greek, meaning consonance; a pleasing unity in sound.
Commonly, an accordion.
It’s a striking-looking thing, an accordion. Complex, rich and self-contained; crafted from wood (pear, olive, cherry, walnut and maple are favourites) and fabric, fringed with keys, buttons and mother-of-pearl, it has the sheen and care of something precious, even unique. It glitters when played and its bellows, worked by hand, make the distinctive sound rise and fall like a breathing voice. In whatever incarnation - accordion, concertina, melodion or bandoneon - the instrument almost invariably invokes the music of das Volk. Inflected with Cajun, Latin, Scottish, Irish, Bosnian, Russian, Polish, it is almost invariably music for singing and dancing. It is open to improvisation. It is cohesive. It is meant for crowds.
The invention of the danceband-in-a-box was in 1822 in Germany. If that seems recent for a ‘folk’ instrument, it is and it isn’t. Folk music is not - perhaps more accurately was not -static. Whatever ‘folk music’ might or might not be in the present, it can be roughly defined as music which 1) has its origins are part of the oral tradition of manual labourers ie not written down but handed down, person to person, via the ears; 2) contains local or national flavours; 3) is personal or allied to celebration in character; 4) can be used, especially by exiles and immigrants, as a form of historical memory of home or identity. The Western impression this music is set in stone or, worse, dead, reflects a casting aside of communal values in favour of solitary striving, preferably for solid cash. Stuff, preferably electric stuff, is where true freedom lies: the rest is for losers.
My own memories of community come from two uncles - Tommy and Alec - who played accordions in West Coast of Scotland pubs at weekends. Already in their forties when I was born, they were classifiable as ancient by the time my teens and Glam Rock arrived. Their teenage years were at the turn of the previous century, when the family moved to Yorkshire, following coal. My grandmother had six boys, all coal miners - the kind with picks and shovels and big square hands. If I remember correctly, Tommy’s right paw covered half a keyboard when motionless yet shifted like a scalded crab when pushed into service playing reels. Everyone in the family sang, regardless of talent. Talent wasn’t the whole point. Tommy and Alec were the only squeeze box owners.
Accordions, like bowls for the ancient sport of Lawn Bowling, were frequently inherited. Theirs were second-hand, paid up in installments. Cared for, their wood varnished into glass. They learned how to play from watching those who already knew and asking questions. Once you were able, you could beg a spot at the Bowling Clubhouse Friday night get-together, and self-teach on the job.
Before I hit my smart-ass teens, then, Tommy and Alec were the bee’s knees. They played atCo-Op wedding receptions for both the dancing (country dance band, jazz, sentimental ballads and rockabilly) and for ‘turns’ where relatives and guests got up to sing, play the spoons or soft-shoe shuffle. They played as punctuation during speeches in lieu of drum rolls. Finally, they signalled the party over with Goodnight Eileen followed by a silence that means GO HOME. Pub routines were a cabaret while patrons drank and called up requests. In clubs, the routine revolved around the pair playing and singing duets or accompanying volunteers (Silver Threads among the Gold was my mother’s big hit) who were ‘called up’ to contribute. At all three, they’d announce birthdays, births and even deaths, and leading a general singalong (I’m sure you’ll all know this one - it was Big John’s favourite) as tribute.
As a child in the gathering, I could watch without fear of being thrown out of premises that sold alcohol, listening. The experience I recall as smoke-clogged, alcohol-scented bliss. Mixed bliss admittedly, since not all the turns were much good, but the show went on regardless and there was that rare thing - uncompetitive enjoyment. Sometimes children would be ‘danced’ on adult shoes - didn’t matter whose. I learned something of local gender expectations so at least I knew was expected even if I didn’t like it. I learned how to join in. I learned all the words.
When I was fourteen I sang at the Bowling Clubhouse myself: Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Silver Threads among the Gold. Somebody asked for Freight Train, the words to which I had learned from THE BIG BOOK OF COUNTRY MUSIC. No accordion, just my own guitar and a Teach-Yourself book got me through. I played there twice, sum total. Then I found Other Things. Mostly boys who thought things like Bowling Green crowds were old men and that discos were how to be. I admit I was easily led.
The seventies made recorded music was a cheaper, more modern, more - what? - sophisticated option. They also made accordions into Jimmy Shand dull beasts and sing-songs hokey. When my Uncle Alec died, childless, his accordion went to a second-hand shop. Ten years later, when Tommy died, I read about it in a newspaper. The fate of his much-loved instrument remains unclear. Girls did not play accordions.
Now, the shift from communal to solitary, from welcome join-in culture to competitive X-Factor sit-and-watch seems a done deal. I do not notice I miss what has been lost till I hear the folk music of other cultures, holding on for all it’s worth or served up as tourist quaint carries the pang of catching sight of a wolf in the woods. Communal living, communal spirit itself, most certainly communal music and song - harmonika - seem desperately in the balance.