Narcolepsy and the Haunted Concertina

Some may call it odd, but I prefer to think of my skill at playing the English Concertina as merely quirky. This is an unusual instrument, to be sure, but it certainly fulfills my need to be unique…most of the time. And who was to know that the instrument was so well suited to me?

The English Concertina has an ancient history and a noble, scientific modern descent. It was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone, whose accomplishments in the field of electricity continue to influence electronics to this day. Have you ever heard of the Wheatstone Bridge? Not unless you are an electrician or a concertina player. I am the latter.

Let nobody disparage the influence of music in your life. For many, music is a sedentary or second-hand pursuit. For me, as well as for most musicians, it plays a crucial role in my state of being, and it has directed the course of my living.

When I returned from Ireland in 1982, I brought home my first English concertina. It was the product of one night’s lodging at the Youth Hostel in Glasgow. Having checked in, I stepped out to wander the streets and I happened across a music shop with a definite Rock and Roll bent. Nestled low amongst the guitars and drum sets in the display window was a shabby Wheatstone concertina with a rough handwritten sign I will never forget: £50.00. It works.

Now I did not play the concertina, but I had heard it on Cheiftains recordings when I listened to a syndicated Public Radio program, The Thistle and Shamrock. So I stepped into the shop, heard a few wheezy notes on the instrument and layed down my money. I packed that box with me for the next year, and it began to influence my life the very next day when I got lost on my way to the Buchanan Street Station. I stopped an elderly gentleman to ask directions, which he kindly gave, and then added with excitement, “And can you play that box?” I gave him the story I’ve just given you.

My next year was spent in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is the subject of writing to come. But during that stay I found that my concertina was not exactly playable. Had I known then what I know now, and what I came to know soon after my return to the states…I could have fixed the darn thing myself. But not having the skill at the time, I sought somebody to set the concertina up as playable. Belfast seemed to lack the appropriate skills. In fact, I think I was intimidated by the city. It was still gripped in sectarian violence and the danger was palpable. I went to Dublin to find a repair shop. I handed it over, was told it would be done in a couple of weeks, and I finally got it back a week before I left the island for good…still barely playable.

When I returned to the United States I had thirty cents in my pocket. I had been abroad for a year, during which Ronald Reagan had been shot. I remember the night vividly, because the woman who owned the British bed and breakfast I was staying in thought it was important enough to roust me out of bed to inform me that the president had been shot. My father suffered his first heart attack that year. I spent the weekend of the Fourth of July waiting for my parents in London, plugging 25 P coins into a table top Galaga game to take my mind off the fear. I wouldn’t see my parents for another year, at the end of my stay in Ireland, when I joined them on a visit to family in Sweden.

I returned to the family farm outside Othello, Washington…eight miles outside. In the days before internet, this was really in the boonies. Of course I had my broken concertina with me, which I still considered to be one of my most valuable assets. It wasn’t long before I had located a man who might help me fix it, a man who lived in my own state. I contacted him to arrange a meeting.

Joel Cowan lived in a nice apartment overlooking Bellingham Bay, on the busy road from Bellingham to Fairhaven. When I visited him, I had never before been to Bellingham, and I had no inkling that one day I would actually live there. He was a large man, of college or just-post-college age. He smoked a heavy meerschaum pipe (perhaps the same on that later contributed to the fire that burned his apartment, destroying a number of concertinas). Joel gave me a quick tour of the workings of the instrument, pointing out the places the instrument was prone to malfunctions. I learned how to patch the bellows, clean the reeds with a dollar bill or a piece of cigarette paper, and fix faulty springs. For a brief visit, I received lasting confidence in my ability to fix the concertina myself. Now I just had to learn how to play it!

That was the focus of a number of years of effort. I started by attending a fiddle jam session at the Cafe Roma in Spokane, Washington. At first, my attempts consisted of hitting one right note for every thirty Roger Muat would play on his fiddle. I spent a lot of time practicing, but then I was young, semi-employed, and carefree.

Slowly, over many years, I developed some skill on the instrument. The jam session turned out to be just the thing for a learning musician. I accumulated a number of tunes I could play along with, and most people didn’t care that I wasn’t hitting all the notes, because they’d never run across an English Concertina before. I found a girlfriend at the session, so I was able to move out of the little house I shared with my old friend Randy. I spent six years with that woman, and learned that it’s not always a credit to forgive infidelity, but that’s not the point of this passage. By choosing to pursue competence in the concertina, I was developing a group of friends to support my life. I even heard my name inserted into a song sung by the Urban Coyote Bush Band in a performance at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle.

It was at the Northwest Folklife Festival that the most influential event concerning concertinas occurred. At that time, there was a used instrument auction as a fundraiser for the festival. Every year people would browse the instruments at the auction, especially if they were hoping to take up a new instrument on the cheap. Those who thought a concertina was the right instrument for them frequently sought me out to ask advice about what was in the auction. I had by this time developed a reputation for concertina know-how, running a workshop with another Puget Sound musician, in which concertina players discussed the instrument and traded tunes. So it was clear that I needed to learn about what the auction offered every year.

