- Accordion player Pearly Sowell describes growing up in New Braunfels,
Texas with a large extended family, speaking both German and English.
- Accordion player Pearly Sowell explains the significance of her
polka band's name.
- Accordion player Santiago Jimenez, Jr. compares the German and the
Tex-Mex accordion styles.
- 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.
- 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
here to view
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Narciso Martínez: Father of the Texas-Mexican Conjunto. Arhoolie
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
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.
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