first encounter with the concertina was in grade school- our music
teacher brought a little octagonal instrument into class and said that
she'd never been able to play a tune on it. Then, a little later on,
I saw someone play one in a Lucille Ball/Dezi Arnez movie called 'The
Long, Long Trailer'. Are we together on the time line here? Yes,
somewhere in the middle 'fifties.
I saved up enough money and bought my own. At that time I was not
aware that there were actually two distinct types of Concertina. The
one invented by Charles Wheatstone is termed 'English Style'- it is
octagonal, the buttons are arranged in vertical rows , and it makes
the same tone whether the bellows are drawn out or pushed. These are
the kind you see being played by sailors in movies like 'Moby Dick',
This was the kind my music teacher brought in and I've owned a couple
but never got the hang of the fingering either.
one I purchased was an Anglo/German Style, the difference being that
it was sort of like a harmonica with bellows; i.e., made a different
tone when the bellows were pushed in rather than drawn out. It was
bright crimson, had two rows of five buttons on either side, playing
the 'C' and 'G' scale respectively. I already played harmonica so the
principle was familiar to me. German Style concertinas are floridly
romantic, not unlike a button accordion in tone, the kind of thing
you expect to find being played outside an Italian Cafe
when two dogs are having dinner. Oh, c'mon, you saw 'Lady and the
Tramp', admit it. 'Bella Noce' was part of my standard repertoire.
then I was an adolescent, and if there is a better way to deal with
loneliness or a broken heart than lying in your room holding a
concertina on your belly and playing 'Faraway Places' I've yet to
hear of it. Worked for me, anyhow.
I worked my way up to a three row model, which sported an extra row
on both sides containing all the sharps and flats missing on the
'C' and 'G' scales. Now I could play blues, songs like 'Stormy
Weather', which was one of my Dad's favorites on the piano. He played
boogie woogie style in the evenings after work , a syncopated sound
that was the background to much of my childhood.
in my middle twenties, I bought what was the top of the line in this
particular style of concertina- a thirty-six button model, Italian make,
with double reeds for each note tuned a semitone apart, so that the
sound was a full-throated vibrato. It was a little too much volume
for playing indoors, and my girl friend at the time, a classical music
student, pronounced it, contemptuously,'Schmaltzich'. It had a
floridly red decorated keyboard and colorful bellows and shamefacedly
I stowed it away and only played it when I was alone.
came divorce along with disenchantment, disillusionment, disintegration-
Christ, it was like being an adolescent all over again without the
anodyne of knowing that it was only a stage on the way to maturity.
In '78 or thereabouts I took what turned out to be a pointless trip
from California back East and ended up in DC one spring jobless and
rudderless. I had filed for unemployment and was waiting for the
first check to come through when I suddenly thought, 'Wonder what it
would be like to play on the streets?'
is no way to convey to those of you who haven't tried it, what a
strange experience it is to busk for the first time. You are not just
playing an instrument in public, like the students in Julliard used
to do with their classical instruments; busking is, literally,
begging. You feel you are crossing a line, a transition underscored
by the attitude of everyone you know. I had an ex-girlfriend at the
time, a law student at Georgetown University, and when I triumphantly
reported my first evening's takings to her, $24 I think it was, she
stared at me in glassy-eyed horror as if I'd shown up with a syringe
sticking out of my arm.
place I chose for my debut couldn't have been bettered. Georgetown is
a neighborhood outside DC where a lot of very expensive real estate
lives, and there is a complex of restaurants and bars and nightclubs
where all the office workers, diplomats, etc go to unwind from the
cares and responsibilities of their jobs . It's a beautiful place in
the evenings, with waterways bridged by wooden walkways, and lights,
and music, some of it provided by a discreet series of buskers. I
never asked permission but I must have been suitably atmospheric
because no one ever hassled me. That first night I sat down on the
ground with my back to a shopfront and put my Greek fisherman's cap
on the pavement, un-packed the concertina and, my heart hammering a
silent accompaniment, started to play.
