Nearly seventy years after being given my accordion, I’ve decided to sell it: an artifact of an American cultural period and a personal past both troubled and treasured, a relic of enduring identity and, far above all, a totem of supernal gratitude. I can no longer play it, but someone should, and I have no one to give it to as a gift. Its playing was an embrace, an intimacy beyond the playing of any other instrument and one which, alas, I too easily took for granted (so that selling it now seems something of a betrayal). Letting it go is not a simple thing, nor trivial.

The pipe organ and the piano are complex instruments, but they are not portable. The accordion is portable, though, and yet is not much less complex an instrument than either. At full size, the piano accordion has a three-octave keyboard for the right hand and 120 bass buttons (unseen by the player) for the left. Its notes, selected by the keys and the buttons that are pressed, are powered by a bellows—that is, by the musician who must keep squeezing and withdrawing the bellows, sometimes to spectacular effect—with the air thus blown passing through either one, two, or three reeds within and then, by way of resonators, into the air.

A skilled accordionist may walk about as he or she makes music, a music far richer—almost orchestral—than that of any other portable instrument, especially if the accordion in question contains variations of registers, such as bassoon, clarinet, organ, and the like (mounted for the right hand; the left hand too may have certain variations of register). Its versatility is unmatched.

Historically a folk instrument, the accordion has been used in the making of popular music, too. Especially in the 1950s but also into the Sixties, small bands would often include one, and accomplished accordionists—Dick Contino, Myron Floren—frequently appeared on popular television shows. Then, of course, came the flourishing of rock, and the guitar reigned supreme. Outside of folk settings, the accordion virtually disappeared.

Still, one can find accordion bands and small groups from Eastern Europe to Latin America, as well as accordion festivals and museums, and virtuosi can be found on subway platforms and street corners. In fact, some genuine geniuses play worldwide, for example Ksenija Sidorova and the astonishing Nick Ariondo. So the accordion is not dead.

It was the Fifties, I suppose, so perhaps a better question was “why not?”

Why my father decided, in the mid-Fifties when I was nine years old, that I should take accordion lessons was not immediately clear to me. Unschooled and unable to read music, Pop could play just about any instrument he touched, the guitar being his primary one, but he mostly stuck to chords and brief runs. He would hook a harmonica—there came the melody—into a holder that mounted around his neck so he could play both instruments at the same time. During a “break” he would sing, quite well too. (When he played piano it was, somehow, mostly on the black keys.) So music lessons for me made a kind of sense; but why the accordion? It was the Fifties, I suppose, so perhaps a better question was “why not?” It also occurred to me later that my father wanted an accompanist.

Mr. DeBellis charged three dollars for a half-hour lesson (eventually rising to three dollars fifty), which included the loan of a small (twelve-button bass) instrument to practice with at home, weekdays, for one hour a day. (“Jimmy, come on down. We’re choosin’ up for stickball.” “I can’t. Gotta practice.”) I had to put Pop’s guitar case on the floor beneath my feet, thus raising my lap where I set the instrument. Mr. DeBellis would sell his students numbered instruction books (which included songs, scales, and finger exercises), a series of increasing difficulty. After seven years I had made it to book five; then, as I began college, the lessons stopped.

Angelo DeBellis was firmly in the tradition of Italian accordionists and accordion teachers. Pedestrian at both, he sometimes showed me technique (for example, “thumb under”) or a useful trick (e.g., to notch the E button on the left side; on all accordions the C button is already notched). Though patient, he was rarely encouraging, sometimes even moving me on from a song I had not yet mastered to another song, the sheet music for which I would, of course, have to buy from him.

That sheet music, having survived through household moves and fires, is a record of my rapid progress at the beginning, my slow decline as other interests intervened (ball-playing, literature, writing), and finally my abandonment, not of the instrument per se (more on that anon) but of lessons. I zoomed through the beginner’s book, First Adventures in Accordion Playing, which included diagrams, chord exercises, and actual songs in very large print. What I did not realize until later is this: the beginning was intellectually engaging and musically so simple that, together, those two elements—rapid understanding and simplicity—masked my lack of talent.

Our primary course—those five books—was the Palmer–Hughes Accordion Course. I went through each successive installment at a pace slower than its predecessor. Along the way were exercise books: Characteristic Etudes for the Accordion by Sedlon (one of the few non-Italian names on any accordion music sheet or book), Big Note Velocity, School of Velocity, and the like. Aldini, Gaviani, Ettore, and the tireless Pietro Deiro—a virtuoso and an influential teacher—were the names I learned to trust.

