When German immigrants of the 19th century, settled in the Rio Grande Valley they found ground that was fertile for both crops and culture. Their beautiful button accordions would seed a new Conjunto, (combination) music along Mexico’s northern border. Through melodic and nimble playing, Narciso Martinez a son of migrant farm workers would become the of “Father of Conjunto.” This segment includes interviews with accordion legends Flaco Jimenez and Juan Tejeda; and music by Narciso Martinez, Santiago Jimenez Sr., and Pearly Sowell.
Segment production: Lex Gillespie

Sound Clips

Audio - Accordion player Pearly Sowell describes growing up in New Braunfels, Texas with a large extended family, speaking both German and English.

Audio - Accordion player Pearly Sowell explains the significance of her polka band's name.

Audio - Accordion player Santiago Jimenez, Jr. compares the German and the Tex-Mex accordion styles.

Audio - Accordion player Santiago Jimenez, Jr. describes racial prejudice towards Mexicans by some Anglos in the last century; the Anglos' low regard of the accordion; and recent changes in attitude that have given conjunto music widespread popularity.

Audio - Accordion player Santiago Jimenez, Jr. tells how he picked up the accordion as a teenager despite his father's refusal to teach him. Jimenez's father, Santiago Jimenez, Sr., was a legendary player and helped develop the original conjunto style.

Listen to Part 8

Click here to view Photo Gallery


Samples: Narciso Martínez, Amédé Ardoin.

The accordion certainly gets around. In the almost two centuries since its invention, in one form or another, it has found its way to the far corners of the globe. Be it called "acordeon" or "bayan" or "trekspill" or "fisarmonica," the accordion seems to find a place in almost anyone's music.

The first accordion was built by the German Friedrich Buschmann in 1822, who called it a Ziehharmonika (zieh meaning "pull"). Seven years later, in Vienna, Austria, Cyrill Damian began to mass-produce the instrument, and he dubbed it "accordion."

So how did this instrument come to be a central element in the Cajun music of Louisiana and the conjunto/Norteña music of Texas? The easy answer: Credit the German immigrants of the 19th century, who populated both of these areas in significant numbers. But like most matters of artistic inventiveness, the lines of influence are not always clearly defined. What we do know is when the accordion wound up on the Texas border in the hands of Narciso Martínez, and in Louisiana with Amédé Ardoin, the result was some of the best and influential sounds ever to emerge from the squeezebox.

Humanities Themes:

European (German) Migration to the U.S.

Cross-Cultural influences in Louisiana and South Texas

The phenomenon of cultural pocket populations; how cultures resist assimilation, German and Czech towns in Texas develop isolated communities, preserving their native food, music and language.

Stylistic changes in music of Louisiana and South Texas

Effect of new instruments on regional musical style. For example As the accordion became popular in Louisiana much of the early Acadian fiddle music, which required a 12-note chromatic scale instead of the seven notes offered by the accordion, was lost.

Revival and preservation of traditional music as a means of preserving culture

Questions of class in regard to Norteña and Cajun music. What is social context of these musical styles? What social functions did these two types of music serve when they first emerged. What functions do they serve now?


What were the patterns of German migration to Texas and Louisiana? Under what circumstances did the Cajun population arrive in Louisiana?

Explore what typifies the Cajun sound, its rhythms and harmonies. Explore rhythms and harmonies of Norteña. Is the accordion a bridge between the two cultures or is the music itself very different?

Chart the dynamic changes in regional music. As one music is created another is lost. For example, how did the music of the Acadians change with the introduction of the diatonic accordion?

What changes occurred in Texas-Mexico border music? The phenomenon of early bilingual country singers who performed in both English and Spanish, e.g., Adolf Hofner and Moon Mulligan.

A look at notable accordionists in Cajun and Norteña music, and the social and historical context in which they worked.

