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Accordions return from obscurity The Main Squeeze


Steve Nagrabski is struggling for words, trying to say what it is about the accordion that grabbed him and has held him for a half-century, through its peak in the 1950s and later exile to the ethnic fringe of American culture. Something about the sound, "the accordion has a sound of its own," he says.

He can't describe it, so he leans down in his chair to lift from the floor a 30-plus-year-old Italian accordion, a wheezy thing with papery lungs and keys yellowed the shade of a jaundiced eye.

"All right, let's do this one."

The accordion billows and exhales, conjuring a roomful of voices: your late uncle Yahnek, your aunt Sophie and grandpa Mario, the bubbly rhythms of some low-rent bar mitzvah or the communion party at the VFW. A bayou burial and Lawrence Welk. It's a seance conducted to the tune of "All the Things You Are."

"Now where could you hear a sound like that?" says Mr. Nagrabski, who when asked his age replies, "Say 67." He's been playing accordion since before World War II, since the ethnic enclave of Highlandtown was home to who knows how many polka bands with who knows how many accordions. He can't remember the names. The band members have died, or at least their music has.

He's sitting in his dusty accordion repair shop on South Conkling Street wondering aloud if it's true what he's heard. Really, the accordion coming back? Really?

Yes and no. From the depths of obscurity in the mid-1960s the accordion has resurfaced, having been heard lately in cool company. They Might Be Giants has recorded with it, also Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Bruce Hornsby, Weird Al Yankovic, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. An 11-piece San Francisco band, Those Darn Accordions, just put out an album called "Squeeze This." The rise of zydeco and Tejano lifts the accordion, as does the general turn toward acoustic music.

To paraphrase The Who's "Squeeze Box," the accordion is sort of in, but still out. In and out. An immigrant that never quite lost its accent. A guy at the beach in neon No Fear baggies, sandals and black knee socks.

Call it the "built-in ironic duality," of the instrument, says William Schimmel, a 48-year-old classical accordionist who is scheduled play later this month with the New York Philharmonic. Imagine, the squeeze box at Lincoln Center.

"It's a hip instrument, it's a square instrument," says Mr. Schimmel, who lives in Manhattan. "It's a beautiful instrument, it's an ugly instrument, highbrow and lowbrow; it's a classy instrument and it ain't got no class. It always rides the line between the two."

It must, says Mr. Schimmel, who has a doctorate from the Juilliard School. He tends to wax philosophical about the accordion; he's even published a book of essays about it. The accordion must never become totally cool, never shed the geekiness that makes it what it is, he says. Or it's dead. Again.

Fortunately, this is not likely. Not as long as there is the specter of Lawrence Welk, says Mr. Schimmel, ever tugging the instrument toward its rightful place on the cultural periphery.

If the ghost needs raising at all, where better to do it than Blob's Park in Jessup, a Bavarian dance hall that forms the epicenter of the fringe. And who better to do it than Marv Herzog, one of Blob's most popular acts, a big, bona-fide Midwestern cornball with clear blue eyes and a kind smile and a book of polkas, waltzes and country tunes thick as a Manhattan phone book.

To listen to him introduce "Tulips from Amsterdam" is to feel the spirit of Welk glide across the parquet dance floor.

Thanka-you boyza. An' a one-a, an' a two-a . . .

"That's it for swingin' waltzes. We're gonna' slow it down even more," Mr. Herzog says to a crowd of some 300 people at the dance hall on a Sunday. Last weekend he and his two-accordion, four-piece band drove their bus in from Frankenmuth, Mich., known as "Michigan's Little Bavaria." People at Blob's love Mr. Herzog, who is 62 and has been playing professionally since he was 14.

He's having fun, playing about 120 gigs a year and making no apologies. Not for the schmaltzy riffs on "Waltz Across Texas" or for passing out petitions urging President Clinton to give a Medal of Freedom Award to Frank Yankovic, the King of the Polka. No relation to Weird Al.

No regrets or apologies either from Mr. Herzog's accordion-playing sidekick, Ted Lange, who lives in Archbold, Ohio. He's 19 years old -- 19 in 1995 and happy to be seen in public places lashed to an accordion.

"My parents had a polka band," says Mr. Lange. "You can play any style of music with an accordion." Rock and roll? Sure, he says. He plays a 25-pound Elkavox, an electronic rig that doubles as a synthesizer.

He says he takes no grief from his fellow teen-agers, who may or may not appreciate ironic duality, much less polka.

Ah, but it can be rough outside the fringe. Just ask Mr. Herzog's wife, Teresa, who tells a story about the time she and Marv were in a Michigan movie theater watching "Home Alone." Suddenly there's John Candy on the screen with an accordion, doing the whole dorky polka band send-up.

"Of course everybody was laughing" in the theater, she says. But what about Mr. Herzog?

"He wasn't laughing," she says. "I felt bad. Why couldn't they show the compassion of polka people? If you did not have an accordion you would not have these happy people, because accordion makes people happy."

She's pointing at Blob's dance floor, where dozens of people are smiling, bouncing their way through a polka beneath a glittery revolving globe. With the streamers and the crepe-paper ceiling spheres and the knotty-pine paneling, the place is ready for the Smithsonian Institution's 1963 Rumpus Room exhibit.

"I feel the accordion is a main instrument for a dance band," says John Kalme, 57, of Annapolis, a mathematics professor at the Naval Academy and a Blob's regular.

"I like the entire band," says Don Black, 63, of Dundalk. "And the band wouldn't be the band without the accordion."

Most folks in the crowd are 50 or over, old enough to have witnessed the accordion's rise and fall in the United States. It's an American story, a story of immigration and assimilation, of the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and, of course, Lawrence Welk.

Around 1958, things changed. Kids were listening to Elvis and Buddy Holly, taking notice of the slender, sexy Fender Stratocaster. Meanwhile, their parents were still watching Welk and his featured accordionist, Myron Floren.

Those were the Eisenhower years, says Mr. Schimmel. People wanted to buy a Rambler, live in a split-level ranch and act like an American. "The last thing we wanted was to emphasize our ethnicity" by playing the accordion, he says.

Then the Beatles appeared. The accordion fell like a rock, out of mainstream America, to which it has never quite returned.

Mr. Nagrabski still plays an occasional gig, an anniversary party, a bull roast, a senior citizens' gathering. He has a few steady customers at the repair shop, but he's no longer keeping regular hours.

On one wall of the shop he has a black-and-white photograph taken at Veterans Administration Hospital on Loch Raven Boulevard in April 1962, on the day he led his young students from the Belair Accordion Studios in a recital. Mr. Nagrabski stands in the back, natty in light suit, white shirt and pale necktie. Before him are 18 youngsters, one drummer and 17 accordionists.

"I don't know if it'll ever come back like the picture," he says. "If it does, it'll be awhile."

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