The Music Man

November 2018

The distant playful sounds of a button accordion bounce down the Water Street valley of concrete and glass, inviting me forward like the extended hand of a dance partner, and I must follow. The casual pace of my step quickens, matches the tempo of the music, almost involuntarily. I weave my way through pedestrians out for an afternoon stroll and feel impatient with their sluggish stride, their disregard for the springy tune.

Emerging from the crowd, I see the accordion player sitting on a folding chair. It is planted in a spot of sun on the downtown sidewalk. Following the movement of passersby, his body swivels in his chair, arms flapping. He offers his music and eye contact to every passing pedestrian. One man jams his hand into his jeans pocket as he approaches, gives a nod, and drops a coin into the open red suitcase. Before the coin even clinks against the others, the man is gone without missing a beat in his step. He didn’t pause. He didn’t slow. It was a walk-thru musical interlude.

Donald Tucker, originally of St. Phillips, NL
Photo by Christa Shelley

The musician pivots in my direction and notices me leaning against the black brick of the Yellow Belly Takeaway & Hop Shop. His left arm flaps with a new energy as he squeezes and stretches the accordion, curling it into a smile like the one creasing his face. His music twists and swirls in the air like the salt-and-pepper strands of hair in his beard and those reaching beyond the herringbone tweed of his flat cap. A pattern of wrinkles forms in the tanned skin around his eyes, matching the folds in the bellows. His right hand anchors one side of his instrument against his chest. Its marbled pattern, red and sun-bleached, rests in comfortable contrast against the faded and fraying blue denim of his jacket. His fingers, long and slender, stretch and tap across white buttons in a flurry of bouncy notes.

His hands impart life as the accordion breathes like human lungs. Forced air produces sounds that are rich and reedy and magical, not of this place and time. The music reaches beyond the concrete and glass, dips down into St John’s harbour, circles around into a cove and pulls up smells of sea kelp and ocean and wafts of salted cod drying on flakes. It swings into a kitchen and gathers the sweet scent of freshly baked bread and the spicy aromatics, cinnamon and clove, of a dark fruit cake. It collects reds as it taps along the crimson wood of a stage shed and brushes the rosy cheeks of children swinging their legs at the end of a wharf. It rises and drops and loops, like the needle of a fisherman as he knits, and tugs the seaweed-green from the twine. His music glides over a grassy hill and plucks the blue from orchids, the buttery yellow from dandelions, and then slips down into a valley for the pink and purple of lupins. It captures dancing morning sunlight on the surface of a cobalt blue Atlantic stirred by a breeze. It rides that wind up a cliff and, at the top, gathers a visual cacophony of colours and patterns from grandmothers’ patchwork quilts billowing on clotheslines. His music accumulates all of this vibrant energy from there and then and blends it into harmonic unity, releasing it to reverberate between the stark and still buildings of here and now.

I ask him for a photo. He nods his head.

As I frame him in my camera lens, he plays a smooth waltz. It falls around me like a hypnotic spell. I feel the weight of my own existence settling into my feet, anchoring me in place. The tune is heavy and sombre. As if on cue, a bank of cloud and fog rolls down the street, bringing with it a refreshing coolness. As I turn to walk away, the song ends on a long note that quietly fades into fog.

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