When former Vermonter and Pulitzer prize winning author Annie Proulx wrote “Accordion Crimes,” it was because she heard in that instrument the essence of immigrant America. Here was an instrument with as many varieties of song as there were nationalities crowding the American shores.
The accordion, it turns out, can do a lot more than play polkas. The instrument, which comes in many varieities, has been central to the traditional music of many lands; in the hands of a master player, its possibilities are almost endless.
Luckily for central Vermont, such a master player does live here among us. Jeremiah McLane of Strafford can make an accordion do about anything you can imagine, and then some. “For years—and I’ve known him forever— I’ve publicly referred to Jeremiah as the ‘top folk accordion player in this country,’” according to Vermont’s traditional music guru Pete Sutherland.
“And that would be true if he played only HALF the styles he does, or was only half as skilled at the ones he does play,” Sutherland added.
“Getting to share the bandstand with him—well, I am in awe—the way he rips the melody, integrates harmony, and can improvise ‘til the cows come home.”
McLane’s accordions—he plays several— can get your foot tapping in a dancing mood in a jiffy when he plays with a band like the Clayfoot Strutters, which he formed with Sutherland in 1998, playing festivals and contra-dances.
Or if you like zydeko music, you’d like The Goat Broke Loose. McLane founded The Goat with Upper Valley dance band musicians to play this style, which originated in southwestern Louisiana.
His 10 or so CDs include collaborations with musicians of every stripe, sometimes one-on-one, such as the enchanting “Hummingbird” with Seattle fiddler Ruthie Dornfeld, and sometimes with ensembles like Nightingale, a sparkling Celtic-inflected trio which was popular throughout the area several years ago, or “Going Elsewhere” with the Clayfoot Strutters.
Currently, a consuming interest for McLane is French-derived traditional music. With Le Bon Vent, a band he also founded, McLane has explored not only French-influenced music in Quebec and elsewhere in North America, but the traditional music of Brittany.
In visiting there in the late ’90s, he spent a summer driving around the countryside (“which looks a lot like Vermont”) with bagpipe artist Michelle Esbelin, searching out some of the older players who had lived through the wars “and had been playing this music nonstop” he explained.
He brought some of his new French friends back to this country for a tour with New England musicians a few years ago.
His pursuit of these international influences reflect McLane’s serious academic interests and leanings that are perhaps unusual in an accordion player. In fact, McLane notes, traditional musicians are not generally given much status in conservatories, which focus on classical music or sometimes jazz.
He, however, earned a master of music degree in contemporary improvisation and has taught at the State University of New York in Plattsburg. Here in Vermont, he has created the Floating Bridge Music School, teaching traditional and contemporary music for both accordion and guitar.
His main teaching studio is currently at the Seven Stars Center in Sharon.
His own musical life was fueled by a large and musical family growing up in New Hampshire (where his great-grandfather was governor from 1905-07).
“Songs and music making were a regular feature of family gatherings,” he writes on his website. “I started on clarinet when I was nine and then switched to piano (which he still plays) at 11.”
He had classical lessons but quickly “learned to play boogiewoogie and blues,” he writes. He didn’t start playing accordion until he was 22.
So, there are many Jeremiah McLanes, all of them demonstrating astounding technique, expanding the boundaries of accordion playing beyond anything you thought the instrument could do. And now, at age 55, Jeremiah has a entered a new phase in his life, both musical and personal.
A Musical Meeting
A couple of years ago, a brilliant young pianist from the Netherlands, Annemieke Spoelstra, who was living inBurlington, attended a concert in Bristol by Nightingale. It was an important evening for them both.
“We began to talk about accordions,” McLane recalled at a recent interview. “She had brought some music—we read something together and improvised a bit.”
He quickly discovered that Spoelstra’s virtuosity and musicianship were equal to his.
“There’s virtually no music than Annemieke can’t read at first sight,” he said with admiration. The two now live in a comfortable home deep in the woods on the Strafford/ Sharon line, sharing the space with a dozen or more musical instruments— and their new baby Luke, who is four months old.
Having met through music, perhaps its no surprise that one of McLane and Spoelstra’s first enterprises was to start playing together. Here they encountered another problem: Virtually no music for piano and accordion exists. It’s not a combination common in traditional music, and certainly not in classical music.
Not to worry. The two have musical arranging talents as well as being top-notch performing artists. They turned their attention to a variety of sources, including French classical composers. The result is a very listenable and unusual brand new CD—probably the only one in the world where you’ll find music by Francis Poulenc played on the accordion. The two also have played some public gigs together.
He’s also recorded a CD of Spoelstra’s playing of the piano repertoire, from Bach to the Romantics. It demonstrates conclusively that she is one of Vermont’s finest classical pianists.
The collaboration is another chapter in an amazing musical story for Jeremiah McLane.
“He’s been out there for years in so many musical formats,” Pete Sutherland reflected, “but his sound identifies him in a second.
“Vermont is so very, very fortunate to have kept him here.”
– By M. D. Drysdale