Randy Falcon, who began making Cajun accordions in 1973, and Larry Miller, who took up the craft in the 1980s, together could conduct a seminar on the instrument that is generally known as a Cajun accordion, but that more properly is called a melodion.
Both men were educators before they were bitten by the building bug. Miller was a high school math and science teacher and principal, who retired in 1980. Falcon also retired from teaching to devote his time to making the instrument.
They sat down with me at Maison Doboval in Rayne, just down the street from the old Mervine Kahn store, where a lot of the Cajun accordions were sold.
The ancestry of the Monarch, Sterling, and Eagle accordions that became popular on the Cajun prairie is most often traced to C.F.L. Buschmann, who developed a "handaeoline" in Berlin in the early 1820s. It was a relatively primitive instrument but was one of the first to use a bellows to force air over reeds that had been used in other woodwind instruments for many years.
Cyril Demian, an organ builder in Vienna improved on Buschmann's instrument and patented his own, calling it an "akkordion." That, in turn, was improved by Englishman Charles Wheatstone, who patented what he called a "concertina." This later was developed into the melodions that we recognize.
There's some question about just who brought the first of them to south Louisiana and who played it first. Miller thinks it was probably German immigrants who brought it with them when they came to the prairies of St. Landry, Acadia, and Evangeline parishes, and that the instrument was probably here by the middle to late 1800s. We know they were already popular when the Kahn store opened in 1884.
But they took a little work to earn that popularity among the Creole and Cajun players who made early Louisiana French music.
The first accordions were tuned so that they were not compatible with the fiddles that were the primary instrument played on the prairies and it wasn't until accordions tuned to the keys of C and D came along that the instrument really took off.
But then they got a rapid following, in good part because, in those days before amplification, they were loud enough to be heard in a room full of people talking, laughing, and dancing on hardwood floors.
"You couldn't hear the fiddles on the far side of a small room," Miller said. "Besides," he says, "a Cajun accordion is easier to play than a fiddle."
Probably all of the accordions were imported from Germany before World War II, but the war disrupted their flow, and then the part of Germany where the accordions were made was sealed behind the Iron Curtain.
That's when Cajuns began to make copies of the German melodions, creating them in the keys of C, D, and B-flat. That presented a bit of a challenge, because a musician with only one accordion could play only in one key. Most of them had several and would change instruments as the songs dictated.
That caused Falcon to begin tinkering with the instrument, and he invented and patented a "dual pitch" accordion that will play in two keys instead of one. He says he's working on a design for one that will play in all three keys.
That's good news, it means that we're not just putting way the instruments of our musical heritage, but improving on them. And there's another piece of good news.
"When I first started making accordions, everyone I sold them to was over the age of fifty," Falcon said. "Now most of them go to buyers thirty years old or younger. The young people are learning the old songs and learning to play."
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.