22 May 2012

Hell's Bellows

ACCORDION, n. An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
    Back in March Deborah Elliott-Upton posted an article focusing on attorneys who write detective stories.  Deborah’s column cleverly (Dale wrote, grudgingly) juxtaposed examples of attorney authors with examples of attorney humor.  As the only attorney author on SleuthSayers I couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous over Deborah’s article – sort of like a Southern Baptist dropped into the middle of a senior prom.   But the column did get me to thinking about the wealth of attorney jokes that are out there, and that led me to speculate as to whether there might be another outlet for this comedic enthusiasm, an outlet that could shield, at least at times, the nation’s advocates from these slings and arrows. 

    My creativity in this area was a bit hobbled.  I have this thing about making fun of others – I don’t mind targeting a class of people so long as I am also a member of that class.  Otherwise I get nervous that I am on the wrong side of “nice.”  So my suggested vector away from all of this attorney hilarity needed to be in a direction that would also leave some weight on my own shoulders.

    The answer was obvious.  I am an attorney, but I am also someone who completely fulfills Oscar Wilde’s definition of a gentleman.  “A gentleman,” Wilde wrote, “is someone who knows how to play the accordion but doesn’t.”

    That’s me.  I do,  And I don’t. 

    It took me seven years of training to become a good lawyer – four years of college, followed by three years of law school.  By contrast it took me eight years of training to become a bad accordionist – lessons every Friday from the age of 10 through the age of 18.  What, I often wondered, were my parents thinking?

     If you stand back and contemplate the accordion you can come away awestruck at what a tremendously bad idea the whole thing is.  You can sort of see where they were going with it – the bass buttons on the player's left produce different sounds than the keyboard on the right, so it sort of accompanies itself.  But at what price?  
The Stradella Chord Arrangement Chart  (ARGGHH!)
    Anyone who has actually taken accordion lessons learns very fast that there is absolutely no relation between the progression of the scales on either side of the instrument.  The right hand side follows a standard piano arrangement – the scale, played in “C” simply requires the right hand to move one note at a time down the keyboard.  But the left hand incorporates a completely different arrangement – the Stradella bass system – which requires a completely different route, where the poor left hand has to find and push the correct button (out of the 120 that are over there) without being able to see the buttons and with only three keys out of the 120 that provide any direction at all – one with a curved in top (C) and two others with rhinestone tops (E and A flat).  The result of this is that while the accordionist’s right hand transfers well to the piano, the left hand inexorably goes mad.  Over time it atrophies into a stunted idiot savant capable only of blindly producing “oom pah pahs.”  (I ended up taking two years of piano lessons when I was in my 50s simply to unlearn the demented trails my left hand had come away with from its years of bouncing around blindly amongst those 120 buttons.)

    But I digress.  The take away point is that I am more than willing to make fun of accordions.

    In suggesting accordionists as a substitute butt for lawyer jokes it is a little difficult to precisely follow Deborah’s lead.  Her article cleverly contrasted attorney mystery writers with attorney jokes.  But, present company excepted, it is pretty difficult to find an accordionist who has become a mystery writer – well, at least one who is willing to admit to it.  And it is also difficult to find examples of accordions playing (no pun intended, Leigh!) a prominent part in mystery novels or short stories.  Probably the best example out there is Annie Proulx’s 1996 novel Accordion Crimes, which traces a century of immigrants each of whom at some point owns the same little green accordion.   A more recent example is the short story collaboration by David Crobett and Luis Alberto Urrea, “Who Stole My Monkey?” which chronicles a Texas Odyssey in pursuit of a cherished, haunted accordion. The story is included in Best American Mystery Stories of 2011 edited by Harlan Coben and Otto Penzler.

