History Of The Cajun Accordion

Example of a Cajun Accordion

This one is hand-made by Clarence "Junior" Martin of Lafayette, Louisiana. It bears his signature imprint on the bellows...a crawdad.

The Diatonic* Accordion

Cajun Music, A Reflection Of A People, Vol. I, Ann Allen Savoy

Sometimes called a "squeeze box" or a "Cajun accordion," the diatonic accordion came to Louisiana from Germany. Today it has become such a vital part of Cajun music that many accordion builders are established in southwest Louisiana. The quality varies and the physical appearance ranges from natural wood tones with wooden and abalone inlays to bright colors with glitter and sparkling tapes. The sought after Monarch and Sterlings of the 1920's-30's are solid black with "gold" keys and trademarks.

Structurally the instrument is small (6" x 11" when closed) and light weight (8 lbs.). The size, however, is no indication of its sound power. The finest Cajun accordions have 46 reeds (four reeds per melody button and three reeds per bass button) which supply them with much more volume power than a 28 pound piano key accordion.

Though the diatonic accordion has many reeds, it has a limited range, having a full tonal range in only one key. A talented accordionist can perform in as many as four keys, but the 3rd and 4th keys are short of many notes. The Cajuns generally prefer C accordions, the second favorite being the D accordion.

On the right hand side of the instrument is a button keyboard consisting of basically ten buttons arranged in a “major" scale. Each button produces two notes, according to whether the bellows are being pushed in or pulled out while pressing a button. A tune is played by pushing or pulling the bellows in or out while pressing the button that corresponds to the needed melody note.

*Diatonic - “of or using only the eight tones of a standard major or minor scale without chromatic variations.”

 

The Cajun Accordion: What, Where and How

“You Can Play Cajun Accordion”, by Larry Miller, Mike Miller

1. The accordion we now use is actually by origin and definition a "melodeon" because a pull out of the bellows gives a different note than a push in on the same button. A piano accordion gives the same note whether one pushes or pulls the bellows while depressing the same button. The bass and chord buttons on the left are automatically coordinated whereby when pulling or pushing the bellows, a treble button on the right side is in key with a bass or chord button on the left, (except for only one note).

2. The accordion (the word melodeon for our part is now considered obsolete), harmonica and concertina were invented in Europe in the early 1800's and were not well developed until about the mid 1800's. They reached Cajun land from Germany in about the late 1890's but didn't catch on very well until the early 1900's. The Cajuns did not come to America with accordions but rather fiddles and triangles, mostly, during the mid 1700's.

3. Some of the first accordions imported in America were Lester, Pine Tree and Bruno brands, but they were bulky, cheaply made and hard to play. Later on in the early 1900's the Monarch brand of German-made accordions became tops in Cajun land. They were "les tit noirs", meaning "the little black ones". They were a bit smaller than some of the older brands and were of course all black with pewter trim. They were the best ever at that time. Later the Sterling family bought the factory in about the 1920's, then the Eagle family operated the factory, but both were virtually the same instrument as the Monarch, except for the name.

4. Then, WWII destroyed these factories and thus Cajuns were cut off from the supply. So then Cajuns decided to build their own copies of the little black Sterlings to produce that distinctive sound and complement their "bon tons", Cajun style.

It is a most intriguing development of how only twenty to thirty years ago ordinary people like Sidney Brown and Charlie Ortego of Lake Charles, Marc Savoy of Eunice and Shine Mouton of Crowley, (and later many others) had the personal determination to duplicate these instruments in their own back yard workshops, mostly with hand tools. Today with better reeds, glues, paints, better shop tools available, Cajuns are now producing better accordions than the Sterlings and Monarchs of the pre-WWII era. They are all more durable and many of them sound better!

 

There is a "Cajun Accordion" Brand, Lovingly Crafted by Elton Doucet

Information supplied by his son, Shane E. Doucet

Since the early 1960's Elton Doucet has been building accordions in Church Point, fabricating everything but the reeds and bellows. From time to time, he has supplied parts and assemblies to other Cajun builders. He has, on a few occasions, even supplied finished accordions to others who have put their own brand name on them. Mr. Doucet has been described as one of the most underrated builders in Louisiana, yet his brand, "Cajun Accordion", is the name known around the world for this instrument. We give him the recognition he deserves for helping to keep the Acadian heritage alive by building his fine accordions.

 

The Cajun Accordion Or Melodeon

Gerard Dole, Paris France, Folkways Records Album No. FM 8363

DEFINITION

By ACCORDION is meant an instrument with free reeds and bellows possessing a system of pre-composed chords facilitating the accompaniment of the melody. (On the oldest models when only the right hand was used, each note was harmonised at the third and at the fifth.)

