No popular musical instrument has been more frequently decried than the accordion. Although he gained hipster credibility in the 1990s, his role in pop music remains underappreciated and misunderstood. As portable as the guitar and better suited to summoning a band or leading a dance, the piano and button accordions and their relatives anchor popular forms across the world, from vallenato (Colombia), forró and baião (Brazil ), from tango (Argentina), conjunto and norteño (Mexican/Texan), merengue (Dominican Republic) and cajun and zydeco (Louisiana) in the Americas to funaná in Cape Verde, Celtic and Irish, ceilidh (Scotland) and bal musette (France), polka and its relatives in central Europe, to garmon music in Russia and central Asia.
This has nothing to do with an exhaustive list, let alone virtuoso individual players in non-accordion-defined forms. For example, Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) first recorded his blues on an accordion. It was Paul McCartney’s first instrument, and he would have long preferred it for composing. Whether associated with ABC-TV’s Lawrence Welk or Nigerian jùjú maestro IK Dairo, schmaltz or cool, the accordion is the essence of pop culture.
While we acknowledge the accordion’s dominance in music beyond Anglo-American pop, it’s more likely than not that the nooks and crannies of auditory memory typical of 1960s pop/rock through the 1980 bears no conscious trace of the squeezebox. But they are there if you listen to them. Sometimes it’s to evoke music halls, older generations, or the New York suburbs of Long Island and the Jersey Shore. Sometimes it’s to invoke traditions outside of pop and rock. And sometimes it’s just because nothing else sounds like an accordion. The Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Tulls and the Who all have accordion songs. Just like Elton John, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, ELP and Styx. The Dead has already toured with an accordionist. Just like Fleetwood Mac. The more you look and listen, the more you find. And since the 90s, they’ve been pretty much everywhere.
This list of essential songs is extensive but by no means exhaustive. To keep it manageable, I’ve only included artists and bands that flourished at some point between the 1960s and 1980s, although some songs are from later. After that time, there would be a different, even longer list, covering everything from alt-country to hip-hop. The current list is in chronological order by release or performance date.
The Beatles – “We Can Make It Happen” (1965)
Most Beatles’ accordion is on the white albumlending a border texture to “Rocky Raccoon” and old-school kitsch to cry baby cry. But on this No. 1 single, released as a double A-side with “Day Tripper”, they make it a pop instrument, like the sitar that George Harrison played on norwegian forest during the same year. Although Paul McCartney was the band’s resident accordionist, it is John Lennon who sits here at the harmonium. Also check out McCartney’s 1991 Unplugged performance with Paul “Wix” Wickens on accordion.
The Beach Boys – “God Only Knows” (1966)
Accordion girls by Carl Fortina, self-proclaimed “world’s most recorded accordionist“, are an integral part of the densely layered chamber pop of this landmark recording. “I want you at all my sessions,” Fortina reminds narrated by Brian Wilson. “Every time you play, my records go gold. You are my lucky charm. Among these records, some of which are gold records, include ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘Dance, Dance, Dance”, “Tears in the Morning” and “Cabinessence”, the Van Dyke Parks collaboration.
The Young Rascals – “How Can I Be Sure” (1967)
Led by blue-eyed soul idol Felix Cavaliere and the first of several New Jersey artists on this list, the Young Rascals released a string of immortal, often-covered singles in the late ’60s. this ballad derives its Parisian café vibe from an unidentified concertina player.
Fairport Convention – “No Man’s Land” (1969)
From the first of a trio of albums that invented British folk-rock, ‘No Man’s Land’ predates Fairport Convention’s revamp of British roots music and composer/guitarist Richard Thompson’s enduring partnership with the accordionist John Kirkpatrick. It’s Thompson on the instrument, and the influences are more American than British. But by treating the accordion as a primary instrument in a rock band rather than a background, Thompson and his bandmates set a model for the pop/rock accordion to come.
The Group – “Rocking Chair” (1969)
The first and one of the few virtuoso accordionists in a rock band, multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson’s playing sparks desire in this song from their self-titled second album. At the same time, Hudson also effortlessly evokes the long-awaited rural scene. And the singing of the accordion harmonizes with the high notes of the main voice of Richard Manuel and the harmonization of the other members.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – “Mr. Bojangles” (1970)
The sentimental pop counterpart of the painful “Rocking Chair”, this cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Tribute to a New Orleans street performer was a top ten single in 1971. Walker claimed to have met the titular homeless white man in prison. The man explained that he borrowed the name of famous turn-of-the-century African-American artist Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to provide anonymity for the law. Regular band member Jimmy Ibbotson carries the mellow country-rock vibe. In the live performance of the video linked here, the accordion is played by future member Bob Carpenter.
The Band – “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (1971)
Bob Dylan recorded his version earlier in 1971, and there’s a live version with the Band and Bob Dylan from 1972, but Cahoots’ is my favorite. Hudson’s carnival styles join the Arkansas twang in Levon Helm’s lead vocal to evoke the self-deprecating lyrics of an American overseas. Jerry Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead have covered this one many times; some of the best, unsurprisingly, were when keyboardist Bruce Hornsby strapped on his accordion for the occasion.
Harry Nilsson – “I Must Get Up” (1971)
B-side of “Without You”, the biggest single of Harry Nilsson’s career and the opening of his most successful album, Nilsson Schmilssonthis ode to getting too old to party all night and staying up early the next morning is a complement to the caffeine and speed of stoned psychedelic pop of animal sounds. Accordion by English Legend Henry Kerinpresumably during the album’s sessions in London rather than Hollywood.
Bruce Springsteen–“4and July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” (1973)
Founding member of the band E-Street, native of Jersey, Danny Federici learned to play the accordion as a child by watching the Lawrence Welk Show. His playing on this Jersey Shore homage channels post-war schmaltz into the sound of Bruce Springsteen, just as the lyrics commemorate his culture as both mundane and transcendent. Federici was so closely identified with this song that he played it with Springsteen just before his death from cancer in 2008. Don’t miss Charles Giordano’s stellar work on Springsteen later, especially the 2006 Seeger Sessions.
Bob Dylan – “A Night Like This” (1974)
The main track on planet waves (1974), Bob Dylan’s first collaboration with the band since the 1967 sessions that produced the Basement strips (officially published two years after planet waves), “On a Night Like This” is a rousing zydeco-tinged workout featuring an intense outro duet for Garth Hudson’s accordion and Dylan’s harmonica. Dylan would work with veteran Dominic Cortese on Desire, but it wasn’t until after his work on several albums, first with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, then with multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron after 2005 on the “Never Ending Tour”. “, which the accordion figured prominently in what we might call the neo old-timey music of his late style.