Music From Hell!

Janet Coburn
4 min readFeb 11, 2024

Whenever you see a cartoon about someone arriving in hell, they’re issued a musical instrument — almost invariably an accordion or bagpipes. Sometimes a banjo.

Why is that? Are they played badly every single time? Are there no tunes that they’re really the best instrument for? Why all the hate?

Let’s start with the accordion. Unquestionably, the virtuoso of the accordion is “Weird Al” Yankovic. He has made fun of the instrument by using it to mimic the sound of an iron lung in one of his early songs. (Not politically correct, I suppose, but very funny, which, now that I think about it, sums up a lot of Al’s repertoire. But I digress.)

The Weird One is particularly well known for his epic medleys of famous tunes played on the accordion. Among the tunes he’s given the polka treatment are “99 Red Balloons,” “Hey Jude,” “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” “Hot Blooded,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” and “My Generation.” Just wrap your head around that.

Another much-maligned instrument is the bagpipes. About the only song that people will tolerate from a bagpipe is “Amazing Grace,” which is what was played every night when Dan and I were on a “barefoot cruise.”

But in general, the Scottish instrument is usually held in the same esteem as Scottish cuisine. (Never having been to Scotland, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the slight on their cooking. I have been to England and Ireland, also often derided for their food, but I enjoyed eating both places. In England, I actually ordered a dessert called “spotted dick” and ate it, mostly so I could say, “I ate a spotted dick.” But I digress again.)

Yet another instrument that has a bad rep is the banjo. I think this is primarily due to that scene in Deliverance, where it became shorthand for mentally challenged Appalachian children and perverts. “Dueling Banjos” is the only banjo tune most people can name, and that’s half guitar.

But as Weird Al is to the accordion, Bela Fleck is to the banjo — a virtuoso, I mean, not a comic genius (though Fleck does have a tune called “Cheese Balls in Cowtown”). Fleck plays mostly jazz banjo, of which he is the only practitioner, to my knowledge. However, he has been known to dabble in classical banjo, recording an entire album that included the Keyboard Sonata in C Major, which can be heard here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ych7SiJ1pjg.

(I actually tried to learn to play the banjo once, but I was caught up in my perpetual music loop — when I had time, I had no money for lessons; when I had money, no time. Eventually, when I was broke, I sold the banjo, which solved the problem. But I digress some more.)

Some of my favorite music stories involve an old friend of blessed memory, Bill Maraschiello, better known as Bill-of-Many-Instruments Maraschiello. If it had strings, keys, pipes, or anything else, Bill could play it. Guitar, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, lap dulcimer, and more. I swear if you put an old shoe in front of him, he could play it and make it sound wonderful. Once I once saw him play two pennywhistles at the same time — a different melody on each. It was nothing short of amazing.

Bill was short, just 5’2″, and sometimes he played miniature versions of accordion and bagpipes — concertina and uilleann pipes. (I suppose, since the haters often say that bagpipes sound like someone torturing a cat, the uilleann pipes would be blamed for abuse of kittens. Also, I couldn’t find a picture of them to go with this post. But I digress yet again.)

It’s said that music soothes the savage beast. I guess accordions, bagpipes, and banjos simply make them more savage. Perhaps it’s safest to avoid them, but I don’t think I can. Some of my musical heroes have played them. And I don’t think they’re going to hell for it.

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Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.