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Concertina and Melodeon History

Warren Fahey © 2005

The English 48 button concertinaThe concertina has a fascinating and confusing world history. It comes in all shapes, sizes, sounds and styles. It is part of the squeezebox, bandoleon, conzertina, melodeon, accordion, and associated button-box family. The harmonica is also a close member of the family. The concertina is by far the daddy of them all in regard to versatility and complexity. Most people identify it as the small instrument ‘played by sailors’ or, in Australia’s case, shearers. In truth it was created to play far more highbrow music and is sympathetic in musical versatility to the violin. In the 19th century it would have sat firmly on the pianofortes or sideboards of the upper class.

It is an extremely sweet sounding instrument and used to play a variety of music from classical to traditional dance. This article is predominately about the concertina and melodeon in Australia and predominately about their role in traditional music making.

In the 1950s The Ram’s Skull Press, Victoria, published a small folio titled ‘The Banjo, the Violin & the Bones’ where John Manifold discussed the popular instruments of the bush. It should have more appropriately been called ‘The Violin, the Concertina & the Melodeon’ for these three instruments, along with the harmonica (or mouth organ), were the most commonly played musical instruments in the Australian tradition.

The concertina was invented in England, around 1830, by Sir Charles Wheatstone, who also pioneered the Telegraph and the appropriately named, Wheatstone Bridge. . The instrument was initially a scientific curiosity until, in 1836, it was marketed as a serious musical instrument, leading to its patent in 1844. By the 1850s the firm of Wheatstone & Co. was manufacturing tenor, bass and baritone versions in two different systems known as the Anglo German and the English. They were hand-made and assembled and, in most models, used the finest timbers, bone and available metals.

The first concertina had 48 keys and offered a full chromatic range which made it popular for ‘parlour’ music and especially light classics and novelty pieces such as ‘The Flight of the Bumble Bee’ and ‘Greensleeves’.

 The English 48 button concertina  

As the instrument gained more acceptance, other firms such as Lachenal and Jeffries were established (usually by ex-Wheatstone employees) and the cost of concertinas lowered. With a more affordable price the instrument moved out of the drawing room and into the world of popular music.

The Lachenal logo

Several new styles were introduced including bass, tenor and baritone instruments. New keyboard systems were also introduced on the theory of ‘building a better mousetrap’. Classical music was written especially for the instrument and, especially in England and America, concertina bands were formed.

Concertina bands

The most successful new style came with the Anglo German concertina, which offered a different note on the push and pull and therefore a completely different sound and playing style. It was also less complicated to manufacture and repair, and was therefore cheaper. It was also easier to learn and play. It’s main limitation as that it was restricted in the keys it offered. The most popular was the C/G concertina.

Both the English and Anglo German concertina were extremely popular in 19th century Australia as they were light, relatively affordable, portable and were ideal for dance music and song accompaniment.

British companies like Lachenal and Wheatstone commenced exporting to Australia very early on in their history supplying an eager market, especially on the gold fields, from the 1850s onwards. There are reports from both the Gulgong and Ophir mining camps of people playing concertina music on the streets and in the hotels.

By the 1870s the instrument was well and truly part of our local musical line-up. Australia was built on a mainly male, itinerant workforce. The concertina suited the traveler and it also suited the environment of the bush. It could be played solo or alongside other instruments, it was relatively hardy and remained in tune, and its music echoed the emerging traditional music that was predominantly influenced by English, Scottish and Irish music.

It sounded right for the rough and tumble nature of what has become known as Australian bush music. It had the sound of the campfire and seemed comfortable as an accompaniment to campfire conversation and a billy of tea.

Music was extremely important to the bushman and the settler as it provided a gentleness often missing in outback life. The young women of the homestead were expected to play keyboard but the concertina was more likely to find itself being played by a man more used to shearing sheep, droving cattle or bending barbed wire. Seeing and hearing such men play sweet tunes and songs must have been a dramatic departure and a civilizing tonic for all.

The melodeon or button accordion travelled a similar road. The Melodeon was developed from the harmonica and other free reed instruments early in the 19th century. The Melodeon fingering system is still basically the same today, very similar to a Harmonica on the right hand, with a different note on the push & pull of the bellows, and bass notes and chords on the left hand.

The instrument has a naturally rhythmic sound, and came to Australia around the same time as the concertina.

The melodeon was mainly used for playing dance music tunes and was available in one-row and two-row instruments. The basic melodeon has one row of 10 treble keys, and 4 bass keys. The instrument was fairly loud and, with its distinctive pumping action, ideal for dance music.

There is very little documented evidence of traditional players actually singing to the accompaniment of either the melodeon or the concertina. This is primarily because the Australian tradition tends to be an unaccompanied tradition.

