In the early 1990s I fell into a certain “company” of Scandinavian musicians in Seattle. Bleak as that may sound, it was an enjoyable few years in which I learned many things about the requirements of playing a hambo or polska. Most of the musicians were fiddlers, and they were taught by my girlfriend of the time, who was an expert in her field. As I wanted to play along, I brought out my wooden flute, made by my old friend Casey Burns, and I found that I was able to keep up with many of the melodies. But eventually I braved bringing out my English concertina, my main instrument at the time. Learning the tunes on the concertina was no problem for me. I just had to learn how to blend in to the ensemble sound.
Eventually, Skandia Folkdance Society was invited to tour a number of folk festivals in Sweden. Consensus in the group was that whoever wanted to go on the trip should be taken along, even if they couldn’t afford the trip. I couldn’t. Working as a beginning teacher in those days I routinely finished the month with less than thirty dollars in my bank accounts. I am eternally grateful that the society helped me buy my ticket so I could go along that summer. But I worried a little about bringing a concertina to those places of rigid tradition in Scandinavian dance.
It didn’t help when a Swedish concertina enthusiast I met in Stockholm marveled at my boldness. “They’ll kill you,” he quietly predicted.
Luckily I had done my research. Or, rather, I had done some artificing. If ever I were challenged about the authenticity of playing a squeezebox for Swedish traditional dancing, I would flash the button shown above. You can plainly see that this Viking era dragon is playing a squeezebox, perhaps even a concertina! I worked for hours to perfect the drawing that I later made into the button.
I need not have worried. Not only did I survive unscathed, but the Swedish concertina enthusiasts had me over for spaghetti (or some other traditional Swedish meal) and we had a good time. One big fellow tore the sweatshirt off his back and gave it to me. It had a rendering of a tattered horse’s head (of the English Morris Dance variety) and the words Eken Morris Dancers. Eken was apparently an old name for Stockholm. I still wear that shirt on cool evenings and I still smile about that evening when a bunch of unrooted folk enthusiasts shared some time and tales together.
Later during the trip I happened to find a poster of a painting of a May Day celebration. The painting, by a famous Swedish artist, dated from around 1880. The procession was packed with dancers in their traditional drakt, hauling a huge May Day tree to the site of their dance. At the head of the procession was a young dancer providing the music. He was playing a concertina.