- Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America by Marion Jacobson
The accordion is one of the most common instruments in the United States, but it has attracted relatively little scholarly attention, so Marion Jacobson’s Squeeze This! is a particularly welcome addition to the literature. As Jacobson explains, “it is seen as too ‘folk’ for musicologists to study . . . yet is not ‘other’ enough to attract ethnomusicologists” (p. 7). This book is specifically about the piano accordion, and other familiar varieties, such as the button accordion, are mentioned only as they contribute to an understanding of the piano accordion.
Jacobson refers to her work as a “cultural biography” which examines “the accordion as a thing with a complex ‘social life,’ career and networks of exchange” (p. 5). She sees the accordion as “cultural technology,” describing its design, manufacture and marketing, and development into an American cultural icon. Arranged chronologically, Jacobson’s book also tells the history of the piano accordion from its invention in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, to its emergence in American cities, use in vaudeville, extraordinary rise in popularity around mid-century, decline with the rock revolution, and re-emergence and vitality in contemporary popular music. Her goal is not to tell this history as a “smooth arc of rise, fall, and revival,” but to explore the common threads and disjunctions of all the different communities, regions, and phases of the accordion’s life (p. 12).
The first chapter, “Advent of the Piano Accordion,” traces the evolution of free-reed instruments into an accordion with a piano-style keyboard for the right hand and the “Stradella System” of bass notes and chords arranged in rows of buttons for the left hand. Italy became a major center for manufacturing accordions, with many exported to the United States. Also, Italian immigrants brought their accordion-making skills with them to New York, Chicago, and especially San Francisco. The accordion became an important instrument in vaudeville and was also featured in dance bands, on recordings, and on the radio.
The second chapter, “Squeezebox Bach,” investigates “the ideologies and ideas connected to the effort to improve both the instrument and its perception by the classical music world” (p. 51). There was a struggle to raise the performance standards of piano accordion to that of other Western art music instruments. The American Accordionists Association (AAA) was formed in 1938 to advance the accordion by holding competitions and publishing literature of service to accordionists. Jacobson describes an “accordion industrial complex” as an integrated network of accordion manufacturers and teaching studios that sold accordions and accordion music. Top performers and teachers served as artist representatives for manufacturers, and their private studios sprang up across the country, particularly on the East Coast, West Coast, and in the Midwest. Accordion orchestras formed in places where the studio system was most successful. The AAA commissioned new accordion works from American composers. In spite of these efforts, the accordion remained outside the mainstream of the classical music world.
The third chapter, “Squeezebox Rock,” describes the rise and fall of the accordion in American popular culture. The roots of the accordion’s popularity were found in ethnic communities, [End Page 114] particularly those of the American industrial heartland, around the Great Lakes and the Upper Midwest. The accordion culture of ethnic America pre-dated and coexisted with that of the accordion industrial complex. Those who wanted the accordion to be taken more seriously contested slights against the instrument and the perpetuation of its ethnic and “folk music” image (p. 94). Jacobson looks at important luminaries of the accordion—Dick Contino, Myron Floren, and Lawrence Welk—and tells how they helped the accordion become popular with middle-class America. She then examines various efforts of the industry to extend the accordion’s popularity into the rock era.
The fourth chapter, “Crossover Accordionists,” examines the lives of three well-known ethnic accordionists, Viola Turpeinen...