Chapter 7 Accordions and Working-Class Culture along Lake Superior’s South Shore
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

7 Accordions and Working-Class Culture along Lake Superior’s South Shore james p. leary “Robust and Rowdy” Inthewinterof1981,BrunoSynkulaofAshland,Wisconsin—ahouse-partymusicianandmaintenanceworkerbornin1919toPolishimmigrantparents —toldme that he learned to play button accordion as a kid from an Italian neighbor, a disabled “orepuncher”whohadtoiledatopadockjuttingintoLakeSuperiortopush ironorefrombottom-openingrailcarsintotheholdsofGreatLakesvessels.One of Synkula’s favorite tunes, “Livet i Finnskogarna” (Life in the Finnish Woods), is a Swedish waltz associated with Finns that he first heard in the aftermath of a turkey shoot at a rural tavern frequented by French Canadians, Germans, Irish, Scandinavians,andSlavs.Itsperformer,OleLear,aformerGreatLakesdeckhand of Norwegian descent, had acquired the tune from Germans.1 Such occurrences were common in Synkula’s home region. From the 1880s throughtheearlydecadesofthetwentiethcentury,Europeanimmigrantsofmostly peasant origins and their descendants, settling alongside and sometimes intermarryingwithOjibwes ,laboredalongLakeSuperior’sSouthShore.Extendingeast towestfromtheUpperPeninsulaofMichiganthroughnorthernWisconsintothe port cities of Superior and Duluth, the South Shore’s citizens worked in mines, lumber camps, and mills; on shipping vessels and loading docks; in boarding houses, shops, and taverns; and on fishing boats and small hardscrabble farms. Mixing their respective languages with “broken English” on the job, they relied heavily on accordionists to create a musical lingua franca amid the house parties and hall dances that highlighted their scant hours of leisure. 137 Accordions and Working-Class Culture along Lake Superior’s South Shore Asworkerswho“play,”whoselaborisoccasional,andwhoseworkplaceshifts, social-dancemusicians,accordionistsespecially,havetoiledmostlyatthestructuralmarginsofeverydaysocialorders ,typicallybundlingvariedrepertoiresand banding together with fellow border-crossing performers to unify often diverse audiences in festive settings that are dark, crowded, noisy, and rambunctious. In his pathbreaking book The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson chronicles ruling-class alarm about “Satan’s Strongholds,” evident in the “tendency of authority to regard taverns, fairs, any large congregation of people, as a nuisance—sources of idleness, brawls, sedition, or contagion.” Perhaps worse, such condemnations of unruly behavior had been long endorsed, albeit tacitly, whenever“thosewhohavewishedtoemphasizethesoberconstitutionalancestry of the working-class movement have sometimes minimized its more robust and rowdy features.”2 AlthoughThompson’sstudyisconfinedtoEnglandfromroughly1750to1830, a pre-accordion era when ballad-singers and fiddlers stirred crowds, the selfserving ,moralizing,top-downrhetorichedocumentswaslaterechoedthroughout Europe by accordion opponents disturbed about the instrument’s proliferation. Mass-produced,portable,inexpensive,loud,pretuned,andenablingbothnovice and skilled musicians to play melody, harmony, and rhythm simultaneously, the accordionemergedalongsideandwasassociatedwithsuchthreatstosocialorder asscandalousnewcoupledanceslikethepolkaandthewaltz,emigrants’abandonmentofhierarchicallystratifiedhomelands ,andgatheringsofindustrialworkers inclinedtowardorganizing.In1907theSwedishcomposerHugoAlfvénadvocated genocidal measures: “Chop up all the accordions that come in your way, stamp them to a jelly, cut them to pieces, and throw them into the pigsty, because that is where they belong.”3 In Finland, an equally brutal coalition of churchmen, educators , composers, and romantic nationalists, including folklorists, argued that, like heretics, accordions should be burned as “the arch enemy of folk music.”4 The essays in this volume testify to the accordion’s defiant, persistent global vitality, especially as wielded by and for the people who have made their living through physical labor in an industrializing world. In America’s Upper Midwest, theaccordion,broadlyconsidered,hasbeenthemostubiquitousandemblematic folk-musicalinstrumentfromthelatenineteenthcenturythroughthepresent.In itsvariedyetkindredmanifestations(diatonicandchromaticbuttonaccordions, pianoaccordions,“Chemnitzer”or“German”concertinas,andBandonions),the free-reed, push-pull squeezebox has been not only an integral part of numerous ethnically distinct “polka” traditions but also essential to the Upper Midwest’s pervasive, creolized “polkabilly” sound.5 The immigrant and ethnic populations of the region’s major urban centers—Chicago, Milwaukee, the “twin cities” of MinneapolisandSt.Paul,andthe“twinports”ofDuluthandSuperior—havelike- 138 james p. leary wise fostered a profusion of accordion importers and manufacturers, accordion schools,accordion-instructionalpublicationsandsheetmusic,accordionclubs, and, most recently, an accordion-repair curriculum in a state-supported technical school, several musical halls of fame dominated by accordionists, and an accordion museum. Thankstothesustainedeffortsofmusicians,entrepreneurs,culturalactivists, and, in recent decades, scholars, we know a good deal about the Upper Midwest’s array of accordion-based genres, its virtuoso performers and influential proponents ,anditsprimarilyurbanaccordioninfrastructures.Weknowless,however, about the historical emergence, human particulars, and cultural significance of the accordion as an instrument of choice among local performers in the region’s ruralandindustrializedhinterlands.HeedingE.P.Thompson’sadmonitionthat considerations of working-class culture must focus on “real people” living “in a realcontext,”6 thisessaydrawsfrominterviewsandfield-recordingsessionsconducted from February 1979 through June 1981 with dozens of rural and workingclass musicians and their audiences in the accordion-infused subregion of the Upper Midwest that is the South Shore of Lake Superior. Although they included indigenous peoples, European Americans whose ancestors had arrived several generations earlier, and a few born in the old country, most were the children of immigrants. Ranging from their sixties through their eighties, they collectively recalled the accordion’s regional emergence. Complementing their firsthand...


pdf