To the listener who doesn’t venture far from the Billboard Hot 100, an accordion is practically an exotic instrument. They haven’t been a staple of American popular music in decades, yet the piano accordion is the official city instrument of San Francisco and there’s a passionate group of people here in the area who are committed to the instrument.
“Somebody said to me, ‘I would play accordion but I don’t like polkas,’” says Fergus Falls resident Yvonne Marts. Well, accordions are about a lot more than polka: they’re used in popular music in Central and South America, they’re sometimes used in European and North American dance-pop music, as well as cajun music, zydeco and jazz music, and who could forget the work “Weird Al” Yankovic has done to make the accordion popular again?
Marts, an expert at accordion repair, learned her craft from Helmi Harrington, who was in town this week to accept a donation from Marts of two accordions on behalf of A World of Accordions Museum, a Hohner Morino VM and a Hohner Imperator IV. “In the ‘90s, I taught accordion repair at Red Wing Technical College and that’s where Yvonne and I met, and then a few years later when I opened my own school in Duluth, Yvonne was one of the students,” says Harrington.
“When I went to school (with Harrington), I thought I knew something about accordions and within a couple of hours I realized that what I knew, maybe I would recognize an accordion if it fell on me,” recounts Marts. “I knew very little of what there was to learn and she told us, ‘If you learn it, I’ll give you more. The more you accomplish, the faster you accomplish it, the more I give you.’ And we did. We kind of pushed her to really give us a lot and we learned and we also learned that if she said it, it was true.” Harrington went so far as to not only expect her students to know how to fix a variety of accordions, but also how to play a tune on each one. If you can’t show that you know your way around the instrument, clients won’t trust you with them. “She taught us: think it through; listen carefully; trust your fingers; and know when to quit.,” says Marts.
“Those aren’t bad rules of life in general,” Harrington adds. If it weren’t for her lessons, Marts wouldn’t have ever come into possession of the two Hohner accordions now on display at the museum in Superior, Wisconsin: both came from people who originally needed them fixed.
For the Imperator, Marts says, “I had to replace all of the pads, right and left, 164 on the right-hand side, four times 12 on the left, and I had to find special material because the springs were so tiny that they had to have a very compressible material in order to hold it air-tight. I tried umpteen different substances before I found one that would be compressible that would hold the air tight enough in there to play. That was probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in repair work after I went to school with (Harrington).”
Accordions were a family business for Harrington, whose mother taught accordion lessons in Germany before immigrating to Texas.
In Germany, her mother had made a half-cent a week as an apprentice at a hat shop, but she and her sister-in-law saved what they could to purchase a small accordion from the cheapest department store in Cologne. She taught herself how to play and won a competition: “The prize for that was the education in south Germany, in Trossingen, which was part of the Hohner manufacturing industry,” the world’s most prestigious accordion institute at the time.
After World War II, Harrington, her mother and her grandmother immigrated to Texas where her mother continued to repair, play and teach accordion. “I was little but I stuck my nose in her business right away and learned from her what I could and helped out where I could. So it’s been a part of my life forever,” Harrington says.
In 1993, Harrington founded A World of Accordion Museum in Duluth to educate people and preserve the cultural and musical history of the instrument. They outgrew the space there and moved the museum to Superior, Wisconsin where they now have about 1,400 accordions on display and about 2,000 total. She says, “We service and maintenance every accordion annually because I still keep teaching students how to do that. So they’ll, into perpetuity, remain in good condition.” Today, she continues to teach accordion to about 60 students each week and the museum will be returning to Duluth for a second museum site for electronic-only instruments.
The two accordions Marts is donating are valuable not only monetarily, but in personal significance as well. Unfortunately, they’re too large for her to play these days, yet she remembers her time with them fondly. “I’ve had it for 10 or 12 years,” Marts says of the Imperator IV. We enjoy playing it, we took it up to Fargo — Marj Hanson and Judy Nims and I put on a display of accordions for the Fargo Park District for a total of 16 years and we brought this up there to show people that accordions aren’t just polka stuff. … I wanted to be sure they were in a good home.”