Sunday, July 21, 2024

Johnny Degollado, the Austin Accordionista

Johnny-Degollado photo by Bob Zink

Story originally published in the Austin American Statesman in 2002.

It is 1954, and 19-year-old accordionist Johnny Degollado, “El Montopolis Kid,” is on the road with a conjunto group that plays the migrant worker circuit, hitting the Texas towns where the populations double during picking season. At a quick-stop grocery in Littlefield, near Lubbock, Degollado notices an attractive cashier. Her name is Antonia. They make clumsy small talk as he pays for his sodas, and he asks for her mailing address so he can send postcards.

“Antonia,” Degollado keeps repeating, as he walks back to the band’s station wagon. What a pretty name. Antonia Degollado; better yet. He writes her a love letter and a long-distance romance blossoms. Six years later a wedding date is set.

That first meeting is recalled on “La Cajera” (“The Cashier”), the title track to Degollado’s new album, which comes out next week. But why record the ode to love at first sight so many years later? This is a love story with an intermission of more than 30 years. After a disagreement about how much time Degollado would spend out on the road, among other things, the 1960 wedding never took place and the couple broke up.

“She was a girlfriend I had at one time/ That I can not forget, even for a moment,” the lyrics to “La Cajera” translate into English.

“I guess we were too young to get married, but throughout the years I thought of her often,” Degollado says. “When we’d come to Shiner, where most of her family lived, I’d ask about her.” He just wanted to say he was sorry for the way things turned out between them.

He got the chance in 1992, when “Toni,” as most people know Antonia, showed up at one of his shows at Mexic-Arte on Congress Avenue. “My daughter was coming through Austin on her way to San Antonio, where we lived, and she bought the Austin paper,” says Antonia. “There was a big picture of Johnny, and I wondered if that was my Johnny, my first boyfriend Johnny.” After deciding that it was, Antonia, a divorced mother of four at the time, and her sister Alicia decided to go to Austin, “just to see the show, nothing else. I figured that Johnny was married and I didn’t want to interfere.”

Degollado had been married, twice, and was the father of six kids, but he was single in ’92. Against her sister’s wishes, Alicia approached Degollado and asked if he remembered an old girlfriend named Toni.

“My eyes lit up,” says J.D., as he’s known now.

“Well, she’s sitting over there,” Alicia said.

When the former lovers talked that night at Mexic-Arte, it was as if the decades had been hours. They started seeing each other again right away, then after a few months J.D. said, “Let’s get married for real this time.”

The couple will be celebrating their 10th anniversary Sept. 19. La Cajera, which ends in a celebration of finally finding a treasure, is J.D.’s gift to Toni.

The album also contains a tribute to Degollado’s mentor, Camilo Cantu, the accordion great who gave up performing in 1963 and was never recorded. Cantu, who died in 1998 at age 90, usually didn’t title his songs, which were all instrumentals. But whenever he played Janie’s Place on East Seventh Street, a bar owned by his first wife, a drunken patron would call out a request for a certain song by singing its melody (badly). Hence “La Calle Siete” had a name, so Cantu wouldn’t have to hear his song butchered. Degollado reprises “La Calle Siete” using the same “sordita” tuning that Cantu perfected to give his accordion a fuller sound.

Camilo Cantu on accordion 1940s.
Camilo Cantu on accordion 1940s.

“He was up there with all the greats — Narciso Martinez, Valerio Longoria, Don Santiago Jimenez,” Degollado says. “They called him ‘El Azote de Austin,’ ‘the Scourge From Austin,’ because he’d go to towns and blow everybody away. But Mr. Cantu didn’t care about recognition.” When Cantu was inducted into the Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1987, he sent Degollado, Austin’s most prominent figure in the conjunto scene, to pick up the award.

Cantu also gave Degollado permission to take songwriting credit for songs Cantu had written. “He told me that if I hadn’t recorded those songs, no one would ever know they existed. He just passed them on to me and said, ‘They’re your songs now.’ ”

But taking credit for songs he didn’t write doesn’t sit well with some. “When J.D. recorded ‘La Lupita,’ one of Camilo Cantu’s greatest compositions, and I saw the name ‘Johnny Degollado’ listed as the writer, I went to J.D. and said, ‘That’s not right,’ ” says local conjunto historian and photographer Daniel Schaefer. “But he said that’s the way the old man wanted it.” Cantu, who was alive at the time “La Lupita” was a regional hit, didn’t voice an objection, Degollado says.