By MELODEON, on the other hand, is meant a particular type of instrument with fundamentally melodic potential, incompletely supported by two simple harmonies.

DESCRIPTION

The MELODEON is a small diatonic accordion initially manufactured in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century.

On the right hand (treble) side is a one-row keyboard with ten buttons. Each button controls two notes according to whether the bellows are pushed inwards or pulled outwards. This system is called "single action". Four stops on the right hand casing bring into action four banks of reeds tuned in octaves relative to each other.

Note that the different banks of reeds are tuned in perfect octaves (called "dry" tuning, as opposed to the tuning known as "wet" or "tremolo"). On the left hand (bass) side is a keyboard in the form of a hand-grip, with two buttons giving respectively two bass notes and two chords, as well as an air button for the thumb which enables the rapid opening or closing of the bellows during playing.

BRIEF HISTORY

It seems that German emigrants of the middle of the nineteenth century were responsible for the introduction of the melodeon into Louisiana. In order to respond to the increasing demand, many trading companies such as C. BRUNO & SON of New York began to import the instrument from Germany around 1884.

The first instruments available carried the trade-marks BRUNO, LESTER, PINE TREE. They had the inconvenience of being pitched in A or F, keys practically impossible to accompany on the fiddle.

It was not until the beginning of this century that BUEGELEISEN & JACOBSON of New York brought in from RUDOLPH KALBES of Berlin the MONARCH, then the STERLING, in C and D. The Cajuns nicknamed them "Tits Noirs" ("Little Blacks") on account of their size and colour. (Their predecessors were larger, with uncoloured woodwork.) They acquired a great reputation, justified by the quality and reliability of their reeds.

The first local repairer was ARMAND THIBODEAUX of Sunset (1874-1907). The import of German accordions ceased with the second world war.

During the fifties, certain makers such as SIDNEY BROWN of Lake Charles began to build melodeons after the style of the old MONARCH.

Since then, local manufacture has intensified, and it is not possible to talk of Cajun accordion without mentioning MARC SAVOY of Eunice who applies meticulous care to his ACADIAN.

REASONS FOR ADOPTION

Compared with the fiddle, the melodeon offered superior reliability and robustness. Thus, when a fiddler broke a string, he was faced with a serious problem to replace it - there was not a single music store for hundreds of miles around. The accordion had four reeds for each note - even if some of them were broken, enough still remained to make music. It was also the only instrument which could withstand the humidity of the region. It required only the minimum of maintenance and was easily reparable.

Finally, it was fully in tune and ready to play, while its bass section effectively supported the melody and gave a fullness and resonant power which could not be equalled by a fiddle.

TRANSFER OF THE REPERTOIRE

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, after a period of experiment, the first melodeon players transferred, or rather adapted, the fiddle dances: contredanse, cotillion, galop, valse (waltz), valse deux temps (two-time waltz), polka, mazurka, varsovienne.

It was thought then that the new instrument was only suitable for playing a few pieces, and in any case almost incapable of "turning" them (that is, playing the B music or bridge).

In fact, the fixed diatonic scale of the melodeon contrasted with the delicacy and scope of the fiddle, only allowing partial realization, without modulation, of most tunes. The inevitable need to make opposing strokes of the bellows further reduced its possibilities, making a clumsy contrast with the rhythmic flexibility of the fiddle bow. The rigid and simplistic system of its pre-composed bass/chord accompaniment was at odds with the harmonic subtleties of double stopping.

The importance of the left hand side of the accordion, the obvious ease of an alternating bass/chord accompaniment, the real difficulties of a rapid and constant succession of "push-pulls" on the bellows, and the restrictions of the diatonic scale consequently came to "degrade" the dances, classifying them from then on into two distinct categories according to a bass/chord or bass/chord-chord accompaniment scheme depending on their duple or triple time rhythms.

Later, with the decay of the old repertoire and the new demands of the gramophone, the slow dances in triple time became schematised as VALSES (WALTZES) and the fast dances in duple time as ONE- and TWO-STEPS.

DEVELOPMENT OF TECHNIQUE

The scanty technique of the first players must have enriched itself very quickly through a natural tendency to ornament the melody, fill in gaps, and play double or multiple notes, raising accordion playing to a level of speed and virtuosity close to that of the fiddle.

ACCOMPANIMENT

The accordion players had themselves "seconded" (backed) by a triangle (tit fer - "little iron") player, because the Cajun fiddlers, proud guardians of a long tradition, mostly refused to accompany the melodeon on account of their inability to harmonise with the first models in F. The arrival of the MONARCH in D solved the problem.

In the twenties, some players partnered themselves with a guitar as rhythmic element and complementiing harmony.

  

Back to Cajun Music & Culture Page
Back to MelocheNet Home Page