Squeezebox: The Legacy of the Afro-Mississippi Accordionists

Article excerpt

It was Phil Wortham playing homemade four-string guitar

with Tiny Hill working on a squeezebox. It wasn't like

anything Atwater had ever heard before. The music made him

want to move. (Mosley 1995, 74)

When I first read this passage from Walter Mosley's RL's Dream, his inclusion of Tiny Hill in the turn-of-the-century scene from rural Mississippi startled me. Accordions rarely appear in depictions of African-American musicians, fictional or not. Walter "Pat" Rhodes made the only commercial recordings of a black Mississippi accordionist in 1927. He was from Sunflower County, an area that would provide a wealth of blues musicians in the following years. Unlike Mosley's Tiny Hill, the few comments Rhodes's accordion elicited in blues commentary treated his simple playing as an aberration or novelty, especially in contrast to the sophisticated quality of the guitar playing on the same recordings (Charters 1967, 74; Calt and Wardlow 1988, 174). Most commentaries were more interested in the strong resemblance between Rhodes's "The Crowing Rooster' and the guitarist Charlie Patton's more famous "Banty Rooster Blues" than in Rhodes's choice of musical instrument. As blues researcher Bengt Olsson stated, the accordion was considered "an unusual instrument for blues playing down in Mississippi" (Olsson 1970, 71).

While there has been a sizable amount of research over the past fifteen years on ethnic musical traditions that use the button accordion, there has been remarkably little concerning usage by African Americans (Snyder 1994, 149). in this paper, I argue that Rhodes was not an aberration, but rather one of a significant number of black musicians born in Mississippi between 1870 and 1880 who played the diatonic button accordion. There is an appropriate historical context, other than novelty, for the recordings of Rhodes and those of fellow Mississippian "Blind" Jesse Harris that is supported by examining the musical evidence, social history, and other available data. By piecing together the faint traces of this tradition, often little more than one line references gleaned from a wide range of sources, it is possible to get a rare glimpse, however tentative, into this distinctly black music. We must first recognize that this musical tradition was masked by a prejudice against accordions in general and by a stereotype that blacks, outside the Cajun region of southwest Louisiana, never played the accordion in any significant numbers.

Peter Narvaez (1994, 203-205) addressed the effect that commercial mediation has had on blues commentary in terms of repertoire, but it also is critical to see the effect of this mediation on assumptions about instruments. The voluminous interviews conducted with blues musicians overwhemingly emphasized musicians who had made records. Those who did not record or who played instruments not heavily recorded received little interest. Narvaez stated that "blues commentators have sometimes neglected the existence of performance and repertory variations by overlooking fieldwork data gathered in localities" (205). But we have to look beyond this to the forces at work in the fieldwork conducted. Many interviewers were themselves guitarists and showed little interest in references to other types of instrumentation, even when the interviewed offered it. At the time of Olsson's research in the Memphis region, this attitude was beginning to change. Both he and ethnomusicologist David Evans broadened their approach to interviews and noted references to fife and drum groups, single string instruments, banjo players, and even brass bands in the interviews they conducted (Evans 1983, 163-172; Olsson 1989).

However, until ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell began conducting interviews in the 1970s, no researcher seems to have consistently asked informants if they had heard of or had known accordionists. Interviewers also never asked them to describe what the accordion to which they were referring looked like or sounded like. …