How regional music was used to preserve traditional culture. The story of the oppression of Cajun culture in the 1920s and 30s in Louisiana, when children were forbidden by law to speak French in the schools. This period of oppression was followed by a post WWII revival of interest in Cajun culture which resulted in French-speaking teachers imported from France to Louisiana. The revival of interest can also be noted in the story of Dewey Balfa, an early leader who brought Cajun music to a wider national audience and used Cajun music to introduce national audiences to Cajun culture.

How the music and culture of Cajun and Norteña music is being preserved and/or commercialized today.
Interview Subjects:

Barry Jean Ancelet, professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In 1974 he co-founded the Tribute to Cajun Music, which in turn led to the annual Festivals Acadiens. 

Michael Doucet. Cajun fiddler and leader in the renaissance of Cajun music, Michael Doucet was named a master folk musician by the Louisiana Folklife Center.

Flaco Jimenez. Son of conjunto trailblazer Santiago Jimenez, Leonardo "Flaco" Jimenez was the first to perform Norteña music in concerts over the United States and Europe for general audiences.

Manuel Peña, anthropologist who specializes in Mexican American folklore and music.

Marc Savoy, accordion player and builder and a central figure in the revival and preservation of traditional Cajun music.

Ann Savoy, author of Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People. With her husband, Marc Savoy, she continues to explore the traditional roots of Cajun music.

Nick Spitzer. Louisiana State Folklorist (1978-85), he served on the boards of the American Folklore Society, Fund for Folk Culture, and National Council for the Traditional Arts. Spitzer holds a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Texas, and he is currently professor of folklore and cultural conservation at the University of New Orleans.

Chris Strachwitz. Folklorist and NEA National Heritage Fellow, Strachwitz is founder and president of Arhoolie Records and the Arhoolie Foundation. He has been a key figure in the preservation of Cajun and Norteña music.


German Migration to Texas
In Texas, there were several substantial waves of German immigration. The first, when Friedrich Ernst, "Father of German Immigration to Texas," arrived in Texas in 1831 and received a grant of more than 4,000 acres in what is now Austin County. He set about encouraging other Germans to join him. This tract of land formed the nucleus of what is now known as the German Belt.

The next wave came in 1842, when a group of German nobles formed the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, also called Adelsverein. Their intention was to create a new German fatherland in America where German workers could prosper, and which would open new markets for industry and commerce in Germany. Between 1844 and 1847 more than 7,000 Germans reached Texas and founded towns such as New Braunfels and Fredericksburg.

Eventually, lured by work on railroad lines, among other work opportunities, the immigrants moved farther southto South Texas and Northern Mexico, and they brought with them the accordion and their tradition of waltzes and polkas. By 1890, the accordion was fairly common in Mexican groups in the Texas-Mexico border region.

Migration to Louisiana
The French-descended Acadians had been in Louisiana since the mid-1700s. Exiled by the British from their home in what is now Nova Scotia in 1755, they began to relocate in Louisiana as early as 1760. During the next two decades, thousands more arrived. Many moved into the bayou areas along the southwestern prairie, west of the Mississippi River.

Meanwhile, Louisiana also saw a considerable influx of German immigrants. Beginning in 1721, thousands of Germans made their way to Louisiana, lured by the propaganda of Scotsman John Law, who had been granted the concession for settling the colony of Louisiana. (This influx, of course, pre-dates the accordion.)

Then between 1820 and 1850, an estimated 50,000 Germans entered the port of New Orleans, which was second only to New York as a point of entry during the antebellum period. And the accordion came with them. While many moved on to other parts of the country, or fell victim to disease, Germans still made up about 10% of the population of New Orleans in 1860.
There was also state-to-state migration. In the latter part of the 19th century, advertisements for land in Louisiana appeared in newspapers, attracting Germans and other immigrants to the area.

Accordion Gains A Foothold
In addition to the accordions that may have arrived with immigrants to Texas and Louisiana, the instruments were also offered for sale in various early catalogs, such as those of the Montgomery Ward Company and Sears Roebuck. And there were merchants who imported the accordions.

