This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 11, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Music had always been very important to my mother’s Wendish family for generations, so naturally an almost reverence for it continued into my lifetime. Born in Dime Box, Texas, I first encountered the pump organ at our church (my mother was the organist) and the old upright piano in my parents’ living room. There was also an old-fashioned pump organ in my maternal great grandmother’s living room, which was later relocated to my grandmother’s back room (what happened to it after that, I don’t know). The third instrument I remember vividly as a child was the accordion; a couple of my great uncles and aunts possessed accordions, and they appeared to be the instrument of most significance in both polka bands and country-western bands playing at the SPJST Hall on Saturdays.
Whenever we visited my maternal great grandmother’s home, various family members would bring musical instruments which they played by ear. One of those, of course, was always the accordion, which I called a “squash box” or “squeeze box.” The German name for “accordion” is very similar to the English. I remember my mother’s cousins trying to show me how to play the “squash box,” and my parents even bought my brother and me a toy squash box for Christmas (which gave you the illusion of playing the accordion anyway).
Of all the instruments in my extended family that I attempted to play as a child (including the mandolin and banjo as well as the organ and piano), the one fascinating me the most was the accordion. That fact plus its significance in the live dance bands we listened to led me early on to discover that the accordion was invented by Friedrich Buschmann in Berlin, in 1822. My Wendish ancestors immigrated to Texas in the 1850’s and 1870’s from a village not too far south of Berlin, so by the time they came to Lee County, Texas, the accordion had become a highly significant instrument to Germans and Wends, albeit a fairly new musical device. Buschmann called his invention a “handaoline.” An Austrian improved the handaoline, adding buttons to it and gave it the name “akkordeon.” The concertina was a much smaller, less expensive version of the accordion. It’s the concertina that ethnic groups call the “squash box.”
To honor my love for the accordion and German-Czech polka music, my wife gave me a Christmas tree ornament this Christmas in the shape of a small accordion. In the many years we have been married, we have bought a couple Christmas ornaments each year to honor or recognize a special event or person or milestone. Each Christmas, our tree displays much of our family history
Money was not very plentiful in the 1930’s and 1940’s, so I had to be satisfied with taking piano lessons rather than accordion lesson, — we already owned a piano! Piano lessons proved to me that I had not inherited the enormous natural musical instincts and talents of my mother and her Wendish cousins; however, the more I recognized my lack of musical talent, the more I loved music. People like me make the best audiences and supporters of gifted musicians, — and I do enjoy that role in my life, having married a talented musician, who, like my late mother, is a church organist. It’s a great joy to hear her play the piano in our living room (to me, not to our cats who hate it and display their disdain), but I wish she also played the accordion.
There are many great polka musicians whose live-streaming I love to watch and listen to on my iPad, such as Das Ist Lustig (Ross plays the accordion beautifully), the Dujka Brothers (one of the brothers plays a mean accordion, or maybe they both do), and the Manccordionist, Kelsey J. Lien, just to name a few of the best. The Manccordionist, who has been featured in magazines like the Texas Polka News, plays four instruments, records them together somehow and the result is live-streamed as a quartet. One of the instruments he always plays for this is the accordion, which he plays so well. I enjoy his performance the most when he plays the tuba, the baritone, and the trumpet, along with the accordion. What delightful polka magic he makes!
I’ve never met a squeeze box or a squash box I didn’t love!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, and retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.