Genre song books also had their place: Western and Folk Program, Easy Popular Standard Waltzes, Swing Your Polka, Christmas Carols, and George Gershwin Made Easy for the Accordion. One of my favorites was The Modern Accordionist (in two books) by Sedlon. These books were helpful both for their discussion and diagramming of technique (e.g., the “bellows shake,” not easy) and for the music included, which I had heard nowhere else. Finally, there was sheet music for individual songs: “Tango of Roses,” “Heart of My Heart,” “Tea for Two,” “The Man I Love” (a real challenge, that: lots of left hand). By the way, no single sheet of music ever cost as much as a dollar (commonly each was forty cents), and no instruction or song book as much as two dollars. The satisfaction of acquiring (I do not say “mastering,” though that sometimes happened) a song is beyond description; the closest I can get is “fulfillment.”

And yet . . . as a member of Mr. DeBellis’s accordion band—did you not guess that there was one?—I never rose above third accordion, having begun at the bottom, fourth accordion. We rehearsed assiduously and gave concerts. All I can say is that I was dutiful and, as far as formal instruction progressed, became more and more so, until Pop realized his progeny would never break through the bellowed ceiling. Over the course of that instruction, however (and this is a very big “however” indeed), another avenue of music-playing opened, an avenue that made all of it—every hour of practice, every finger-exercise vexation, every stickball game missed—worth it.

In my view, the Fifties were a decade as good as any during which to come of age: playing baseball and rooting for the Yankees (Mickey Mantle walked on water in those days), or watching far too much television on a small black-and-white screen: sitcoms with whole families, children’s shows, and selected Westerns. Comic books mattered, including Classic Comics, collected with brother Joey, four years older than I. And practicing my accordion. That other avenue I mentioned—playing along with Pop—came in 1960 when I was thirteen. But by then life had changed cataclysmically.

I do not intend a bildungsroman, so I will add only these few memories. My mother died when she was thirty-four years old and I was eight. Having relocated us from some housing projects in East Harlem to our own home in Hicksville, Pop, after a while, had to sell that house and move us to Astoria, where I grew up. Very quickly Joey spiraled into episodes of violence, then drug-taking, then alcoholism, which lasted until ten years before his death at age seventy-five. He fought my father, he fought me, he fought his sons.

I had my own handful of street fights, but I never took to chemicals or to anti-social behavior. I applied myself to schoolwork, to the accordion, and to ball-playing. At age thirteen I had a breakdown marked by unexpected and unprovoked spells of weeping. The only respites from this depression were ballgames and, of all things, the television show You’ll Never Get Rich, with the great Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko.

Pop bought a fake book, so called. Back then such books were illegal, breaking Lord knows how many copyright laws. It cost a whopping forty dollars. (I’m told that, now, they cost about the same but are legal.) The book contained hundreds of songs: melody lines, chord indications, and lyrics, three to a page. Always composers were named, and the alphabetical index made finding a song simple. Much later, especially when I came to chair an academic department that included music, I realized that knowing music technically, as well as song traditions, is like knowing a second language: a portal to polycultural conversations.

So Pop and I began to play together, and it was always a pleasure, with such songs as “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “In the Mood,” “Twelfth Street Rag,” and “Heart of My Heart.” These were joined by songs from sheet music: “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” and “That Old Gang of Mine,” among very many others. We had our “standards” list but every now and then would add a new song. We did this irregularly, averaging twice a week for about forty-five minutes each session, not always at his suggestion. Now at last I was first accordion.

Only late in my adolescence did I realize our playing music together was Pop’s solace. While I was occupied by my own playing (of accordion and baseball), by television, by religious instruction and church-going (almost always alone), by reading and writing, and by school (but not yet by girls or, when the time came, The Girl), this most genial and gracious of men, who could find oases of delight in good company, quotidian pleasures, family, much reading, and music—this man was fundamentally sad.

A widower raising two sons is tough enough, even with support. But one of those sons, I, was extraordinarily alienated (think Clyde Griffiths of An American Tragedy), though not from my father, with whom I formed an unusual bond. He was safety; I could tell him everything. Pop would tell people that his younger son would be a writer: “He writes a very fine letter, but he doesn’t know how to mail it,” an assessment still true in its essentials. He lived to see me graduate college, get my first master’s degree, and find my lifelong full-time teaching position. He did not live to see me finish my Ph.D. and publish books.