The two had an almost father-son relationship, especially after Cantu took on Degollado as an apprentice in his accordion repairing and tuning practice. “He was as talented in repairing accordions as he was in playing them,” Degollado says.

It was a 1942 performance by Cantu at the old La Polkita joint in Del Valle that inspired a 7-year-old Degollado to learn the accordion. “I just stood there, watching Mr. Cantu’s fingers move and that big sound from the accordion,” J.D. says. “I was hooked.”

Degollado still has his first squeezebox, a two-row button Hohner accordion his father paid $40 for in 1945. It sits in a display case in the backyard shed where Degollado works repairing and retuning accordions. This was the job Cantu had passed on to him. “It was important to him to keep the craft alive,” says Degollado, who also refinishes antique furniture in the shed. “He told me that just as he had passed the torch to me, I had to pass the torch when the time came.”

Degollado, 68, has recently started teaching the trade to 18-year-old A.J. Castillo, who plays in his father’s conjunto group Rumores. About 75 percent of the business is fine-tuning new accordions by filing the reeds to change tunings and level vibrations. “If there’s no one to fix the accordions, then people will stop playing them, and without the accordion, there’s no more conjunto,” Degollado says.

Known as “musica nortena” in Mexico, conjunto has thrived in the region from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, to San Antonio since the turn of the century when Hispanic button accordion players (inspired by polkas from Czech and German immigrants) teamed with bajo sexto guitarists to create a new sound. Conjunto enjoyed a creative surge in the 1930s when Narciso Martinez, from the Rio Grande Valley, practically abandoned the left-hand chord and bass buttons and instead concentrated on flashy, cat-quick runs on the treble and melody buttons controlled by his right hand. With the bajo sexto holding down the bass lines, the Martinez style would be adopted by almost all conjunto accordionists, except the irascible Cantu, who continued to play the buttons on both sides of the accordion and scoffed at those who didn’t.

In 1947, Valerio Longoria of San Antonio added trap drums and vocals to this previously all-instrumental music, creating the precursor to contemporary Tejano music.

As a teenager who performed often on Austin’s KTXN radio, Degollado picked up the nickname “El Montopolis Kid,” after the East Austin neighborhood where he still lives. He also found a musical running buddy for life, bajo sexto player Vicente Alonzo, who has anchored Degollado’s conjunto band for more than 45 years. During the 1950s heyday of conjunto, they’d play five or six nights a week.

But in the ’60s, conjunto started getting a bad rap as poor people’s music and was rivaled in popularity by a new, more sophisticated, accordion-free style called “orquesta” or “musica decente,” decent music. Such still-popular acts as Little Joe y la Familia and Ruben Ramos come from the orchestra tradition.

“There was definitely a division. Folks who liked the orchestras hated conjunto,” J.D. says. “And if you were a conjunto fan, you didn’t like the orchestras.” But when orchestras started playing and recording several Degollado compositions, including “Un Cielo” and “De Ti Estoy Enamorado,” his group was able to cross over somewhat. A prolific songwriter, J.D. has penned more than 100 songs in his career, not counting the ones Cantu taught him.

A favorite subject is his first love, the one he practically left at the altar to hit the conjunto circuit. Once, in San Antonio in the ’70s, Toni heard a song on the radio called “El Pintor” about a young couple breaking up and regretting it later, and she thought about her Johnny. When the announcer said the song was by Johnny Degollado, Toni almost fell over.

“Even after we broke up in 1960, I kept writing songs about Toni,” J.D. says. “Whenever I’d write a sad song I’d think about how things didn’t work out. If I wanted a happy song, I’d think about us dancing together.”

In a couple of weeks they’ll be dancing the dance that once seemed an impossibility — their 10th anniversary waltz. And if there’s any justice, the song playing will be one composed by Camilo Cantu. Indeed, in the familiar feel of conjunto, long known as “Mexican wedding music,” love and tradition twirl together like smitten dancers, like young and old hearts that pump the same blood, like the accordion and the bajo sexto.

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