During the Carnaun School Centenary Celebrations a few years ago, anyone who played anything or sang, past or present pupils, were all obliged to contribute something. 1 was having a pint up at the bar with a brother of another participant (who shall remain nameless!) and in the course of our conservation he said to me “What good did going to Carnaun School do you or him? Today he’s a musician and you’re an accordion player!” He didn’t for one moment think he had said anything ambiguous, but I replied “You’ll have to explain that a little bit” which caused some laughter among other people in the company.
On another occasion a casual friend walked in one night where 1 happened to be playing the clarinet, When 1 had finished he walked up to me and with an incredulous look on his face exclaimed “I never knew you were a musician!” Knowing quite well where he was coming from, I decided to play it for what it was worth and said: “What do you mean didn’t you often see me playing the accordion?” He quickly replied “Oh! The accordion, oh well that’s different, I mean, the accordion, I mean… “trying to intimate to me his particular difficulty with the idea of calling an accordion player a musician!
The reason I relate these two anecdotes is because I have been taken to task many times over the years for my attitude towards the two-row button accordion (melodeon? to give it’s proper name). I certainly do have a “love-hate” relationship with it. I believe it is this melodeon that has given the accordion a bad name and has caused it to be maligned and accordion playing to be the butt of so many jokes. “What is the definition of a gentleman?” One who can play the accordion but doesn’t! or “welcome to heaven, here’s your harp; welcome to hell, here’s your accordion!”
Actually the playing and approach toward this type of accordion has little to do with music. We sometimes get an affirmation of this when we listen to some well known players of the instrument. I have heard the famous Joe Burke of Loughrea stating humorously that when he first began playing the two – row accordion, he thought the second row was a spare in case the first row broke down! Indeed I have encountered several players who own beautiful red two rows (a red one has a special attraction for a lot of players and listeners) who play one row only, which means of course that they play everything in the same key. Personally I believe that since accordion playing proper demands a huge role for the left hand, the construction and layout of the bass on the two – row is absurd. In fact there isn’t even a full bass for any key! I think the cost for buying a new accordion of this type today is outrageous. I certainly would not like to condemn any youngster today to the study of this instrument. In fact there is no study in them. This is proven by the fact that there is virtually nothing written for the instrument.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t at all discourage any youngster from taking an interest in it. If they have a feeling and a talent for that type or style of playing, they can pick it up, just like I did myself by listening and copying. I picked up dozens of tunes from my uncle, Eddie Cummins of Kilskeagh, that is how 1 got started. Eddie was highly regarded by his contemporaries and I would be told in the early days that while 1 was good, 1 “still had a long way to go before I would be as good as Eddie.” I played a single row, 10 button melodeon in those days.
I gave up playing completely with the advent of The Beatles. Irish traditional music then had an image that was very unattractive for a youngster. It was an old peoples music, rural, backward, a mark of ignorance one might say. It was scorned by teenagers who were all into pop music. Certainly I wouldn’t be seen playing anywhere if there were young girls present.
It would take volumes to analyse or explain how this music, which was virtually dead and buried in the mid – sixties, went through such a revival. How did it come about? Traditional music, set dancing, Sean nos singing, storytelling, etc. flourishing side by side in an increasingly modem technological environment? Was it not Sean O’Rioda who rescued Irish music by giving it new appeal with interesting arrangements?
An accordionist whom I admire a lot for his brilliance is Seamus Shannon from Roscommon. He plays a 3 – row, 120 bass Hohner (blue!). He used to be a frustrated 2 – row player before he switched, for obvious reasons. He sometimes plays in Athenry as a partner to singer P.J. Murrihy and in the late 60s was a member of Joe Dolan’s band, The Drifters. As 2 – row players go, some of the newer breed such as Sharon Shannon and Mairtin O’Connor are very good and interesting. They have sought to get round the inadequacies which I have mentioned, by having custom-made accordions built to their own specifications, e.g. extra bass buttons, etc. They cannot of course be labelled ‘tradiflonal’ as they play a variety of different music.
In the 60s I became a regular follower of the showbands and how 1 envied them! It is fashionable today to knock the show band era. Granted, many were not very good but there were at least a dozen show bands who included in their line – up fine exponents of trumpet, saxophone, trombone, piano, drums, guitar and bass guitar. They provided a good variety of entertainment, to be danced to or listened to, and what a lovely “boy meets girl” scene it was by comparison to today’s “winter of our discotheque”!
It is difficult to imagine today, considering the state of the music scene around Athenry, that such instruments were to be heard regularly here during the 60s. I remember a concert given by the Swingtime Aces in Murphy’s Hall when they had some extremely talented musicians in the band. Trumpeter Billy Kelly (who was to die tragically in a road accident some years later), Saxophonist Joe Me Intyre (who doubled on clarinet), and some members of the rhythm section who are still active on the local music scene; rhythm guitarist Derek Kennedy and a great drummer, Jimmy Reilly who was the back bone of the band. They also had a brilliant guitarist named Jim Gunner who died recently in England, and a bass player from Belfast named Jack Flavelle who had to be very good as he went on to play with the Chris Barbar Jazz Band in England. It was through watching and listening to showbands like The Swingtime Aces that gave a longing to play one of their front-line instruments such as the clarinet.
I later got to know Jimmy very well. We both had a keen interest in jazz and we would have intense discussions on the subject. I would tell him enthusiastically about a particular trumpeter whom I believed had the highest range on his instrument and Jimmy would take a quick, sharp look at me and say “higher than Maynard Ferguson?”
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to play the clarinet with Jimmy drumming behind me one night, and I was petrified! An absolute nervous wreck because I knew the scrutiny I was under. If I hit a ‘bum’ note, I knew it wouldn’t go unnoticed.
Now I’m very much into the clarinet, an instrument which I took up at a late age. I was almost thirty when 1 bought my first one. People are always asking me to bring it along to parties and music sessions, but it is not meant to be played unaccompanied. It would be as entertaining as playing The Blue Danube on the 2-row button accordion! I imagine you would hear Strauss turning in his grave.
Written by Willie Commins
Published here 22 Mar 2023 and originally published Easter 1998