We were living in a very Portuguese neighbourhood of Toronto. From time to time I would hear folk tunes wafting out of someone’s garage. Over near the flea market there was a guy who played on his front porch for passersby. He had a triple row diatonic button accordion tuned so wet with so much tremelo it almost sounded out of tune.
I loved that music. It was community music rather than mass market music, and that was really special. I thought, geez I wonder if I could learn to play those tunes on one of those boxes. There are only thirty-some buttons on a triple row accordion. How hard could it be? At 40 years old I decided it was time to learn to play some music. I had no interest in playing any of the pop instruments. I wanted to play button accordion. Well, why not?
When I was in my 20s and thought about folk music, I thought of Doc Watson and Utah Phillips and Ramblin’ Jack. This button accordion music was a different kettle of fish. It was pretty rare to hear someone who wasn’t Portuguese play a corridinho or a vira. I didn’t give that a second thought. I liked it and I wanted to play it.
My mom was born in Poland, but growing up we never got involved in folkloric activities from that culture. I didn’t have the language either. Mom spoke Polish, usually to her sisters, though it was full of holes she filled with enough English words us kids could sometimes figure out what they were talking about. Dad didn’t speak Polish and I don’t even know if our grandparents on his side did either. I know my dad’s parents came to Canada, not from Poland, but from Chicago.
Even today, which I think of Polish music, I don’t think of music made in Poland, but rather, Polish-American polka music created in bands like Scrubby and the Dynatones in Buffalo New York. Sure, much of it is sung in Polish, but it’s full of influences from American musical traditions.
When I was a little kid, Mom made me take piano accordion lessons. I didn’t like the instrument at the time and I didn’t want to play music and I dropped the whole thing just as quickly as I could.
Of course in the fullness of time, I regretted not sticking with music as a kid. I don’t mean just accordion but music in general. How was I to know that in my middle age playing music would become something very dear to me?
When I started learning button accordion, I started with Portuguese tunes but learned tunes from other cultures as well, including some tunes from Newfoundland. I found myself attracted to these simple dance tunes, wherever they were from. It seemed that regardless of the culture, this vernacular music was based around two-steps (or polkas or paso dobles or Marches) and waltzes (and obereks and jigs and viras) and reels (corridinhos in Portuguese folk music).
Later, when I fell hard for clawhammer banjo I mostly stopped playing my accordions, but found home in old time music, also built around simple dance tunes. Now and then I pick up an accordion and rue the fact that I can hardly remember most of the tunes I used to play. My chops are all rusty too. I know I can reclaim those chops pretty quickly with a little effort, to access wherever I have that material stored in my little brain. I should do that, I tell myself. Then I pick up a banjo and play for an hour or two, or I pick up my fiddle and struggle with learning that wonderful instrument.
Here’s one of the Portuguese tunes I used to play, called O Passarinho or Little Bird.