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

Salvation Accordion Army

by James P. O'Brien, Ph.D.

What can you do with an accordion at holiday time? You can gift it to someone (but why would an accordionist ever do that?) You can play for parties, for love or money (but we do this all year long, mostly for love.) Or you can take to the streets and raise money for charities like the Salvation Army.

Last year, in response from Captain Dickerson and Tucson Salvation Army which invited musicians to play at the charity's kettles, Jim and Shirley O'Brien decided to try it with accordions, not the typical brass instruments one associates with the Salvation Army. Joined by Judy Lavendar of the Army, they took to the streets of Tucson to spark some cheer into shoppers at the local Targets, Wal-Marts, Dilliards, and K-Marts.

Jim O'Brien, Judy Lavendar, Shirley O'Brien

What a response! The ringers, who shake their bells without music for long shifts, were delighted with the response. Money flowed in! People dug deep to pull out not only coins, but paper money as well - rolled up dollar bills, fives, and some twenties. Some people even stopped and wrote checks.

It was fun to stand and play in front of these stores in the late afternoon and watch the frantic shoppers drive into the crammed parking lots, "bah/humbug" all over their faces, ready to commit road rage or worse should someone steal the parking space they had been circling for an hour to obtain. Their heads looked up and they began to smile as they emerged from their autos and began to walk to the store. Most got their contributions out well in advance of approaching our two accordions and kettle. Some even stopped to listen and join in the singing of favorite carols, like Silent Night, Deck the Halls or Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Who gave? Everyone!! Young and old. It was wonderful to see the openness of Gen X's reaching into their billfolds to pull out several bills as well as Seasoned Citizens who contributed generously as well. How refreshing to see couples hand the money to their young children to drop in the kettle. Those who didn't give on the way in made certain to hit us on their way out of the store.

We found it so exciting after our Tucson experience that we contacted the San Diego Salvation Army last Christmas where we spent the holidays who said it would be fine to play anywhere in that area where there was a kettle. This season, we contacted the Las Vegas Salvation Army before going there for Thanksgiving and we were warmly welcomed. Although it would have been fun to have played on the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard), Colonel Sullivan assigned us the busiest Wal-Mart on Rainbow Drive. Reinforced by Tom O'Brien (Las Vegas) and Caroline O'Brien Homer (The Dalles, Oregon), we four O'Briens did three-hour gigs for three days prior to Thanksgiving and believe we made a significant difference in the contributions received on those days.

Tom, Jim, Caroline and Shirley

Why the response? The accordion is a fun, perky instrument and it tends to make people smile and laugh. Live music is a novelty to most people and to see four people plus one ringer in front of a store, jamming together purely acoustically on Frosty the Snowman or White Christmas, is an appreciated novelty. Young and old said: "God bless." "This is so nice. Thank you." And "You guys are SO awesome!" (This from a teen-age rapper!) And it was incredible how many people said: "I used to play one of these." "I still have my old accordion." Or "Where can I get lessons so I can sound like you."

So, fellow squeezers, staff the streets. Man the malls. Celebrate with carols. There is no instrument better for this than an accordion. (Check with your local Salvation Army first, though, and you'll probably receive an official hat.) Remember, it raises money for the right reasons. Happy holidays. 'Tis the season for squeezin'.

Addendum by Henry Doktorski: In England, at least, the Salvation Army was noted for their concertina bands. They provided their members with a large supply of instruments of varying fingering systems, but always with a black bellows. They even printed a tutor for the instrument, ca. 1935-38. The following summary of an interview with Mildred Stringer appears from International Concertina Association.

Mildred Stringer spoke about her life playing English concertina through the Salvation Army in Doncaster where she has lived all her life. She started playing when she was 14 and joined the local Army band soon after. In 1955 she became band leader until the band finally closed due to diminishing numbers. . . . She explains how the concertina was so important in the first half of this century for the Salvation Army being a portable and versatile instrument. . . . She played a number of medleys of tunes which she uses today when playing in concert with the quartet. She also demonstrated some of the exercises used in the Salvation Army concertina tutor and insisted on playing with the interviewer some of arrangements for hymns in the Salvation Army repertoire.

Invitation to Contributors / Submission Guidelines
Back to The Free-Reed Journal Contents Page
Back to The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Home Page