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 Wyper Brothers
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
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
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.
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
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. 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.
Sonai Choilm Learai
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
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
An tOilean Aerach, Johnny Connolly,
Driobal na Fáinleoige, Johnny
Sonaí Choilm Learaí,
Sonaí O Chonghaoile, CIC
But Why, Johnny?, John O'Halloran, 1999
Mícheál Darby O Fatharta, 2000
We Won't Go Home 'Til Morning, Brendan Begley,
Seana Choirce, Brendan Begley, Gael-linn
Take the Bull By the Horns, Tom Doherty, Green
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
sites & links
melodeon info, care of Music Tradition emagazine
Hobgoblin have a FAQ page
Clo Iar-Chonnachta have
tapes and CDs of Johnny Connolly and Sonai Choilm LearaiI
review of Joe Flanagan's melodeon style
of the Irish button Box
interview with Rod Stradling, English melodeon player
from East Anglia
of good melodeon links here
Andy Cutting, English melodeon player