Travels With Sandy
When Sandy was somewhere in her teens and I was maybe ten years old, we were asked to play an accordion duet for a gathering at the Grange Hall in Kaycee. It was probably a mother and daughter banquet, which was an annual event, or some other civic affair. I recall there was a very large audience and I was scared stiff. It is not clear to me who invited us to perform, or who decided to pair us to play our accordions. I didn’t think anybody knew I played. I had taken no lessons and I had no accordion. My older sisters each had one, though, and when I could sneak some time on them I did. It set our dog to howling so I had to limit my playing time to avoid driving everyone in the household crazy. I picked up some tunes playing by ear. I certainly wasn’t ready for the stage–not even in Kaycee!
Rodney Dangerfield gets less respect than accordionists. Many acquaintances of mine learned to play in their youth, but don’t talk about it. Some who recall an accordion performance are reminded of the Lawrence Welk Show on television (that they hated) or a mid-western polka band on RFD (which they also hated). More recently, accordions are gaining some respect. The popular Cowboy Junkies band has an accordionist, which is very cool. And zydeco, Cajun and rock bands have discovered the magical sound of accordions! Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx wrote a book entitled “Accordion Crimes,” which I found fascinating as it seemed to elevate the image of this humble folk instrument and give it some mysterious respectability.
Sandy and I had never interacted in any significant way. She did not attend the local high school and being older (and much wiser) than I, she should have scoffed at the suggestion that we play a duet. I know we had to practice the number a few times and I believe it was a piece Sandy chose for us to play (although she professed ignorance of the affair later in life). The song was the Julida Polka. I am guessing at the spelling of the song’s title–I don’t believe I ever saw any sheet music for it. Since I played by ear without music, that didn’t much matter. I listened to her play it a few times and managed to get the hang of it.
Sandy was a natural performer. Over the years she played her music for local gatherings, often paired with her father on violin. She wrote and produced plays in which she acted and was a spark plug the community needed to keep things lively. I was quite the opposite. To this day I have vivid memories of trying to struggle through a piano piece, Beethoven’s Minuet in G for the President’s Tea in the east room of the Methodist Church. I was in the 4th grade and my fingers seemed glued together. I forgot where I was and lost track of the music, starting over a few times (that’s what comes from playing from memory rather than music) and I felt nauseous when the ordeal was finally over. The ladies of the Matron’s Club were quite forgiving and thankfully they never asked me back.
Actually I think stage fright runs in our family. When my older sister was asked to play an accordion solo for a graduation ceremony, she started off great, playing a Latin number Celito Lindo (I don’t think I know how to spell that title either) and then she looked out at the faces of the audience, which included our mother and father, and she just went blank. She kept trying to start again, but finally gave up in despair. Dad said that was the last time he wanted to attend any function where his children had to perform a musical number.
So we’re standing at the west end of the hall and the audience is sitting on metal fold-up chairs out in front of us. Sandy signals me she is ready to begin and we went right to it. Dad would have been proud, only he wasn’t in the audience. I don’t think I made any mistakes, which was probably the first performance I ever delivered without any. I don’t know if she gave me confidence or had me so scared of blowing our number that I had to come through on the occasion. I believed if I hit a wrong note, nobody would notice because Sandy’s accordion would cover my crime.
A few years ago over a cup of coffee at her kitchen table, I reminded her of our accordion duet. She asked if I still played and I had to tell her honestly that one of the family accordions was gathering dust in the basement and I drug it out once in a while. She indicated she had been neglecting her accordion as well and we agreed to get together to practice and see what happened. Good lord, what a racket! I’m surprised the paint didn’t peel right off her house. We had a lot of laughs trying to recall some of the old music we had heard on the radio or at the dance halls while growing up. Our taste in tunes was different, but we found some songs to play together, mostly old folk tunes or country music from the 1940-1950’s. We didn’t have sheet music, but played from memory mostly. We spent quite a few hours reminiscing about old times.
Sandy never undertook anything without giving it her all and she persisted with her accordion until she had mastered quite a few great tunes. Over the past ten years, she enjoyed playing with other musicians for events and to perform at the senior center in Buffalo. One winter night we had a great jam session here on Dry Creek with Ross and Donna Mae, Erin and Bill, Helen and a few others. I wish now we had done it more often.
I called her on the telephone a few months ago and she commented that she was worried about her group’s performance preceding the Chris LeDoux rodeo. Each year Sandy pulled together a group to play on the porch of the Rusty Spur the morning of the rodeo, and this year she was facing a really tough challenge. She wasn’t sure how to manipulate the strap on her accordion so that it would not interfere with the chemotherapy port on her chest. But as always, Sandy found a way.
So charming. You know, Lorraine Spargo also grew up playing the accordion at her family’s pig farm outside Edmonton.