Though now out of favour among musicians and listeners, the melodeon has had a huge influence on the playing of Irish music. The one row melodeon gained popularity in Britain from 1850 onwards and was a cheap and efficient adaptation of earlier French and English designs. By the early 1900s nearly all melodeons played in Britain were of German origin. It held popularity among French, Scottish, English, Irish and Italian musicians, who in turn brought it to the United States. Breton musicians brought it first to Canada and then to the south where the one-row model has a central role in Cajun music.
The melodeon was popularised among Irish-Americans by John J Kimmel (1866-1942). He was the first melodeon player to record Irish music for a record label, in 1904 or 1905. However the first-known recording may have been made by Peter Wyper (b1861) from Lanarkshire, who, with his brother Daniel of the famous Wyper Brothers, recorded Scottish and some Irish dance music. Kimmell is believed to have recorded on wax cylinders, but no date is to hand. Wax cylinders of the melodeon playing of Peter Wyper existed in 1903. For more, read Keith Chandler’s well-researched article on the Wyper Bros.
Born in Brooklyn in 1866 of German immigrant parents,John Kimmel developed a style of playing which was described as “melodically fluid, dynamic, thoroughly exciting, and apparently entirely personal.” Perhaps because of his contact with the Irish in Brooklyn, he – in his recordings at least – played an essentially Irish repertoire, augmented by Scottish tunes, ragtime pieces and popular marches.
In the 1920s the ten-key melodeon playing of Peter J Conlon (c1885-c1954), an emigrant in New York from Miltown in Co Galway, was released on commercial records – in fact he made his first recording for Columbia in 1917. According to Harry Bradshaw, PJ’s attacking style of single row melodeon playing “made for exciting listening and set a standard which many players of the day tried to emulate.”
The recordings of fiddle players like Coleman and Morrison made their way back to Ireland and their influence on today’s playing of Irish music is well documented. This gives us some idea of the influence people like Conlon had back home in the Twenties and Thirties.
The melodeon was also played in New York Irish groups such as the Flanagan Brothers and the great dance hall orchestras like Packie Dolan and his Melody Boys, Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band and Tom Carmody’s Orchestra.
Tom Doherty of New York was another highly regarded single row melodeon player. From near Killybegs in Co Donegal, he recorded an album for Green Linnet. He died in 1998 aged 84.
His namesake, Tom Doherty from Foxford, Co Mayo, is a full-time professional musician and teacher. He is an All-Ireland melodeon champion, music teacher and performs regularly with Céide and the Swallows Tail Céilí Band. Samples of his crispy style on Dance Sean Nos (2010) can be heard here at Claddagh.
The single row melodeon was introduced to Ireland in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was imported as a C instrument, but was
usually changed to D by the musicians in order to be in tune with session musicians. Compared to the uilleann pipes and violin, it’s low price made it a popular instrument in rural households. Along with the concertina, the melodeon has been linked to the decline of the uilleann pipes, but other factors may not have been taken into account.
Its rise in popularity coincided with the growth of the set dances in the 1880s and 1890s. The melodeon’s clear rhythmic qualities found favour among set dancers and its ten keyboard buttons and two bass keys made it an easy instrument to learn.
A cheap instrument, at the turn of the century it cost 10/s (50p) and a second-hand one sold for 4/s (20p). Reg Hall says he has an advert from a newspaper in east London offering a free melodeon to people ordering seeds.
The melodeon was often a gift from emigrant relatives in America. In County Mayo melodeons were also brought home as gifts to younger brothers and sisters by potato pickers working in Lincolnshire.
In some districts neighbours would subscribe to purchase one for dancing and the “joined box” would be left in a local house, out of the reach of children. So popular was the instrument in Ireland at one stage, the German manufacturer Hohner issued a model with the word “Ceili” in large letters on its label.
Like the concertina, the melodeon was a popular instrument among women at a time when “lady” pipers and fiddlers were rare.
Many musicians today such as Joe Burke cite their mother’s playing of the melodeon as an early influence. Joe himself played the melodeon as a youngster and will still play if his arm is twisted. Both the mother and father of the great accordionist Joe Cooley played the melodeon. Bobby Gardiner’s mother also played the instrument and he himself plays it with distinction. Brendan Begley Sr,
father of Brendan and Seamus Begley, played the melodeon. Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra also started on the melodeon.The father of Dubliners banjo player Barney McKenna played the melodeon as did Sean Pott’s father.
The Vienna accordion gained popularity among Irish musicians towards the end of the 1920s and within a couple of decades had almost completely replaced the melodeon. Its decline in the 1930s is also linked to the abolition of the rural house dances under the Dance Halls Act of 1935.
Like the Irish language it survives mainly along the west coast. Among its better-known exponents are Brendan Begley from the Dingle peninsula and Johnny Connolly and Sonai Choilm Learai (Sonai O Conghaoile Interview, as Gaeilge,) from near Lettermore in Connemara. Johnny Og Connolly plays both the melodeon and the accordeon. Micheál Darby O Fatharta from Spiddal playes a single row D Castagnari. In Cois Fharraige, where it is called “the box” or “an bosca” to distinguish it from the accordion, the melodeon is still a popular instrument at pub sessions and with sean-nos and set dancers.
John O’Halloran from Inishboffin, off the Galway/Mayo coast, plays both the melodeon and the accordion. Other names include Charlie Harris and Bill Toole in south Galway. PJ Hernon (Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band) from Carna started out on the melodeon and still plays it. His father Patrick played the melodeon.
Irish box players who can play both the melodeon and accordion include Jackie Daly, Mairtín O’Connor, Paul Brock, Damien Connolly from Clare, Benny McCarthy of Danu and Dermot Byrne of Altan. Charlie Piggott played the single row melodeon when he was with De Danann (his father from Glenbeigh in Co Kerry played the melodeon).
Many Irish musicians have learned to maintain the rhythmic qualities of the melodeon on the accordion by by changing to C#/D boxes, thus allowing them to employ more of the older push-and-draw style. These include Jackie Daly, Mairtin O’Connor, Dermott Byrne, Sharon Shannon (also plays B/C) and Charlie Piggott. Joe Cooley always played the C#D accordion in the old push-and-draw style.
On the Continent, melodeons in Holland are tuned in C/F and, according to Han Speek, very frequently the 5th button on the F row is reversed, to make a drawing C available. In Italy, where there is also a melodeon tradition, they play mainly in G/C and in the top octave. G/C is also popular in Belgium and France.
In England a two-row, D/G melodeon is used in sessions and for Morris dancing.
In 2010 the melodeon was added to the instruments taught at the prestigious Willie Clancy Summer School in Co Clare, with Johnny Connolly in charge.
Dance Sean Nos, Tom Doherty (TDM001)
An tOilean Aerach, Johnny Connolly, Cló Iar-Chonnachta
Driobal na Fáinleoige, Johnny Connolly, CIC
Sonaí Choilm Learaí, Sonaí O Chonghaoile, CIC
But Why, Johnny?, John O’Halloran, 1999
Bosca Bídeach, Mícheál Darby O Fatharta, 2000
We Won’t Go Home ‘Til Morning, Brendan Begley, Kells
Seana Choirce, Brendan Begley, Gael-linn
Take the Bull By the Horns, Tom Doherty, Green Linnet
The Tunes We Like to Play on Paddy’s Day, Flanagan Brothers, Viva Voce
Early Recordings of Irish Traditional Dance Music, John J Kimmel, LED
Melodeon sites & links