    But while there is a dearth of accordion mystery stories, accordion jokes, on the other hand, abound.  In fact, in many cases you can take a lawyer joke and simply substitute the word accordionist.  As an example, here is one of the jokes that appeared in Deborah’s previous column: 
If you are stranded on a desert island with Adolph Hitler, Atilla the Hun and a lawyer, and you have a gun with only two bullets, what do you do?
Shoot the lawyer twice.
Or try this one, also from Deborah’s earlier column:
What's the difference between a dead dog in the road and a dead lawyer in the road?
There are skid marks in front of the dog.
See what I mean?  Cut and paste “accordionist” for “lawyer” and the jokes continue to work just fine.  There are, in any event, a wealth of accordion jokes just sitting out there ready to be mined.
  • An accordionist parks his car in a sketchy part of town.  When he has walked several blocks he realizes, in a panic, that he has left the car unlocked and that his prize 120 bass accordion is sitting on the front seat.  He runs back to the car and sees, in horror, that the back door is now standing open.  He approaches his car and peers inside.  Someone has left three additional accordions on the rear seat.
  • How do you make a chain saw sound like an accordion?  Add vibrato.
  • How do you make certain that a song is played in time when you have two accordionists?  Shoot one of them.
  • How do you protect a valuable instrument?  Hide it in an accordion case.
  • How is playing an accordion like throwing a javelin blindfolded?  You don't have to be very good to get people's attention.
  • How many accordions can you fit in a hope chest?   Roughly one hundred if you chop them fine enough.
  • What is the difference between an onion and an accordion?  People cry when they chop up onions.
  • What is the difference between an accordion and a cat?  Only the cost, they both make the same kinds of sounds when you squeeze them.
  • What's the difference between an accordion and a trampoline?  You take your shoes off before you jump up and down on a trampoline.
  • What do a true music lover and an accordionist have in common?  Absolutely nothing.
  • What do you call an accordion player with a pager?   An optimist.
  • What is the range of an accordion?   Twenty yards if you've got a good arm!
  • What is the difference between an accordion player and a terrorist?  Terrorists have sympathizers.
  • What is the definition of perfect pitch?   Closing your eyes, turning your back and throwing an accordion into the bin without touching the sides.
    While the gist of this column has been to offer up an alternative to using lawyers as the butt of all jokes, in the end I return to my dual identity.   As I stated at the outset, I am both a retired attorney and a retired accordionist.  So in that spirit, and as a testament to thick skin, I offer up this final observation.  The lawyer and the accordionist have this one thing, at least, in common:  With each you can expect an audible sigh of relief when the case is finally closed.


  1. Great article, Dale, and very funny! Whereas, we have no accordionist in the family, we do have a piper. And by that, I mean a bagpiper--my son. Though all civilized people adore bagpipe music, there are a few heathens out there who decry its use. God only knows why.

  2. David -- I tried to learn the bagpipe as a kid. No success. The bagpipe fills a narrow but deep void. Imagine soldiers being led into battle by an accordionist playing Blue Bonnets Over the Border! -- Dale

  3. Dale, it's perfectly obvious what your parents were thinking: that an accordion is cheaper than a piano. Also, as you pointed out, it can be thrown.

  4. Actually, Liz that is precisely what my parents were thinking. I didn't get the piano until 7 years ago when I bought it myself!

  5. There are jokes out there for almost every instrument (even violins!). I prefer the ones that are instrument specific (i.e. you can't substitute autoharp for accordian or vice versa) which some of your examples are. For instance: why are there all those folds in an accordian? Easy slicing.

    By the way, I forwarded this column to a friend of mine who is a professional accordianist.

  6. Rob -- The definition of an optimistic professional accordionist is one who has invested in a pager. -- Dale

  7. Whoa -- I really enjoyed this column. Learned a lot and laughed a lot too--what more could one ask?

    I have a piano and a bunch of guitars, but I never tried the accordion. Looked way too hard for me anyhow. My keyboards need to hold still while I play.

  8. Herschel Cozine22 May, 2012 12:28


    Great article. I learned a lot about the accordion, even if I never wanted to. But I must confess I listened to Myron Floren (Lawrence Welk's protege) who played it as well as it can be played. And the accorion beats the bagpipe, but not by much.

    A lawyer who also plays the accordion. That's going above and beyond.
    Thanks for the laughs.

  9. Lou Berryman22 May, 2012 12:59

    I'm Robert Lopresti's friend, the professional accordionist. I of course had heard ALL of the accordion jokes cited (whether as banjo, drummer OR lawyer jokes). Except for the one that Rob introduced! Has he just been being nice?
    Lou Berryman

  10. Herschel -- Note that (as I wrote two weeks ago in the Ambrose Bierce piece) you anticipated this article with your reference to the Oscar Wilde quote.

    John -- I have an instrument that is even worse than the accordion -- the Concertina. It has bellows, like an accordion, is all buttons, though (again) each side has a different order to it AND (SHUDDER) like a harmonica it plays a different note when the bellows are pushed than when they are pulled. It is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

  11. Lou -- Do you know the best use of a Viola? As kindling for an accordion bonfire. -- Dale

  12. I can't resist adding this link to some of the videos by Lou and her musical partner Peter Berryman, two of the funniest songwriters in the world...

  13. This was great, Dale. You had me rolling . . . in pain when I saw the 120 buttons! And in laughter when I read the rest.


  14. Rob beat me to the "easy slicing" comment. As an erstwhile harper, I will point out that Gary Larson got it wrong. It should go: "Welcome to Hell, here's your harp. Welcome to Heaven, here's your harp and your tuning key."


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