Everything you need to know about the Cajun accordion

In the 1800s, Europeans started the fast development of instruments employing free reeds, which is where the history of the accordion can be traced back. During the 19th century, Europe was the birthplace of a wide variety of accordions, which were then transported to other parts of the globe. The 1890s saw the introduction of accordions to Acadiana, where they quickly gained popularity by the early 1900s and finally established themselves as an essential component of Cajun music.

 

Prior to expulsion in 1755, the violin or the fiddle was the most popular musical instrument amongst Acadians in Canada. It is possible that Acadian refugees who fled to Louisiana carried violins with them, but it is far more probable that they bought fiddles as soon as they got there. After Europeans settled in Louisiana, home dances were common, and their popularity persisted far into the 20th century. The violin was a common instrument during house dances.

There’s no doubt that these events were loud and full of people. Because they couldn’t be heard over the commotion, Cajun violinists created a style of playing that demanded players to press down firmly on their bows. It provided this song with a distinctive tone, but the accordion’s adoption was to bring about other alterations to the music.

 

There is conclusive evidence that an accordion existed in Louisiana back in 1871. Numerous images depict Blacks playing the instrument mentioned above. This suggests that people had access to accordions and most likely played a significant part in the popularity of this particular instrument in South Louisiana.

 

Some slaves were taught to perform using their owners’ accordions by their slaves, according to Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot. Three black performers, including two violin players and an accordionist, perform for white people at a party in a quick tale written in 1897 by Kate Chopin Canray, who was born around 1922, claims that his whole family also played the accordion.

 

Thus, this instrument has a long history in Creole culture. Creoles of African Descent were responsible for producing among the most important and unique music of the early 20th century. Many Cajun artists credit Amédé Ardoin, a famous accordionist, as a big influence on Cajun music. Because there was a lot of collaboration between black and white artists and because a lot of black musicians performed at white events, it’s safe to say that their effect wasn’t negligible.

How accordions were introduced to the Cajun community

 

Cajuns’ embrace of accordions was delayed, even though they were present in Louisiana long before then. A Frenchman wrote a book in 1861 about a string of contentious events that took place on the plains of Southwest Louisiana. In the book, he often addressed fiddles and fiddle players, along with other instruments, including the banjo, guitar, and mandolin. However, no mention was ever made of an accordion or an accordion player.

 

It’s possible that accordions were sent to people by mail. In the year 1886, advertising for accordions that were available for purchase was published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. However, only members of the local upper classes—a demographic that generally looked down on accordions—would have been interested in reading such a publication. Early catalogs sold accordions.

When Montgomery Ward began distributing brochures in the 1870s, Sears and Roebuck began issuing their own in 1894. A copy of a brochure published in 1908 features twenty different styles of accordions produced by five different businesses. The Cajuns who lived on the plains of Southwest Louisiana were generally uneducated, and many were illiterate. These Cajuns were the ones who adopted the accordion.

 

Although they may have seen similar commercials in the past, they presumably would not have bought accordions via mail until they had a basic understanding of the instrument and how to perform with it.

 

The 1908 Hohner brochure featured a free case with every accordion. Older performers carried accordions in bags, not cases.

 

German-Jewish traders helped sell accordions. There were a lot of Jewish entrepreneurs who owned businesses in each and every town within the Cajun region. Mervine Kahn’s shop in Rayne was arguably the greatest example of this. It was opened in 1884, four years after the train came. Mervine Kahn sold several Cajuns accordions before WWII.

 

It’s possible that accordions were sent to people by mail. In the year 1886, advertising for accordions that were available for purchase was published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. However, only members of the local upper classes—a demographic that generally looked down on accordions—would have been interested in reading such a publication. Early catalogs sold accordions.

 

When Montgomery Ward began distributing brochures in the 1870s, Sears and Roebuck began issuing their own in 1894. A copy of a brochure published in 1908 features twenty different styles of accordions produced by five different businesses. The Cajuns who lived on the plains of Southwest Louisiana were generally uneducated, and many were illiterate. These Cajuns were the ones who adopted the accordion.

