in From the Archives

”Do not dance to the screeching insidious accordions, burn them”

by Ilkka Kolehmainen

”The accordion is the arch enemy of folk music. It kills any musical tendencies the nation may have, ravages the ear and drags down musical taste. Do not dance to the screeching, insidious accordions. Burn them.” In such colourful terms was one of Finland's most popular instruments once described.

Sin squeezer, devil’s lungs, Russki fart.”

In the course of becoming civilised we acquire all manner of junk. Take, for example, the ‘squeezebox’ or accordion, the commonplace sound of which is nowadays to be heard wherever you go. This contraption seems to have captured the hearts of our young people today. All must get their hands on one. For a farm lad would rather go about in a ragged coat than be without his concertina.”

It is a sad and painful fact that the old-fashioned fiddlers are growing fewer and fewer in number year by year. The crude jangle of the accordion is now to be heard accompanying obscene brawling along our highways and at village hops… The time has come to put an end to all this! Our young people, with their love of singing and dancing, must rise in protest and take up the fight against the savage accordion. If only people would spend at least the occasional free moment playing the fiddle or plucking the kantele!”

The accordion is the arch enemy of folk music. It kills any musical tendencies the nation may have, ravages the ear and drags down musical taste. Do not dance to the screeching, insidious accordions. Burn them.”

In such colourful terms was one of Finland’s most popular instruments once described. Yet few instruments can have met such weighty opposition as the accordion. At the turn of the century the battle was taken up by folk music researchers and collectors, by the Church and by those concerned with the education of the nation in general. Nationalism was another reason for avoiding it, for before Finland became independent in 1917, the accordion was associated with the Russian soldiers stationed about the country. Unlike the fiddle, the accordion was purely a folk instrument. In the early models the player was confined to a single key and a diatonic scale. They were mass-produced contrivances with a harsh sound associated with sin and youthful merry-making and played only by farm hands and others of lowly status. But because it made a loud noise and could provide accompanying chords, the accordion soon took the place of the fiddle and the kantele in providing music for dancing.

Attempts were even made to get the accordion banned. To begin with it was not always accepted as an instrument for dancing even at folk playing competitions or social evenings. Yet the accordion became a firm favourite. There can hardly have been any event arranged by young people without an accordion player to provide entertainment.

The accordion in Finnish folk music

Early versions of the accordion were developed in the 1820s and soon found their way into the middle-class homes of Central Europe. On spreading northwards to Finland some two or three decades later, the instrument was given the warmest welcome by working-class people in town and country alike. Being mass produced, it was cheap to buy. The accordion seems to have reached Finland via two routes: from Russia in the east and from Central Europe and Italy in the south. The first instruments were square diatonic boxes with one row of buttons and only two bass chords, the bass and descant being separated by shortish bellows. Unfortunately no precise details of the early instruments have been preserved. One of the earliest printed documents is a report in the newspaper Uusi Suometar of 1853, which mentions an instrument called a ‘sirmakka’. The name suggests a type of accordion played in Russia.

Finnish music dealers very soon began to order instruments with a Finnish-sounding name from foreign makers, such as the Fennia accordion made by E. Dienst of Leipzig. Other later accordions with Finnish names were Kullervo and Sampo (names taken from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala), Suomi (the Finns’ own name for Finland), Lumikki (Snow White) and other models bearing the names of fairytale heroines.

Inspired by touring Italian musicians, the Finns began making accordions of their own in the first decade of this century. Since then instruments have continued to be made right up to the present day, both by factories and by private makers. One such accordion factory – for many years the only one of its kind in Scandinavia – is in the town of Kouvola.

Accordion music

The accordion went into widespread use in Finland as the old agrarian culture gave way to urban and mass culture in about the 1870s and 1880s. In the rural regions the pieces played were for a long time purely folk music. People wanted to dance polkas, waltzes, schottisches and mazurkas – the dances of the modern era. But the bands of ‘pelimanni’ folk players continued (at least in the most conservative regions) to play the country dances popular in estate society, such as polskas. In the towns a new repertoire and new forms of music-making did, however, gradually win ground. Accordions could soon be heard in cafés, restaurants, at silent films and in the streets. The melodies were no longer exclusively folk tunes; they were interspersed with more recent dance and salon music and even virtuosic pieces composed specifically for the accordion.

Chromatic instruments ousted the diatonic ones more or less completely. And what could be better suited to such fashionable new dances as the foxtrot and the tango! The 1930s were in fact the golden era of the Finnish accordion, admittedly no longer as a single instrument but as one of the many instruments in a band. Needless to say, the simple player who has been picking out folk tunes on his simple melodeon could not compete with the versatile instruments and bands and either had to change over to a more modern instrument or stop making music completely. For decades the diatonic accordion thus lay forgotten.

Folk competitions and festivals

Finnish folk music experienced a true national revival in 1968, when the first international folk music festival was held at Kaustinen. The success of the festival was in fact something of a surprise even to the organisers.

Folk music became a significant element of new rural culture which, with the rapid spread of industrialisation, had suffered a period of deep depression. Folk players became national heroes. The sales figures for the records made by the most famous of all folk players, Konsta Jylhä and his Purppuripelimannit, soared in the early 1970s. But enjoying equal status with the fiddle we now find the accordion, once so deeply scorned. Players flocked to the masters of the first half of the century to learn the old accordion tunes, which were then performed to enthusiastic audiences thousands strong. Hundreds of traditional folk groups sprang up all over Finland. These were mostly modelled on the Purppuripelimannit from Kaustinen: two fiddles, a harmonium and a double bass, but the harmonium was often replaced by a modern button or keyboard accordion. The five-row accordion likewise became the most common instrument for accompanying folk dancing, either alone or with other instruments.

The melodeon today

Despite considerable encouragement, fiddle playing in the folk style has failed to attract many new supporters. The same cannot be said of the accordion. In many places there are new players who still play by ear the melodies of the turn of the century or even earlier. The accordion has remained a pure folk instrument without any guidance or support from outside, and unlike many other instruments, it has a bright future. Young players, undoubtedly more skilled than the former pelimannis, are appearing at folk music and local festivals, concerts, on radio and television, making their own records and cassettes. True, the instrument with the only one row of buttons is now more or less confined to folk music competitions.

This article was first published in FMQ 2/1989.