In the 20th Century, reflecting the massive changes in popular entertainment, the instrument fell out of favour, and one by one, the manufacturers closed or went out of business. Wheatstone’s (by this time owned by the music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes) closed in 1968.

For many people their first encounter with a concertina came through films that featured concertina music or, occasionally, a player. If any one film influenced how we perceive the instrument it would have been John Houston’s ‘Moby Dick’ (1957) featuring the legendary British player Alf Edwards playing on an English concertina – it immediately became associated with sailors and the sea. Here’s a short list gleaned from www.mediarare.comwww.mediarare.com

The Gay Divorcee / /1933

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, RKO Pictures. The alternative male love interest (played by Erik Rhodes) “plays” an Anglo concertina (and sings for real) at length in the grand production number “The Continental”. The sound of an accordion is heard briefly, as Mr Rhodes starts, then fades out under the orchestra. The film is very Art Deco/stylish — the concertina, for example, is an almost pure white, with big buttons

Oliver / Carol Reed / 1968

Peter Honri played the MacCann Duet and a miniature Anglo German.

Camille / /

Greta Garbo/Robert Taylor/Lionel Barrymore. There is a brief scene with a country peasant on a wagon playing an anglo concertina, about midway through the movie.

Back to Oklahoma / / 1936

Tex Ritter is in a jam and wires Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys for help. They arrive by stage with Tex driving and the Playboys sitting on top of the stage, playing and singing. Arkansas Slim, Tex’s sidekick, gallops behind the stage on his mule, playing an anglo concertina. Later, Slim, on concertina, and the Playboys accompany Tex’s singing by the campfire. It’s then time for Tex and Slim to ride into town and outfox the villians. Slim hands his concertina to Bob Wills and says, “Here Bob, hold my wrinkle-box.”

Night to Remember / Roy Ward Baker / 1958

B/W. One scene showed the steerage passengers dancing to a concertina. It was a nice 56 key metal ended Aeola and the person holding it was actually playing it.

The Magic Box / John Boulting / 1951

features a Concertina and stars Glynis Johns, Richard Attenborough, Sir John Gielgud. Herbert Greene played the concertina in the Crystal Palace Fairground sequence (“Knees up Mother Brown”).It was based on the life of Movie Inventor, William Friese-Green.

Mary Poppins / Disney Production / 1964

Bert “plays” an anglo concertina (heard as an accordion) as part of his one-man-band in the opening.

The Milagro Beanfield War / Robert Redford / 1988

Features, prominently, a little old man (who is actually an angel), dancing around the town (he is invisible except to one of Milagro’s old-timers) playing his beat-up Anglo concertina. He is faking it.

Nightmare before Christmas / Tim Burton

A cute little stuffed Christmas Bear seated under a Christmas tree plays a (if you can call it one) Concertina in one of the scenes of this film. The Concertina is toy bear sized and basically only a bellows with two hexagonal ends.

Locally, writers and songwriters have also reinforced the concertina and its association with the bush. Henry Lawson mentions the concertina and there are ‘bush songs’ like ‘The Man With The Concertina’ that toast the instrument.

The first concertina I ever heard live was played by Mike Ball, an Englishman who was instrumental in the Australian folk revival in the 1960s. later I heard Carol Wilkinson play her English and then Colin Dryden (I bought his English concertina in 1970) and Mike Eves. Mike Ball’s playing is heard accompanying Declan Affley on the recording ‘Rake and Rambling Man’. Also in the 1960s I heard several recordings of the legendary British singers A.L.Lloyd and Ewan MacColl who were accompanied by Alf Edwards and Peggy Seeger, respectively and respectfully. I have always loved the sound of the instrument as an accompaniment to song.

I play a 48 key concertina that is the same as the first instrument to be made by Wheatstone & Co. Mine, a Lachenal, is around 120 years old and still going strong.

It is hard to explain the enjoyment I receive from playing this instrument. It is ideal to accompany songs and for those who tend to get baffled by learning an instrument allow me to say that I had quite a battle to get my fingers and head around playing. I taught myself music by carefully picking out the notes until eventually I managed to knock out some tunes. It was only recently that I stopped reading the dots and started to play by ear. It worked and I can now play most songs and tunes I hear in my head. It’s a wonderful thing!

The surprising thing about the history of the concertina is that it appears to be extremely popular in the 21st century. It had a revival in the 1960s through the 1950s and 60s international revival of interest in folk music and has steadily increased its popularity. This is a tribute to Wheatstone and his fellow inventors and to the players who have championed the instrument. Countless recordings have been issued over the past fifty years, concertina virtuoso players have emerged, repairers and restorers kept busy and a quick look at the Internet will reveal chat-rooms, blogs, sites and all manner of things ‘concertina’. Ebay has a whole section devoted to the buying and selling of the instrument. Australia has two master craftsmen manufacturing excellent Anglo German concertinas.

Note the round sides of this concertina