Sean of the South: The Musician

Words by Sean Dietrich

Illustrations by Eliza Bishop

This is stupid. I can’t believe I’m telling you this. But last night, our band was on stage. Lights were flashing. People were dancing. The tune was “Hey Good Lookin’.” My buddy, Doug, was singing.

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And I was squeezing an accordion.

So there. I’ve finally said it. I play accordion.

For years I’ve been pretending to be an average civilian, sometimes even flat-out denying that I own a thirty-two bass Weltmeister, but it’s time to admit the truth:

I play the lamest instrument ever conceived—with the exception of the bassoon.

I started playing as a boy. Before me, my grandfather played. Back in Granddaddy’s day, the accordion was not just “an” instrument, it was “the” American instrument. The accordion caused ladies to swoon, men to fall into jealous rages, and international spies to jump through glass ballroom windows.

Once upon a time, the accordion was exotic and elegant. You could watch prime time television and see stately gentlemen like Myron Floren grinning at the camera, wearing a four-hundred-pound apparatus strapped to his chest.

But times have changed. Most folks don’t even know who Myron Floren is.

Today, accordion-playing ranks on the “lameness scale” somewhere between identity-theft and dentistry.

Anyway, not long ago, I was playing accordion at a Cajun music concert. I saw a man in the audience who kept smiling at me. There was something about him. He stood beside the plywood stage, eyes on me.

He was white-haired and used a walker. His daughter was beside him. After the show, he approached me.

“I used to play the accordion,” he said.

His whole body was shaking from Parkinson’s.

The man went on, “I played when I was in the Army. Started with piano, but I wanted to be like Myron Floren, so when we were in Germany, I bought one.”

He taught himself to play. He’d stay up until the wee hours, practicing with a radio.

“I was good,” he said. “I was never as good as I thought I was, but good.”

As it happens, I’m not a good accordionist. Not at all. I once played for a nursing home. A woman in her late-eighties borrowed my accordion and played “Tico Tico” at lightning speed.

When she finished, she patted my shoulder and said, “Keep practicing, sweetie.”

So the old man and I became friends right away. He and his daughter followed me into the parking lot that night after the show.

He told me all about himself. About growing up poor in Tennessee. About the first and only woman he ever loved—his deceased wife.

She was the same woman he played for almost every evening. Songs such as “Lady of Spain,” “ ‘O Sole Mio,” and “La Vie En Rose.”

“Those were her favorite songs,” he told me.

As it happens, “La Vie En Rose” was one of the first songs I ever learned. When I told him that, he got excited and said, “Oh! Would you play it?”

“Right now?” I said.

“Please?”

So I removed Old Ugly from her case. I strapped her to my chest the same way my granddaddy once did. The same way lots of men like him did. They were a generation of men who fought wars in Europe, earned Purple Hearts, and watched Ed Sullivan or Lawrence Welk when they weren’t changing their own oil.

I played “La Vie En Rose” in the parking lot and made a lot of mistakes. But he was a generous audience.

I could see him through the corner of my eye. He was singing in French. Then, he wiped his eyes.

He shook my hand. He thanked me, then said, “One day, I hope to play that song again for my best girl.”

His daughter hugged me. We exchanged addresses. Then, they were gone.

We kept in touch some. He even sent me birthday cards—we accordionists have to stick together. He read all my books.

Anyway, I got an e-mail today. It said that last night, around eight in the evening, a man you’ve never met closed his eyes and didn’t reopen them. He was Old America. He was a father, a husband, and a musician.

And right now he’s playing for his best girl again.

Please don’t tell anyone I play accordion.