sitting on the ground was strange, with all of the well-dressed and
well-to-do passing by and me at knee level. I couldn't see faces, and
after a while I just played to be playing. The rich full sound that
sounded overly loud indoors was perfect here. The atmosphere was
right also- these were not people in a hurry, but people with time on
their hands and money to spend. I played all the songs I knew best,
things like 'Red River Valley', Cool Water', ' The Way We Were',
'Lili Marlene ', 'Shenandoah', 'Stormy Weather' , 'Sunday kind of
Love'. Mostly ballads, mostly slow, the kind of thing I would have
played alone anyway while I was sorting out my thoughts. I seldom sang
because I wasn't keen about my voice, but it didn't matter because I
knew most of the lyrics and that was the way I heard them in my head.
when the crowds were thin I would get a request. Once, I remember, a
guy came up, obviously in the last stages of intoxication, and asked
if I knew 'Feelings', the Morris Albert song. I ran through it a
couple of times, with all the stops out on the chorus,'Feelings, wo,
wo,wo feelings..I wish I'd never let you go...' while he just stood
there looking off into the distance. Then he dropped five dollars
into my hat and muttered , 'yeah, feelings,' and shuffled off.
time a family stopped by, with a little five year old in tow, and
when I saw him listening I did 'Turnaround' changing the lyrics
slightly because it's a simple song and easy to sing to: ' turn
around and you're nine, turn around and you're grown, turn around and
you're a young man with babies of your own..' The little boy dropped
down on his haunches with his elbows propped on his knees and heaved
a big sigh. Cue the crowd- 'Awwww.'
there was the time four Japanese diplomats ( I assumed ) came by and
asked tipsily if I would play 'She'll be coming round the mountain' –
which I did, and they sang along. They only knew the first six words
so they just kept repeating them over and over . 'She'rr be coming
round the mountain, she'rr be coming...etc' It was lively to say the
it was fun for awhile. Other buskers started to come around to chat
briefly. We tried to stay outside of each other's range so that there
was no competition; looking back I think that anyone who violated
this rather self evident rule would have gotten the bum's rush from
management. One fellow who played guitar pointed to my hiking boots
and shook his head sadly. ' Not good, man, ' he opined, ' too new
looking'' I'd just had them resoled and asked him what he meant. 'Get
a pair from the Salvation Army shop,' he advised 'then beat them up a
bit, tear a hole or two. You'll see. '
hadn't yet occurred to me that we were all playing a role, that
people expected us to look and act a certain way. I thought I was out
there because my personal world had fallen apart. I didn't realize
that I had stepped outside any really personal relevance by the
simple act of putting a cap on the pavement. One night a very pretty
girl drifted over to me and said dreamily, 'Are you a Wanderer?'
Nothing loathe, I agreed. She dropped a bill in the cap and said,
'Wander on..' with a wave toward the far horizon. I found I was also
getting a certain amount of unwelcome attention from middle aged
people of both sexes who seemed to assume that because I appeared
rootless I was a sort of fashion accessory. Acting as a profession
had never had the least appeal for me, but I began to have sympathy
for people who had no identity beyond the images they created in the
minds of the public. I also, to my shame, found how easy it can be
to become what people expect you to be.
was not nor ever expected to be a great musician. The songs I liked
were right out of 'The Great American Songbook' and I was not artist
enough to bring them to life the way great Blues Singers like Billy
Holiday and Jazz artists like Miles Davis could. I found I was
playing to the crowds in a way I didn't like; years later I
encountered the song 'Piano Man' by Billy Joel and the lyrics brought
it all back to me: '...and the piano sounds like a carnival, and the
microphone smells like a beer, and they sit at the bar and put bread
in my jar and say 'man, what are you doing here?' '
I put the concertina into storage with the ex-girlfriend, bummed a
lift to the canal and followed it out to the main road where I set
off in the rain for Boston. I wanted to figure out what the hell had
gone wrong with my life and I wasn't going to do that by becoming
part of someone else's fantasy.