My friend Gabby’s memoir has a couple mentions of accordion. The first is from the September, 1973. He and Sandy (whom he calls Dusty) and I (whom he refers to as “Dazzler,” the name by which I was universally known within the Union) were living on Gage Street in Bakersfield, a ratty little house next to the freight yards. We had just gone through a summer of strikes. Thousands of strikers were arrested. Two strikers were killed. And grape growers had signed contracts with the Teamsters to avoid dealing with us. The Union was on the ropes.
And we were in Bakersfield cleaning up criminal cases coming out of the strike with a Kern County Assistant District Attorney.
Kern County Sheriff Dodge was probably the worst of all the law enforcement we dealt with that summer. Both murders of strikers were in Kern County. That was no accident.
Here is what Gabby wrote about one night in Bakersfield:
Dazzler was up in Delano for a reason I don’t remember and Dusty was watching Green Bay play the Jets on Monday Night football – no interest even though it was my home-state Packers – so I changed into a clean white tee shirt and my light tan khakis and clean white socks and brown K-Mart-made-in-Korea canvas shoes and I took off in the warm still-summer night, up to Baker Street to walk ten blocks marveling at the neon lights announcing bars and dinner and pool or dancing.
There was the Wool Growers, Lazo’s, the Pyrennes Bakery, the Noriega, older sheep herders in their starched white shirts without collars and black wool suits sitting on folding chairs or playing snooker in the Basque pool halls, bottles of red win, accordion music, card games.
On the walls were publicity photos of Espe Alegria (The Voice of the Bascos) put out by KBOI in Boise which was the home of her famous Sunday radio program, and a portrait of Mama Gracianna “Grace” Elizalde, the matriarch of Bakersfield Basques. Men – all men – were eating salt-cod (bacalao), beans, olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and peppers, sheep’s milk cheese, cider (sideria) and sausage (txistorras). Their language is not Indo-European, it is a vestiage of pre-Roman conquest. It and the music are alien to my ears.
One song catches me. I step inside the pool hall and ask a man to write the name of song that I am hearing. He does – Bartarraistan Ezkongai Nintzen. I saved the scrap of paper all these years. Why? Many years later I found the song.
He asked me, “American boy, you like the Basco music?” I am polite. “Yes.” And so he took me into a side room and took out a Basque diatonic button accordion, a trikitixa.
Wow! I really love those signs. If I am not careful, I am going to end up doing a whole detour on Basque sign culture.
In 1977 Emily finished college and drove the 1966 pink Mustang that her mother had given her out to California and moved in with Gabby in a little house in San Juan Bautista. I visited with them often in those years as I was living in San Juan myself. Gabby was still working for the UFW and Emily was immersed in music. He wrote:
She was concentrating, experimenting with and coming to understand a gorgeous candy apple red Honer Corona diatonic accordion, also known as a button box.
The world-famous Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jiminez had given her the accordion (honor!) when he visited the Teatro Campesino and Luis Valdez a few weeks earlier. Jimenez was a generous man, struck by her purity, beauty, and several questions that she asked about the instrument. She suggested a way of cheating to achieve the illusion of chromatic variations using a Mixolydian ode and the accordion’s diatonic scale – something about synthetic enharmonics. All those buttons just plain scared me.
She was working on Flaco’s “Ay Te Dejo in San Antonio” and not doing badly.
A month later, a large box arrived for Young Emily at the Teatro office, postmarked Opelousas, Louisiana.
Inside was a Cajun bisonoric diatonic accordion custom-made by Junior Martin of Lafaette, Louisiana, key of D, abalone inlays, 46 reeds, Junior’s signature crawdad on the bellows. There wer two handwritten notes with the instrument, one from Flaco Jimenez to Clifton Chenier on Flaco’s Agrupacion de Acordeoneros letterhead from San Antonio, telling his Cajun accordion soul-mate about Young Emily.
The second was from Chenier to Young Emily in French Creole, telling her that this was a gift from a sinner (pechuer) to an angel (une ante). A year later Chenier released an album. The big hit on it was “Louisiana Two-Step,” with a Cajun waltz he called “Il’y a Une Jeuene Fille” (“There is a Young Girl” that he had written about a young girl in the town of Saint Jean Baptiste. Honor!
And then there was the 1939 German bandoneon that Astor Pantaleon Pizaolla sent her a few months after that but – I fear – I digress.
I showed my friend these excerpts and the photos that I found to accompany them. He remembered spending time listening to Emily play her accordions. He looked up wistfully. “You know Gabby collected the accordion album covers, right?” Yes, I did.
That’s not all, it turns out. Gabby had given my friend a large collection of accordion figurines, a collection that he built up in five years of small-town thrift shops and flea markets and garage sales. Here are just a few of them:
I had never seen these. My friend doesn’t have them out in his room. But – that’s not all either. He pulled out a stamp album that Gabby gave him when he gave him the figurines.
There were pages for stamps in the front and pages for postcads in the back. Guess what kind of stamps?
Guess what kind of postcards?
Jesus – nothing in moderation with Gabby.
Nothing at all.
I came back to Gabby’s stories. What did my friend think of them?