The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

The Last Laugh:
Accordion Jokes and Joking Accordions

by Henry Doktorski
copyright 1993

The author (1997 photo)
The author (August, 1997)
Last autumn, one of my next door neighbors called me on the phone and breathlessly bubbled over, "You'll never guess what is on the radio right now--a special on your favorite instrument: the accordion!"

Naturally I was excited, and when I turned on my tuner I was delighted with a real treat: a musical interview with one of my favorite concert accordion artists, Dr. William Schimmel.

At one point in the broadcast, the interviewer asked Dr. Schimmel whether he was offended by jokes about the accordion. Dr. Schimmel, a very deep thinker and philosopher, responded, "I love them! Accordion jokes are just as much a part of the accordion as are the bellows. They're an integral part of the mystique of the instrument!"

Huh? I was dumfounded.

He continued, "When you get right down to it, the accordion can make some pretty funny sounds. Depending on what you play, it can be suave and sophisticated---or raunchy and vulgar. Both are real. Both are the accordion."

What!? I was shocked and angered.

He concluded, "The infamous circus magnate, P.T. Barnum, was often the center of wild speculation and controversy. His name was frequently defamed in the newspapers of his day. Do you know what he said about all the outrageous publicity? He said: 'I don't care what they say about me, as long as they say it! The only bad publicity is no publicity!' Barnum was indeed a master of public relations!"

This was too much! I began burning with rage! What an insult to my beloved instrument!

But the funny thing is that the more I thought about it, the more sense Dr. Schimmel's statements made. Think about it-- why does the accordion have such a comical reputation? Could it be possible that, from an objective scientific perspective, the instrument does make inherently naturally funny sounds?

I remembered hearing a contemporary composition at a prestigious new music recital which made the accordion sound like it had a bad case of flatulence! I shouldn't have been surprised, because the concert program notes emphasized that the accordion IS a wind instrument. No wonder the accordion is the butt of so many jokes!

[Just a few weeks ago (January 1998), while doing research on my book The Classical Squeezebox at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, I discovered a fascinating piece for accordion and violoncello by the Dutch composer Chiel Meijering titled A Fart in a Blizzard. I trust that I don't need to explain which instrument portrayed the fart and which instrument portrayed the blizzard.]

Dear reader, don't get me wrong. I am a professional concert accordionist and I love the sound of my instrument. Yet, still, sometimes I have to laugh at the sounds my accordion makes. Let me give you a case in point.

Not too long ago, I helped a guitarist friend who rented an eight track tape recorder to produce an album of original folk music. Towards the end of his project, he ran out of tape and asked me if I had some extra. I reached into my closet and pulled out a reel of used tape which I had already used to record a Mozart motet with an accordion quartet. He recorded his music on this reel.

Several hours later, when mixing time came, he was disturbed by the accordion tracks which kept popping up at irregular intervals. (We should have erased all this at the beginning of the session!)

Mozart loved to write repeated eighth and sixteenth note figures, and I had recorded these repeated figures as bellow shakes. Every so often during my friend's mix, a sputtering accordion would mysteriously appear-- bellow shaking--and just as rapidly disappear! It really sounded funny to me, and it was only with great difficulty that I maintained my composure and kept a straight face.

My friend frantically tried to find which tracks the renegade accordions were coming from and destroy the boisterous invaders. He had a hard time locating the little pests, since his recording was complicated and his track sheet disorganized. After a short time, he began cursing at the little devils that would just pop up out of nowhere and destroy his piece.

Finally he said, "I'm going to destroy these @#$% accordions once and for all! I'm going to erase them off of my tape forever!" I replied, "OK, but don't erase anything else! You'll regret it!"

I took a break and left the room. A few minutes later, when I returned, he was finishing the final mix. His face radiated with a broad, pleasant smile--the same smile a cat has when it has just eaten a mouse.

"Now I've gotten rid of those darn accordions! Listen to my tape. What beauty! What inspiration! What peace!"

Suddenly, his mood became grave and he looked at the faders with concern. "Where are my trumpets?" he cried. "The trumpets are supposed to come in now!" He was worried.

Looking at the console, I said, "You erased them! When you erased the accordions, you accidentally erased your trumpet parts!"

He was crushed and collapsed on the floor in despair. "Oh, woe is me!" he cried piteously. "How many hours it took to record those trumpet parts just perfectly!"

And just then, at the height of his miserable self pity, the room was filled with the sound of a big bass accordion, bellow shaking a bass line of repeated eighth notes from Mozart's allegro! It was actually laughing!

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hawwwwww!"

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hawwwwww!"

My friend got up off the floor in a rage, waved his fist and shouted at the tape recorder "So you think you escaped me, you varmit! We'll see who gets the last laugh. I'm going to kill you! I'm going to kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllll youuuuuuuuuuuuuu!"

I jumped up between him and the tape recorder, "Calm down, calm down," I reassured him. "It's nothing to get a heart attack over! I'll help you record the trumpets again. Don't worry."

After a few seconds, he regained his composure and sat down with huge tears welling up in his eyes. He confided, "I wouldn't mind it so much, except that I believe that that accordion is actually laughing at me! I swear I erased all the tracks, but that one accordion somehow escaped. Now he's laughing at me."

I reassured him, "That's ridiculous. Instruments can't laugh. Only human beings."

After a few moments, he said, "I guess you're right. I shouldn't take it personally."

Just then, from nowhere, came the bass accordion again, guffawing in jolly bellows shakes:

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hawwwwww!"

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hawwwwww!"

He wailed, "It IS laughing at me! Listen! That accordion is laughing at me!" He broke down in tears and I put my arm around his shoulder, saying, "You should look at this philosophically. There might be a lesson here. Maybe all this was arranged by the Supreme Lord for your personal development and spiritual advancement. Perhaps there is a meaning to all of this."

After a few moments in thought, he replied, "Yes, there is a lesson for me here. All this time I was thinking how great I was for writing such beautiful music. Imagine--me--the greatest! Yet, I completely forgot that I am not the creator of anything. I am only a channel for the One Infinite Creator of all that be."

He continued, "I was too much enamored with myself, too much out of touch with reality. I'm so vain! Actually, I'm just a tiny servant of the Almighty Lord. Without giving Him credit, all my music is useless."

"You are quite right," I said. "Every reversal in our plans--however severe--has a purpose in the plan of life. All things work for good for one who knows God."

"Yes," he continued. "Yes, I have learned my lesson. But do you know what is the greatest lesson I learned today?"

"What is it?" I asked.

Without a moment's hesitation, he said, with a slight smile, "Never take the accordion too seriously!"

This article was previously printed in 1) The Reed Block, April 1993 (San Diego: Accordion Lovers Society International, Harold Estok editor) and 2) Who's Who in the Accordion World: 1994 (Dallas: Texas Accordion Association, Norman Seaton editor).

Photo of the author performing (believe it or not, a "performance art" rendition of Lady of Spain performed on a two-octave/twelve bass accordion and accompanied by a boom-box recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1) at the American Accordionists' Association festival -- Bach! / Vegas! / Dog! -- at the Tenri Cultural Institute, Guggenheim Museum, New York City on August 30, 1997. (Photo by Elsie Bennett.)

Readers Letters

Date: Sat, 14 Mar 1998 23:41:25 -0500

"The Last Laugh" is an extraordinary funny story! Although I don't think your friend would agree...

Best wishes

Martin Weyde
Hamburg Germany

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