It was while I checked out the concertinas in the auction that I met my wife. She was minding the booth where the really fine instruments were kept. As I tried out the instruments, we struck up a conversation. It was enjoyable for me…I hope it was for her, too. But, being so single minded, I didn’t even think about trading contact information with her. All I knew was that she was Patti, and that she was learning fiddle by playing in a Thursday night fiddle group in Bellingham.

Next day, I tried to find her to renew our conversation. This time I intended to get her phone number. But she was nowhere to be found. She had stayed home that day, recovering from an illness.

Patti stayed on my mind. I tried to locate her, and eventually, through my friendship with musicians at a Monday night tavern jam in Seattle, I got the phone number for a fiddle player in Bellingham. When I called him, this man immediately knew who I was talking about, and he gave me Patti’s number without hesitation. Later, he says, he began to worry that he might have given the number to a stalker. Perhaps he did. Patti and I got married on a one-acre parcel my mother left me in her will, at the base of Mount Adams in South-Central Washington.

So what does all this have to do with Narcolepsy and a haunted concertina? Nothing. I’ve gotten ahead of myself. In my career as a concertina player, I hooked up with a number of different groups in Northwest communities. When I lived in Seattle, I played with Scandia Folk Music Guild, which was group of mostly fiddlers who played traditional Swedish dance music, but at the time I didn’t play fiddle. I was accepted because I lived with the leader of the group. Scandia was invited to visit Sweden and play in a number of festivals one summer. I was poor, but I was included. Kind donations were made to ensure that people like me could go along on the trip. This would be my second visit to Sweden. The first one was when I met my parents after my year in Ireland.

And now, I really could play the concertina. I noticed in a specialized magazine that there were actually a few people playing concertina in Sweden. I sent letters to a couple to let them know I would be in Sweden, and one man, a doctor in Uppsala, responded with an invitation to visit.

This was another example of the great key to the world that playing an instrument can provide. I spent a weekend with the good doctor. He picked me up in Stockholm and drove me to his home in Uppsala. As we sped up the motor way, we got to know each other. We must have been going a hundred kilometers an hour as he informed me that he suffered from Narcolepsy.

He could fall asleep without warning.

This set my mind to racing: what would happen if he fell asleep as we flew up this highway? Would I be able to wrest the steering wheel from him, trounce on the brakes? He told me about doing an examination on a “peasant woman,” with large breasts. He said he had been listening to her heart with his stethescope and when he awoke his head was pillowed on her chest (with a confused and indecisive look on her face).

This man was the owner of a number of concertinas. He would make trips to England to purchase instruments and to make contact with concertina players. But he didn’t really like the way the concertinas felt, so he kept a workbench in his basement where he would drill out the button holes and replace the original buttons with delren pegs, providing a broader, more accessible button. I, a purist at heart, quailed at the thought of destroying an antique instrument by doing that. But the doctor had performed the operation on a number of concertinas already. There was one, though…

I really didn’t know what to make of this story. He told me that he intended to drill the peg holes on a certain concertina, but that this particular instrument didn’t want to be changed. It kept moving. He would begin work on it, get called away for a phone call, and return to find the concertina on the floor some distance from the table. Or it would move itself away from the work area. The doctor was clear about this situation: there was nothing rational he could think of to explain the behavior of this concertina. It had to be haunted.

Perhaps it was. Instruments pick up the soul of a dedicated player. I thought back to the excited eyes of the old man in Glasgow who wanted to know if I could play that box, the day after I bought my first concertina. I remember going to an Odetta concert one time, when she told the tale about buying a new guitar. She felt like she had to set her old guitar up next to the new one at night time, so the old one could teach the new one all the music she played. I say Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonium at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Two hundred years after he made the thing, you could sense the presence of the inventor in that sterile museum. The same for the Stradivarius violins sealed in their climate-controlled cases across the room.

When I took up the fiddle, it was on a handmade instrument made by a great uncle in Sweden. As I improved, I looked for a better instrument, so I swapped the Swedish fiddle for the one my dad used to play. This one was a German fiddle my dad got from my mother’s uncle. Perhaps it came from Germany with the family in the 1880s. There was a connection with history, with family, with the thread of humanity in those instruments. Now I play a fiddle my dear wife found in an antique shop for thirty dollars. Fixed up, it sings like an angel, and I actually sound good on it. Maybe it’s because I’m pouring my soul into it every time I play.

All content, including photographs and graphics
Copyright 2009, Mark E. Danielson
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One response to “Narcolepsy and the Haunted Concertina

  1. I love concertinas and have several that I do not do justice to, but love to work out the scales, from time to time, by feel. I am a harpist, 75 and going strong. Play trumpet in four community bands along with my husband, a horn player who is, instead, playing bari sax. I decided that I need to have one of these – m y favorite are the McCanns because the man brilliantly knew just what he was doing….must have been employed by the Wheatstone company at the time. The hands fall right on the notes!
    Wonderful. I need another ten years of being age indefinite….just to keep learning and loving it.

    Thank you for your story. I followed Joel through his magazines and bought many an instrument through the Concertina and Squeezebox ads.

    Thanks again for writing this wonderful story.

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