Squeezebox Cylinder Recordings


It's a pleasure to welcome Bruce Triggs, creator of the Accordion Noir radio show, as a guest curator for this playlist. Accordion Noir Radio is a non-profit devoted to the belief that the accordion is just another instrument; the group hosts podcasts of accordion music and also sponsors an accordion festival. I share Bruce's enthusiasm for the accordion and I also believe it is one of the great instruments of the early sound recording era, as some of the most interesting ethnic, folk and popular music was performed by accordionists.

This is part one of a two-part series on the accordion and highlights 10 recordings from the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. Let us know what you think.

David Seubert, UC Santa Barbara Library

Curator's notes

Austrian Cyrill Demian filed a patent for his “accordion” in Vienna on May 6, 1829. Because of the relatively late invention of this family of instruments, it is possible to document much of its mechanical development as well as the influence it had on contemporary musical styles. By the time the first cylinder recordings were released in the 1890s, the instrument was little more than 60 years old, so these early recordings document a young instrument still very much in development. “Traditional” folk artists were only a generation removed from those who first picked up the instrument. These recordings demonstrate basic folk playing mixed with growing technical virtuosity by folk and professional musicians as heard on the blossoming vaudeville stage. Some of these recordings had great influence on musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, leading more to take up the accordion in folk music, and particularly spreading the sound of the newly invented piano-accordion. Overall, these beautiful early squeezebox recordings remind us of both the permanence and the fragility of culture, art, and memory.

—Bruce Triggs, Vancouver, British Columbia

Medley of Irish reels. John J. Kimmel. Edison Standard Record: 10284. 1909.

We begin with the classic “Edison shout” announcement (used until about mid-1908) for our first artist, Mr. John J. Kimmel (sometimes misspelled “Kimmbel”). Kimmel produced more of the cylinders in the archive than any other accordionist. He recorded in various Celtic styles, along with popular marches and tunes. Although he was both U.S.-born and German–not Irish–Kimmel was especially influential with Irish and Celtic musicians, as his were some of the first recordings available.

Further information on Kimmel: http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=121

Italian army march / Richard Eilenberg. Guido Deiro. Edison Blue Amberol: 1774. 1913.

The first and greatest proponent of the piano-accordion was undoubtedly the vaudeville star Guido Deiro. Along with his business-savvy brother Pietro, Deiro premiered and popularized the piano-accordion all over North America. G. Deiro was an American accordion celebrity, receiving top billing on vaudeville stages across the continent as one of the most highly paid entertainers in North America. Performing solo, without an orchestra or band, he earned up to $600 per week ($5,000–$12,000 in today's dollars). Most colorfully, he secretly married a young performer named Mae West, who later went on to wider fame. Deiro recorded on Columbia and had more accordion firsts on radio and film, but his light faded with the end of vaudeville.

Most lastingly, G. Deiro brought the piano-accordion to the attention of the American public. The newly developed piano-accordion was promoted as a modern rejection of various “old-country” designs. This helped to standardize the many European button-keyboard layouts, allowing North American accordion dealers to sell a single style to Finnish, German, Italian, Russian, Belgian, and French accordion players without having to stock each regional format.

Further information on Deiro: http://www.guidodeiro.com/

Poppies / Neil Morét. Alexander Prince. Edison Gold Moulded Record: 13764. 1908.

Alexander Prince was a highly regarded “duet” concertina player. Along with Kimmell, Prince was the most prolific early squeezebox recording artist. He played Maccann duet concertina (one of the three most popular concertina formats).

According to concertina scholar Wes Williams, Prince was born in Scotland and made many recordings on cylinders and later for Columbia discs. He was said to have broken his leg as a child, and his father, who owned a music shop, gave him a concertina to amuse himself with. A few years later he was playing at the London Pavilion and the Victorian icon, the Crystal Palace.

The concertina is a member of the accordion’s “free-reed” family (which also includes the harmonica). Charles Wheatstone developed the concertina in England at the same time that others in Europe were working on instruments that became the accordion. There are several main types of concertinas: Wheatstone’s English style (from England), the Anglo style (based on a diatonic system from Germany), and the “duet” style.

The “duet” concertina Prince played had bass notes on the left hand and treble on the right. This makes complex countermelodies and counterpoint “duets” with oneself possible and facilitated his transcriptions of orchestral works.

To see clips of a modern duet concertina player, visit:
Garland Films presents "Reuben Shaw – Duet Concertina Player

Oi ya nestchastay (Malo russkaya piesnia) / Mykola Vitaliiovych Lysenko. Alexander Sashko ; A. Iranova. Edison Blue Amberol: 11234. 1922.

