Back in the day, I’d say 80 percent of the men who lived around here could play,” says Dale Graf of the accordion. Graf, who grew up in Jacksonport, goes on, “The mothers would want the kids out of the kitchen, and would say ‘You’re in my way, go out and practice your accordion.’ That’s how my grandfather learned.”
“You can learn from a book, I guess, but most accordion players learn by ear,” Graf continues. To learn a new song on the accordion, which is a diatonic instrument, meaning the reeds make
different pitches when the bellows are going in or out, Graf sits down with his boombox, listens to the song and then figures it out by trial and error. “It takes me about an hour to learn a song now,” he says. “I can remember when I was starting out, a guy said to me ‘You only need to know 30 songs to play for three hours.’ People are having a good time, dancing and drinking. When you get to the end, you start over,” he laughs.
Graf now knows about 100 songs, and when he plays his accordion, his foot starts tapping and people around him begin to move. “Accordion music just makes people want to get up and dance,” he says. Graf plays festivals and special events with his three row button box accordion, and also performs with his band Bellows and Strings, in which he plays guitar, sings, and plays the squeezebox.
Beginning in 2006, Graf organized a semi-annual accordion jamfest at the Institute Saloon, which brought local and regional musicians to Door County with the purpose of reviving interest in button box and concertina music. The event hasn’t happened since 2010. “It was getting kind of hard to get players up here,” he says. “So many of the accordion players have gotten too old to play or passed away.”
Graf comes by his musical talent naturally. He taught himself to play guitar while he was in a college at the University of Wisconsin – Madison studying mechanical engineering. “I did the Bob Dylan thing with a harmonica, got pretty good at it. Then my grandfather gave me his two-row Hoehner and I learned to play a little bit.”
But Graf didn’t get serious about the accordion until about six years ago. He now owns two electronic accordions as well as several vintage acoustic instruments. He also has passion for acquiring, reworking, and selling accordions. “I’ve probably owned about 50 accordions over the years. There’s a guy down in Sturgeon Bay, Gary Slager, he’s about 80 years old, who works on my instruments. He can do anything. I don’t know what I’m gonna do when he can’t do it anymore.”
The polka sound was ingrained in Graf’s mind from an early age. “As a kid, I watched a lot of black and white cartoons. All those old Mickey Mouse cartoons had polka music playing in the background.” As a teen growing up in Jacksonport, Graf says, there weren’t a lot of choices when it came to entertainment. “What were we gonna do?” he asks. “So we all went down to Fernwood Gardens [now Mr. G’s] and learned how to dance the polka.”
Now retired from an engineering career, Graf loves tinkering and creating as much as he loves music. The property he shares with his wife boasts a prolific vegetable garden, as well as the hand made metal windmills which are another side project for Graf. And his music studio, which he designed and helped to build, includes instruments he made by hand.
“Ever seen one of these?” he asks. “This is a Mississippi Tuba Box.” The wooden instrument, which looks like a modest box, is scraped with a broom handle and mimics the sound of a tuba. Then he pulls out a washtub stand-up bass that he made and plays a riff.
Graf’s latest project is recording. “I’m going to use these electronic accordions and record some songs,” he says. When he gets his electronic squeezebox going, it sounds like a whole band is playing: drums, guitar, even organ. But however he does it, electric or acoustic, Graf is keeping accordion music alive in Door County, one polka at a time.
Contemporary Copper Box
While Dale Graf represents a waning generation of polka players, a new guard of musicians and bands, including Copper Box, are keeping the tradition alive.
Copper Box front man Danny Jerabek is an accordion whiz, and the band’s “Comfortably Numb Polka” is a perennial favorite with their fans throughout northeast Wisconsin. He has played since he was nine years old, influenced by his dad who was in a polka band. Jerabek sees the instrument making a resurgence in contemporary music, but it wasn’t always that way.
“When we first were starting out, Michele (Jerabek’s wife, who plays guitar and saxophone in the band) would call venues and when she would say ‘and my husband plays accordion,’ they would hang up!” says Jerabek.
Despite some people’s knee-jerk reaction, Jerabek believes there is something unique about the instrument.
“It is real. It’s just pure,” he says. “It can be happy, and it can also have a haunting acoustic sound.”
Photography by Len Villano.