Marc Savoy gives this account:

[The accordion] arrived in Louisiana with the immigration of German farmers, and its popularity in the mid-1850s soon created such a demand on the local business establishments that music companies such as C. Bruno and Sons (est. 1834) in San Antonio, Texas, began supplying a variety of retail outlets. Louisiana stores that sold clothing carried "German style" accordions. Stores that sold farm implements sold them also. Almost every business place had accordions for sale.

From the Handbook of Texas Online:

By the late 1800s, informal Tejano bands of violins, pitos, and guitars were almost exclusively playing European salon music for local dances. But taking root in this frontier area, far from its European and Central Mexican source, this music was being thoroughly adapted to the Tejano taste. At the turn of the century the locally performed polkas, waltzes and schottisches could truly be called Tejano or "Tex-Mex" rather than European. One of the most unusual styles of Música Tejana to begin its development at that time is Música Norteña (music of the north), or "conjunto music," as it is often called. (Conjunto literally means "a musical group.") Música Norteña embodied traits of Tejano music but also arose with the appearance of a relatively new instrument that was rapidly becoming popular among Tejanos on the farms and ranchos of South Texas. As a result, in the 1900s Música Norteña has become identified with the sound of the German diatonic button accordion. ... Newspaper accounts show that by 1898 Tejanos in rural areas of the South Texas chaparral were playing their Texas-Mexican polkas, waltzes, schottisches, mazurkas, and redowas on a one-row, one-key accordion.

For both Cajun musicians and those of the Texas-Mexico border, there were advantages to using the button accordion. For those accustomed to using the fiddle for dances, the accordion offered increased volume. It was portable and self-accompanying one person could play both melody and harmony on the accordion and could become a one-instrument dance band. Unfortunately the first accordions to arrive from Germany were in the keys difficult for the Cajun fiddlers to cope with. But in the 1920s, when accordions began arriving from Germany in the keys of C and D, the compatibility between fiddle and accordion improved greatly. (On the down side, much of the early Acadian fiddle music, which required a 12-note chromatic scale instead of the seven notes offered by the accordion, was lost.)


Anyone with a passion for Norteña or Cajun musicor for any traditional musicwill make the case that the development of the style cannot be credited to any one individual. By its very nature, traditional music styles develop generation to generation, with younger musicians deriving inspiration from those who came before. To label a given musician as "pivotal," requires that we do so within a very limited timeframe. The "pivot" keeps changing. Noteworthy Norteña and Cajun accordionists include the likes of Valerio Longoria, El Conjunto Bernal, Flaco Jiménez, Joe Falcon, Nathan Abshire and Iry Lejeune. Each made unique contributions, as do a number of contemporary Norteña and Cajun artists. That said, let's tip our hats to two highly influential players:

Narciso Martinez has been called the "father" of the modern conjunto for promoting the accordion and the bajo sexto and for his creativity as an accordionist. He had a rapid, highly ornamented styleusing a two-row accordion and emphasizing the treble end, while leaving the bass parts to his bajo sexto player, Santiago Almeida. His approach was unique in the 1930s, and his influence would be felt on other musicians in South Texas throughout the '30s, '40s and into the '50s. Born in Matamoros in 1911, across the river from the city of Brownsville, Texas, Martínez made his first recordings in1936 and was musically active for over 60 years. Known as El Hurrican del Valle (Hurricane of the Valley), he was a recipient of the National Heritage Award for his contributions to one of America's important ethnic traditions.

