It's fairly common knowledge that the accordion was invented by a German,
Friedrich Buschmann. Not so well-known, or at least less generally
acknowledged, is the fact that a German also was among the first to
demonstrate the commercial viability of jigs, reels and hornpipes.
Although known as the 'Irish Dutchman', due to his origins in the then
largely Dutch Brooklyn area of New York in the 1860s, John J Kimmel was of
German parentage. The leader of a vaudeville troupe who also played cornet,
saxophone and xylophone, Kimmel found his true metier on the simple, 10-key,
single-row melodeon and found favour in the nascent American recording
industry, which was then hot for easily recorded solo instrumentalists,
recording his - and the instrument's - first cylinders in 1904.
A player of lively skill and execution, Kimmel's talents, to quote the sales
pitch of the time, put the accordion "in the class of real musical
instruments" (a qualification which doubtless would have made Herr Buschmann
feel his efforts were appreciated) and showed it capable of "the reedy
virtues of the bagpipes without the raucousness." That his copywriter didn't
go on to excel in the diplomatic corps will come as little surprise.
Kimmel, however, did go on to significant celebrity, if not quite as
significant as his near-neighbours from Brooklyn, Joe Schenk and Mae West,
and his prolific output made him a major influence on musicians who followed
in his wake. How a German-American came to be so proficient in Irish music
isn't known for certain - a Leitrim accordionist who heard him play in the
1920s suggested that Kimmel's wife must have been Irish, but his spontaneous
if well-practised style suggests that Kimmel picked up things easily by ear,
which may also explain the slightly calliope-like aspect to some of his tunes.
By the time Kimmel was beginning his recording career, the button key
accordion or melodeon had become established as an instrument of choice in
the Irish countryside and in the bothies and mining communities of Scotland,
whence sprang Scotland's squeeze box hero Sir Jimmy Shand and his
forerunners, the Wyper brothers, Peter and Daniel, and Willie Hannah, a
source of many tunes for Shand.
By this time also, the melodeon had been joined by its piano-keyboarded
cousin and an English invention, its near relative the concertina, patented
by English physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1844.
Due to associations with cliched continental romantic music,
chordovox-squeezing lounge bar entertainers and the tartan and heather end of
Scottish culture, the piano accordion struggles to be hip in the public
consciousness. But there have been, and are, some outstanding players whose
combination of skill and audacity have placed them in the maverick class.
The late John Huband, from Dundee, could play Scottish country dance music to
championship standard but was equally adept at improvising in the swing style
associated with his hero, jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.
In many ways Huband was the trailblazer for Scotland's daredevil stylists
such as Phil Cunningham, who combines speed freakery with a beautiful touch
on a slow air, the slightly more solid but equally agile Freeland Barbour and
the brilliantly individual Sandy Brechin, whose dance band's name The
Sensational Jimi Shandrix Experience neatly sums up both his awareness of
tradition and his wilful desire to move on with a shimmering, exciting
In Ireland, Alan Kelly makes exciting, probing music on an instrument that
isn't excessively popular in a country replete with button key practitioners,
and although not born in Ireland, the vivacious, adventurous Karen Tweed has
a firm grounding in the tradition which she brings to the Poozies and her
high-class duo with guitarist Ian Carr.
Piano accordion sceptics should also remember that one of the hippest bands
ever to come out of the Scots Gaelic tradition, Capercaillie, began life with
the instrument, played by Donald Shaw (now more habitually a keyboards player
but still an adept accordionist), at its heart.
While Scotland's accordion favourites - Shand, Mull's ultra-mobile Bobby
MacLeod, the fiddle and bagpipe-influenced Iain McLachlan (composer of The
Dark Island) and the showy, leg-kicking Will Starr - emanated largely from
the strict-tempo world of country dancing, Irish music's rich heritage of box
players, while still meeting dancers' requirements as a staple of the ceili
bands, has thrived in a more informal "just playing choons for enjoyment's
sake" environment, too.
Consequently, it seems, the accordion had an easier, more natural passage
into Irish folk bands. From Jackie Daly with De Dannan through to Dermot
Byrne, with Altan, Benny McCarty with Danu and, of course, Sharon Shannon
with her own band, the box has had no image problem - nor its players any
lack of role models.
Aspiring button key accordionists today can go back to the Kimmel era, to the
recordings of Peter J Conlon of the 1920s, to Joe Cooley and Joe Derrane for
inspiration. Derrane, it should be noted, began recording 78s at the age of
seventeen in the 1940s and still flourishes on America's eastern seaboard in
his seventies. Equally and arguably, the accordion crop has never been so
rich as it is now.
Top of the walk, arguably, is Joe Burke, a mischievous master whose concerts
invariably include an accordion "High Noon" with his wife, Anne Conroy, an
expert accordionist as well as Burke's guitar-playing accompanist. But in hot
pursuit come the itchy fingered Galwegian Mairtin O'Connor, who also played
with De Dannan for a time, the splendid Paul Brock, the eloquent slow air
specialist Tony MacMahon, the poetic Johnny Connolly, Dave Hennessy of Any
Old Time and Brendan Begley, who can be heard alongside Cathal McConnell in
Boys of the Lough.
The concertina, too, has occupied a prominent place in the Irish tradition,
particularly in Clare where a school of women players thrived, often in
secret, playing only in the house, as was the case with Brigid McGrath,
composer of the Mulqueeny Hornpipe. More public with her charms was Elizabeth
Crotty, who achieved great popularity and died at the height of her fame in
Mary McNamara, a gentle, graceful player of considerable virtuosity, carries
on the Clare concertina tradition today, as does Noel Hill, a musician of
astonishing articulation and a huge depth of expression who has worked with
musicians including Planxty (on their Woman I Loved So Well album) and the
great singer Mairead Ni Dhomhnaill and recorded a spellbinding duo album with
accordionist Tony MacMahon (I gCnoc na Grai) but prefers to play solo where
the instrument's sound and his playing's singing joi de vivre can be heard to
Although he's neither Irish nor Scottish, no survey of the concertina can be
allowed to omit the wonderful Alastair Anderson, whose performing style is
almost balletic in its arm movements. Anderson is English (although he might
argue that he's from Northumberland), as are the excellent box players John
Kirkpatrick, who champions English dance music, and Andy Cutting, whose
Quebec-influenced recordings with singer-guitarist-fiddler Chris Wood,
Lusignac particularly, are great examples of the melodeon's gracefulness.
But to return to Scotland and give the concertina the last word, the last
word in concertina playing in recent years has come from Simon Thoumire. He
doesn't have the instrument to himself in Scotland - thanks to Norman
Chalmers of Jock Tamson's Bairns, Stuart Eydmann of the Whistlebinkies and
former McCalman Hamish Bayne, who makes them, but he does have a style
entirely of his own which sees him take the concertina into situations, from
solo free-form improvisations with a traditional accent to rampaging
orchestral commissions, that Mr Wheatstone surely never would have imagined.
c. Belle Low, January 2002
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