It’s important to me to not stop learning. Music is one activity I started really flirting with after I turned 40 and I started playing the button accordion. How hard could it be, I reasoned. There are only 31 buttons on the right side of a triple-row button accordion. Never mind that different notes sound when you push or pull air through the reeds using the bellows. Never mind that there are two sides and you need to get your hands operating independently. Never mind that feeling somehow emerges through the bellows-work.
My learning on the button accordion really started to accelerate when I started busking. What a fascinating experience. The people around you are going about their business and there you are, busking, trying to capture the attention of passers-by. There are a few things going on. Among the first thing I learned was that the performance was as important as the chops. In other words, the most skilled musicians aren’t necessarily going to be great buskers. I learned to choose my audience and make eye contact, smile, nod and play for people as if they were the most important people on earth. Kids especially love buskers. When kids came around, I liked to squat down to their height and play something lively and danceable. I don’t know how many times kids would approach and want to press the buttons of my squeezebox and catch a second of the magic of making sounds come out. Parents would usually discourage this, but I never did. What a privilege to share the magic!
The most popular buskers were those who strummed a guitar and sang recognizable pop hits. In particular, I noticed that buskers who played “classic rock” always did exceptionally well. One of the reasons I took up the button accordion though was that I was tired of that material. I’m not being critical of it. I just wanted to learn about and play something different. I had a couple tunes in my busking repertoire that did get recognized. One was a squeezebox version of the old folk tune from the Bahamas, Sloop John B. Most everybody thought it was a Beach Boys tune because they recorded a popular version of it in the 60s (much like how many people think House of the Rising Sun is a pop tune by the British group The Animals). I was familiar with the tune from some field recording I had on CD of a group of spongers singing a capella.
Here are Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster performing House of the Rising Sun from 1933
The other tune I liked to play busking that was recognized a surprising number of times was a Newfoundland waltz called the Star of Logy Bay. People would come up to me and thank me for playing it and tell me it reminded them of back home. Here’s a video I’ve shared before – Candy Minx shot this footage of me playing Star of Logy Bay in front of Tom’s Place in Kensington Market.
A played a crazy assortment of material, including traditional Portuguese folk tunes, a Cajun tune or two, a Finnish polka, some Newfoundland tunes and even a Swedish schottische. One day I was playing at St. Lawrence Market and some fellow approached me and asked me if that was a Swedish tune I was playing. That was the only time that tune was recognized.
When you’re busking, many musical sins may be forgiven. Most people are walking past, not sticking around like at a concert. I learned to keep the rhythm at all costs. No matter what else happens, if your left hand is solid rock and the rhythm rolls along like the evening train, you’re fine. Mess up the rhythm and it’s a disaster. Sometimes I would be playing and something would distract my attention. Believe me, busking in a busy market there are many distractions. Something would catch my attention and suddenly the thought would percolate through my little brain that I don’t even remember what song I was playing. The experience is like those Roadrunner cartoons when the coyote finds himself running over the edge of a cliff. He doesn’t fall until he realizes there’s a problem here. I’m heavier than air. So what do you do? Play a chord that sounds like an ending and immediately start in on another song, just as if you planned the segue. I was amazed that when some disaster like this occurred and I simply carried on with all the confidence I could muster up, it appeared that nobody noticed my blunder.
I should have been satisfied to have developed some level of proficiency at the button accordion. I didn’t plan to take up another instrument. I blame banjos on my brother Salvelinas Fontinalis, who started quietly learning a few clawhammer banjo tunes (is it possible to quietly learn banjo tunes?) some time ago. How fascinating. I’ve long been a fan of old time music but it hadn’t occurred to me to try to play it until my brother started plunking away. Not that anyone has actually heard him play and made it out alive to tell about it. Then I thought, well hell, it only has 5 strings, how difficult can it be? And so, at 52 I’ve taken up the banjo.
I don’t have any illusions of becoming a great player, but on the other hand, I’m going about learning the instrument with vigour and lots of practice time, and I can hear my playing getting better all the time. As I’m learning more and more tunes (they are very slowly sticking to my brain….keeping a load of songs in my memory was a challenge on the button accordion too). I’ve mentioned before that lately I’m starting to think that I need to find a fiddle player, and I can’t seem to shake that idea. I think I need to find either a fiddle player who, like me, is learning – or a player with plenty of patience for a guy who doesn’t have the entire old time songbook at the tip of his clawhammer fingers.
I like to try new things, and as many of my friends will tell you, when I start learning something, I tend to jump in with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. For me it’s a great joy to keep learning. I can tell you that learning clawhammer is easier for me than learning button accordion was. Maybe it’s because now I have some musical background and I’m simply learning a new machine. I hope that’s the case, because there are other instruments I’d like to learn too, such as the hurdy-gurdy or the clarinet. For now though, I’m concentrating on clawhammer banjo and I’m having the time of my life learning it. It’s easy to put in the practice time when playing brings you truckloads of joy.
I like the 1933 version of House of the Rising Sun. That’s great. I had no idea it had been around so long.
There are some excellent versions of it out there. I really like Woody Guthrie’s version too. Bob Dylan did it on his very first album. And Nina Simone did a fantastic version as well.