This track is likely played on a “garmon,” the Russian name for a diatonic button accordion. These are played widely in Eastern Europe, and it seems quite likely that a Ukrainian song would use one.

It can be difficult to determine what instrument is used on these recordings. Often, the record producers didn’t spell artists’ names correctly, casting doubt on their ability to differentiate between types of accordions.

Decades later, the African-American folk singer Lead Belly was often listed as playing a concertina, when he was in fact one of the last African Americans representing a pre-blues, pre-jazz button accordion tradition that dated back to before the end of slavery. Sadly, we have no cylinder recordings from that tradition, as it went almost completely unrecorded by folklorists and commercial recorders, and the last of its practitioners died in the 1970s.

Medley of Irish jigs / N/A. Patrick Scanlon and Dennis L. Smith. Edison Blue Amberol: 3361. 1918.

Little information has turned up on Patrick Scanlon except that he recorded later for Columbia, and his records were collected by fiddlers at least as far away as Ohio.

Tarantella Siciliana / Frank Lucanese. Three Vagrants. Edison Blue Amberol: 4187. 1921.

Three Vagrants were a vaudeville trio with Frank Lucanese on accordion. Promotional photos also show a large harp-guitar, an interesting and now uncommon novelty instrument. One photo from 1928 includes Josephine Bergamasco as accordionist in the trio. Though it seems that would have been from a later version of the band, I believe she would be the only documented woman accordionist to play in any of these musical groups.

Further information can be found at: http://www.nicklucas.com/threevagrants.html

Wedding of the winds  / John T. Newcomer. Pietro Frosini. Edison Amberol: 103. 1909.

Immigrating from Sicily in 1905, Frosini was probably the most successful and skillful holdout against the piano-accordion in America. His chromatic button accordion (capable of playing all the notes on a chromatic scale, with each button playing the same note going in and out) was custom built with dummy piano keys so it wouldn’t appear he was playing an “old fashioned” button accordion.

Further information can be found at: http://www.accordionusa.com/fe_03_07.htm

Russian kamarinskaja [Kamarinskai] / Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka. Accordion solo. Columbia Phonograph Co.: 65061. 1904-1909.

An example of an unknown accordionist and whistler (unless someone might provide a translation of the Russian?). Whistling was quite popular in the early recording industry. The fact that companies sold virtuoso whistling records must mean that people appreciated a good example of music they were familiar with before radios and pocket music players.

Lándlery Tyrolske: valcik [Walzer, Ländler und Ecossaisen, piano, D. 145; arr.] / Franz Schubert. Ceské Trio z Prahy. Edison Blue Amberol: 9852. 1913.

Recording companies eventually realized the profit potential in immigrant communities, whose members would spend money for something that reminded them of “home.” Often starting by simply guessing what would sell in a given ethnic community, companies eventually found local distributors within ethnic neighborhoods who were able to suggest artists their customers wanted to hear—like this recording from Edison's "Bohemian," or Czech, series.

During the decades before the Great Depression devastated the industry, “ethnic” artists were a growing part of most companies’ recording catalogs. Later, in the '30s and '40s, ethnic music reemerged with crossover pop artists like Frankie Yankovich and polka hits by wartime stars such as the Andrews Sisters. All can be traced back to early recordings like this one.

Nautical airs. Alexander Prince. Edison Amberol: 245. 1909.

It has been noted that, despite popular imagery, the “golden age of piracy” ended in 1750, so no pirate ever heard a concertina or an accordion, much less played one. Concertinas and accordions were, however, very popular among sailors during the Industrial Revolution, spreading by sail and steam across the globe in a matter of decades. By 1845, ships had carried them to America, where blackface minstrels played accordions only 16 years after the instrument was invented. Minstrel performers later spread their mocking racial stereotypes internationally, bringing an early Tin Pan Alley repertoire to audiences as disparate as blacks in South Africa and traditional Irish players, who incorporated tunes heard in their port cities into their own music.

For further information see: http://www.angloconcertina.org/concertina_at_sea.html

Other Sources and Further Reading

The Columbia Master Book Discography: Principal U.S. matrix series, 1910–1924 by Tim Brooks, Brian A. L. Rust

Howard Sacks: From the Barn to the Bowery and Back Again: Musical Routes in Rural Ohio, 1800–1929 [Phillips Barry Lecture, October 2000] The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 116, No. 461 (Summer, 2003), pp. 314–338

Ethnic Recordings in America, a Neglected Heritage. American Folklife Center, (US) Library of Congress, 1982.

Passion for Polka: Old-Time Ethnic Music in America: Victor Greene, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

Leadbelly and His Windjammer: Examining the African American Button Accordion Tradition, Jared Snyder. American Music Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 148-166.