THE ACCORDION was 20th-century London’s emblematic busking instrument. It was loud for its size, its timbre was effective in cutting through traffic noise, and beginners could get started easily once they’d learned a few chords. These recordings from a 12-inch BBC transcription disc (catalogue number 883362) feature two busking accordionists, a man and a woman, who sing as well as play.
The recordings are dated to 20 March 1954 and were made by a Mr Gruzdic from the Yugoslav Section of the BBC’s European Programmes service. The catalogue doesn’t state whether they were ever broadcast. The location is simply given as London, and some traffic noise on the first side of the disc suggests they were made outdoors.
Both singers have good strong busking voices. The first side features the woman performing Hubert Gregg’s Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner, popularised by Bud Flanagan in 1947. She follows this with Down Petticoat Lane, a music hall number attributed to Milward and Byrne. On the second side the man sings Here in My Heart which, when performed by Al Martino, had become the first ever number one on the UK singles chart in November 1952.
The accordion was introduced to Britain from the Continent some time in the 1830s and rapidly established itself in the repertoire of popular instruments. A Times newspaper review of a concert at the King’s Theatre, dated April 1837, noted the presence of [. . .] a novelty in the shape of an instrument called ‘a concertina,’ an improvement on the accordion, which has been such a favourite musical toy for the last two or three years.
Henry Mayhew’s magisterial survey London Labour and the London Poor, compiled during the 1840s, contained a brief interview with a 55-year-old blind street musician who had worked out a way to include four accordions in a multi-instrument array:
The novelty I speak of was to play the violin with the bells. I had hammers fixed on a rail, so as each bell had its particular hammer; these hammers were connected with cords to a pedal acting with a spring to bring itself up, and so by playing the pedal with my feet, I had full command of the bells, and made them accompany the violin, so that I could give any tune almost with the power of a band. It was always my delight in my leisure moments, and is a good deal so still, to study improvements such as I have described. The bells and violin together brought me in about the same as the piano. I played the violoncello with my feet also, on a plan of my own and the violin in my hand. I had the violoncello on a frame on the ground, so arranged that I could move the bow with my foot in harmony with the violin in my hands. The last thing I have introduced is the playing of four accordions with my feet. The accordions are fixed in a frame, and I make them accompany the violin.
Similar arrays were later referred to as slum orchestras, as in this Medical Officer of Health report from Finsbury in 1914, and still later became generally known as one-man bands, typically consisting of a busker with a bass drum strapped to his back, cymbals on the insides of each knee, plus a guitar and kazoo or harmonica. But the accordion generally had sufficient oomph to stand alone and in the post-war years it was likely the single most popular busking instrument in London, attracting players whose skills ranged from non-existent to highly competent.
Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.