Amédé Ardoin was black, creole, French-speaking accordion player who had an enormous impact on Cajun music, and he is often credited with creating the modern Cajun style. Ardoin's innovative, syncopated style made him a favorite at both black and white dances. He grew up in the area around Eunice and Mamou. As a teenager, he played dances, carrying his accordion in a flour sack. In 1921 he teamed up with the great fiddler Dennis McGee, and the two recorded extensively in the early '30s. Many older Cajun musicians mention Amédé Ardoin as having a major influence on their music.
Marc Savoy points to Ardoin's great strength of hands and wrists as a contributing factor in his ability to play the button accordion. He had speed and dexterity. But more important, was Ardoin's "vision." Says Savoy: "The notes he decided to use, and the way he decided to use them, the spaces between themit put you on the edge of your chair. Simplein the way Frost's The Road Not Taken is simple."

Resources: Bibliography, Discography, Archival:


Ancelet, Barry Jean. Cajun Music: Its Origins and Development. Lafayette University Southwestern Louisiana, 1989.

Ancelet, Barry Jean. Makers of Cajun Music. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1984.

Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay D. Edwards and Glen Pitre. Cajun Country. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi. (1991).

Fehrenbach, T.R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans. New York, The Macmillan Company, 1968.

Gould, Philip (Photographs). Cajun Music and Zydeco. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press 1992. Introduction by Barry Jean Ancelet.

Peña, Manuel. The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Savoy, Ann Allen. Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People. ). Eunice, La., Bluebird Press (1984).

Spitzer, Nicholas. Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the State. Louisiana Office of Cultural Development, 1985.

Articles: Comeaux, Malcolm L. "Introduction and Use of Accordions in Cajun Music." The Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, 1999 issue. (Malcolm Comeaux, cultural geographer, ret., Arizona State University, Tempe.)

Comeaux, Malcolm L. "The Cajun Accordion." Louisiana Review 7: 117-28, 1978.


Gran Prairie: A Cajun Music Anthology. The Historic Victor Bluebird Sessions: 1935-1940. Country Music Foundation.

Raise Your Window: A Cajun Music Anthology. The Historic Victor Bluebird Sessions: 1928-1941. Country Music Foundation.

Nathan Abshire: French Blues, Arhoolie CD 373.

Amédé Ardoin /I'm Never Comin' Back: Roots of Zydeco. Arhoolie 7007.

Includes liner notes by Michael Doucet. The more or less complete recorded workscut between 1929 and 1934--of the singer/accordionist who's generally conceded to be the father of zydeco. Ardoin, along with his frequent partner, the white Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, was certainly among the first to fuse the older French folk tradition with American country blues.
Norte & Tejano Accordion Pioneers. Arhoolie CD 7016

Reissued from original 78 rpm discs made between 1929 and 1939 by the first recording artists of Norte and Tejano Conjunto Music. With introduction by Chris Strachwitz.

Conjunto Bernal: 16 Early Tejano Classics. Arhoolie 9010

Accordionist/singer Paulino Bernal joined his older brother, Eloy (bajo sexto) in 1952 to launch the career of Los Hermanitos Bernal, soon known as Conjunto Bernal. They quickly became famous throughout south Texas as the best, most innovative and modern conjunto. Selections from 1954 -1960.

Narciso Martínez: Father of the Texas-Mexican Conjunto. Arhoolie CD 361

Narciso Martinez is regarded as the Father of Conjunto Music. Not the first accordionist in the genre to record, but possibly the most popular and influential player from the 1930s into the 1950s.

Norte Acordeon Part 1: The First Recordings. Arhoolie/Folklyric LP 9006.

Mexican-American Border Music Vol. I An Introduction: The Pioneer Recording Artists
Arhoolie CD 7001 Historic performances (1928-1964) by pioneer Mexican-American recording artists. Includes 36-page booklet with notes and texts.

The Arhoolie Foundationàs Chris Strachwitz Frontera Collection. UCLA. Largest repository of Mexican American vernacular music in existence.

Web Sites:

The Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/index.new.html

Folklife in Louisiana (Louisiana's Living Traditions). http://www.louisianavoices.org/folklife/intro_and_use_of_accordions_in_Cajun_music.html

Savoy Music Center. http://www.savoymusiccenter.com/accordions_in_louisiana.html


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