Squeezing the Best From Summer

The Cotati Accordion Festival isn't your grandmother's accordion festival. Well, yes it is. But it's more. Lots more.

The blacktop is soaked in summer, unusually hot, even for August, but climate seems of little consequence to the girl. She is a portrait of abstraction. Isolated by a damp blur of tar-black hair clinging to her face, she sits with one stockinged leg sprawled in the gutter, the other leg tucked neatly beneath her tattered skirt, a pearly accordion resting upon one knee. As the bellows uncoil across her chest, a slow minor-key chord crawls through the heat, and an old-world melody, sad, rich, and impervious to the brightness of day, finds purchase. I wonder that the sight of such a girl, playing such a song, is not reason for pause in the harried progress of the workaday world, but no crowd gathers near. Alone, I lean against a tree and close my eyes for a century until the final note unfurls, weighed down by love, famine, desire, and dearth. Senseless to my presence, the girl rises and casts a final, lingering look at the blank window overhead. Adjusting her skirt and shouldering her awkward cargo, she brushes the hair from her face with the back of her hand and heads down the street. Only then do I catch sight of her worry-bitten lips and mascara-streaked cheeks, coming to glean what my neighbors seemed to have instinctively known: that this song, while performed in plain view, was a private affair, a last entreaty of musical notes carrying all those things that might have been, a piece written for a girl, an accordion, a vacant window, and no one more.

There was a time when such a thing might not have been notable, a time when love letters were often carried on the wind and reed of the accordion.

During the 1930s, San Francisco laid claim to no fewer than 12 successful accordion factories, most of them maintained by Italian families in North Beach, but the accordion had long pumped at the heart of immigrant communities throughout America. French, Arab, Russian, Italian, German, Balkan, South American, Irish, Jewish, Mexican, and Chinese, all found inspiration and solace in the "homegrown" sound of the squeezebox. Soldiers, sailors, mayors, and miners of every class and creed could agree on the laurels of the accordion, a level of unanimity that no doubt irritated Ambrose Bierce enough to prompt the entry in hisDevil's Dictionary: "An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin."

The Keys to Their Hearts: Accordion fans 
Jason Webley, Kimric Smythe (standing), 
and Steve Mobia.
Jillian Northrup
The Keys to Their Hearts: Accordion fans Jason Webley, Kimric Smythe (standing), and Steve Mobia.

Querulous detractors aside, by the 1950s, the accordion was the most popular musical instrument in America, if not the world. (China was quickly becoming home to the largest number of accordion players on the planet, and despite growing competition, manufacturers in Germany and Italy were recording unprecedented sales.) Right here, in the Bay Area, the streets were swarming with accordions. Door-to-door salesmen peddled button boxes and bandoneons, along with vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias. Children were given on-the-spot aptitude tests that they could not fail, garnering instant admittance to one of dozens of accordion schools in Northern California. Whether interested in the German diatonic button accordion, which had become synonymous with the Mexican norteña; the French chromatic accordion, known to Russians as a bayan; the piano accordion, doomed with its dry-tuning to be forevermore associated with Lawrence Welkand the polka; or the concertina, which was born in the churches of England but grew up in the whorehouses of Argentina, there seemed no limit to the fame and affection that could be amassed by a push-button master. Then someone showed up with an electric guitar, and the jig was, quite literally, up.

But there's a strange wind blowin'.

"These things move in cycles," says Jason Webley, peering out from under his fedora with cat-green eyes. "I can foresee a day when playing the electric guitar will be a laughable thing, and people will be embarrassed to admit they ever took guitar lessons as kids."

Webley, a lean, ramshackle performer with a background in punk and a penchant for medicine-show imagery and surrealist non sequiturs, is not the sort of act you might expect to find at the 13th annual Cotati Accordion Festival, but this isn't your grandmother's accordion festival. Or, rather, it is, but that's not all it is.

"We've been married for 40 years," says Addie Burlake, a Crescent City resident with a wild, easy cackle and an unquenchable passion for penny ante. "He's been playing for three. I tolerate it because it pleasures him. And I can't hear it on my side of the house. Of course, when the money runs out at 84, I can't promise anything ...."

"That's when I get a monkey and hit the road," says Jack Burlake with a wink. As Those Darn Accordionslaunch into a disturbing rendition of the Who's "Baba O'Riley," Burlake slips into a tent, where Kimric Smythe, owner of Smythe's Accordions, is holding court.

A pyrotechnician and sound tech with a history of building and destroying machines with Survival Research Laboratories, Smythe came to accordions by way of a $10 toy he bought in the Mission District. Now, after only a few short years, Smythe's Accordionsis one of the leading refurbishers on the West Coast, and those entering Smythe's tent -- including Burlake -- act as if they've found the Great Oz.

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