The other son—continually though not continuously—was a source of grief. Therein lay the need for solace. Once, after Pop died at the age of fifty-four (I was twenty-seven and married with one child), my sister-in-law called me (as she would Pop) for help with Joe, who was menacing. This was the first and only time a blow was struck between Joe and me. I became enraged at his cocaine-addled bullying, shouted that he had shortened our father’s life, and hit him with a straight right hand to the jaw. He registered surprise just before his eyes rolled up and he fell back onto the branch of a tree. His three children were already out of the house, and I took his wife to a women’s shelter.

I do not recall the first time Pop and I played music together, but I do know we played right up to when I, my wife, and our son went to Oxford for my first sabbatical. Pop, who had been ill but was now seemingly healthy (he had lost much weight and was no longer smoking), dropped us off at jfk Airport. I never saw him again: on our first night in Oxford, my brother called to say he had just died. I flew back to New York. All was desolation, and, though I pressed it down, it lasted for quite a while, especially bursting forth in the one hundred dreams I recorded the year following. That all ended when a priest suggested that Pop had to move on, and so I had to let go, which I did.

To this day, one night of music-making stands out in exquisitely memorable detail. I loved girls but, being shy around them, didn’t date. Then a coworker (Pop had gotten me a job in his office) who spoke only Spanish, in which I was fairly strong, set me up with her roommate, a Peruvian beauty. It was a blind date, and so began my personal vita nuova (still going strong after fifty-eight years). That first night Pop waited up, in my memory pumping me with questions on my return; in his telling, I was unable to shut up. When I was about to marry, he said, “I knew on the first night that this day would come.” “Really, oh omniscient one,” I answered, “and just how did you know?” “Because,” he replied smugly, “you said three times, ‘don’t worry, Pop, I’m not going to marry her.’”

Now, this part of the tale is not about that courtship but about the first time Alexandra, some weeks after our blind date, visited my home. Though it was not the last time my father and I played together, it is the last time I can recall in any detail. As he took out his guitar, he suggested that I take out the accordion and that we play, and so I did. It was, as they say, a good set—varied, exuberant, error-free. We must have played a dozen songs, our surest hits. Years later, my snotty daughter asked, “Mother, how could a beautiful woman like you marry a nerd like dad?” Alexandra, recounting that first night in my home, said she’d never imagined a father and son getting along with such love and joy. And so it was.

After my father’s death I played some, and then I stopped. Wherever we moved, the accordion came along. Then, after a few decades, I decided to break it out once again. I had to have a single key repaired, but otherwise its condition was near-mint, as was the sound. It was smaller than I remembered, but I found that scales and arpeggios came back quickly, as did many of the songs—many, but not all.

Some that I had played very well eluded me, and I could not acquire new ones with anywhere near the facility of the old days. I did learn a new thing or two about technique, especially about managing the bellows (for example, the infinitely varing dynamics of pressure and rapidity when pulling out the bellows then pushing it in; the bellows is actually an instrument within an instrument). Then my fingers and hand would cramp.

That memory, of playing music with my father for my future wife, is detailed, concrete, and permanent. But there is one other, as graphic and particular but even more persistent. I was in a rehearsal room with Mr. DeBellis and, for some reason, my father. Maybe he was paying, or discussing an accordion I could borrow, or wondering about my progress. It was the spring; I was ten years old. Soon I would make my First Holy Communion. As I sat in my customary chair, Mr. DeBellis and my father talked of my need for a full 120-bass accordion. What was to be done?

Mr. DeBellis opened a case that I had not noticed lying flat on the floor, pulled back the red velvet covering, and said, “How about this, Jimmy?” It was beautiful, actually breathtaking, but the penny did not drop. Then Pop said, “How would you like that?” And I said, “You mean how would I like it for me?” The room was small, Pop was standing, and Mr. DeBellis was seated next to me, and he said, “Well, it has your name on it.” And that’s when I noticed Jimmy in chrome script on the front. I could only stare, nearly breathless. I looked up at Pop, who was grinning, as Mr. DeBellis lifted it out and helped strap it onto my shoulders. I could not have known that this gift—a Communion gift, as I would soon learn—would give so richly for so long, so much more resonantly than any madeleine.

And there we are. Thanks, Pop. I hope to be a while, but do keep the guitar tuned.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 6, on page 38
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