Although they may have seen similar commercials in the past, they presumably would not have bought accordions via mail until they had a basic understanding of the instrument and how to perform with it.

 

The 1908 Hohner brochure featured a free case with every accordion. Older performers carried accordions in bags, not cases.

German-Jewish traders helped sell accordions. There were a lot of Jewish entrepreneurs who owned businesses in every town within the Cajun region. Mervine Kahn’s shop in Rayne was arguably the greatest example of this. It was opened in 1884, four years after the train came. Mervine Kahn sold several Cajuns accordions before WWII.

 

Nobody knows how the very first accordion got into these shops. It’s possible that Jewish business people were the ones who originally brought them in. It is more likely that Cajuns started requesting accordions, then Jewish merchants discovered they could manufacture them and make a profit off of selling them. With ties to eastern corporations and probably German manufacturers, these businessmen started importing accordions for their rural French-speaking consumers.

Acceptance of accordions in the Cajun community

 

It would seem that the first person to introduce the accordion to Louisiana was neither a Cajun nor a black Creole who taught others how to play the instrument. Instead of learning to play smoothly and easily, as was the case in Europe, people on the prairies of Southwest Louisiana started to play in a rhythmic style with plenty of quick runs.

 

It grew into a unique style seen nowhere else on the planet, which was likely established by Creoles and subsequently taught to Cajuns. It is likely that descendants of tiny independent black landowners who resided on the plains west of Opelousas were the very first Creoles to learn how to play the accordion.

This is the only big population of self-governing black farmers, and many earlier black accordionists, notably those utilizing the traditional diatonic accordion, originated here. Black and white accordionists have traditionally thrived in this area. It was known as a “hotbed” of accordionists.

 

Even though they were entrenched in French history and culture, several black Creoles native to Southwest Louisiana welcomed the accordion. But they took the melody differently than it had previously been taken. Originally known as “la-la,” this Creole music is now more often referred to as “zydeco.”

 

A lot of black zydeco performers utilize button accordions or big piano accordions. But the little diatonic accordion has long been popular among black Creoles in the provinces, and a few of these individuals have gained fame in the zydeco community in recent years. All accordions are used to perform zydeco music, although tiny diatonic accordions, like those created and utilized by Cajuns, appear to be becoming more common.

 

Even though accordions were reliable and didn’t tend to go out of tune, Cajuns mainly liked them because they were very loud. Even though the fiddlers put a lot of pressure on their violins, they could not produce a sound that was loud enough to be heard over the din of a big audience.

 

The structure of a Cajun accordion

 

In contrast to the multi-row devices frequently employed in Italian, polka, Irish, and other types of music, the Cajun accordion is usually classified as a diatonic accordion with only one row. This kind of accordion has numerous reeds for each button, and the number of reeds that sound may be altered using four knobs on the instrument.

 

The default number of melody buttons is ten, and there are two buttons on the left-hand side of the keyboard: one for the bass note and the other for the chord. When the bellows are pushed, the tonic note of the key and major chord play, and when the bellows are withdrawn, the dominant note of the key and a major chord play.

 

The final word on Cajun accordions

 

A few Cajuns began to adopt the accordion in the late nineteenth century, and it grew in popularity when accordions in fiddle-compatible keys were introduced in the 1920s. Cajun music, particularly that from the farmlands of southwestern Louisiana, is easily recognized for its use of this particular instrument.

 

As it began to advance and develop, Cajun music suffered many setbacks but also gained many benefits. There was a period in the 1930s when the accordion and Cajun musical styles began to fall out of favor. Still, it was brought back to life in the 1940s, and today it is getting more popular and gaining more recognition throughout the country and worldwide. This is because Cajun music has a unique sound distinct from other types of music.

 

Older Cajun pieces are still performed, but the music is continually developing to include new sounds. A growing number of young people are picking up the accordion, which is handmade by local artists to an exceptionally high standard. The accordion will continue to play an important role in Cajun culture and South Louisiana in the foreseeable future.

 

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