Now Or Never

The night I shared the stage with my 85-year-old grandpa, a Manitoba polka legend

I wanted to have a musical experience with my grandfather before it was too late. At 85, he's not going to be able to play forever.

I wanted to play with my grandpa, the 'Accordion King', before it was too late

Travis Pederson and his grandfather, Ivan Pederson, perform at the community hall in Piney, Manitoba. (CBC / Travis Pederson)

By Travis Pederson

I grab my guitar, ready to play live music for the first time in years.

There's about 200 people gathered at the community hall in Piney, Manitoba to watch. This is a true small town musical showcase: featuring the community choir, two bands and an amazing 13-year-old on the fiddle.

But no one is more nervous than I am.

It's not the crowd. It's not the fact that my family is here, or that my first grade teacher is in the audience. I am nervous because I am playing live with my grandpa.

Ivan Pederson, my grandpa, is known as the 'Accordion Man'. He's been playing for over 75 years. (CBC / Travis Pederson)

My grandpa, Ivan Pederson, is known as the "Accordion Man." He's the unofficial polka king of southern Manitoba — and he's been playing music for 75 years.

I have watched him play all over the prairies, for thousands of people. His music has been in frequent rotation on radio shows like The Polka Party. He is also a very particular musician to play with, especially for his out-of-practice grandson.

The story of Ivan's first accordion

4 years ago
Duration 1:32
85-year-old Ivan Pederson has been playing accordion for decades. He makes a complicated instrument look easy to play. But getting his first accordion wasn't easy... (Video created by CBC Graphics, original art by Duk Han Lee)

Playing music together, before it's too late

My grandpa inspired my love of music. He signed me up for all of my lessons and taught me everything he knows. But while we share a love of music, I eventually started to play songs that sounded more like Pearl Jam than polka.

Now, I want to have a musical experience with him before it's too late. At 85, my grandpa knows that he's not going to be able to play forever.

Accordions are very heavy instruments and it's starting to wear on his shoulders. So, if we want to do something together, it has to be soon.

I come up with a plan: we're going to perform original Pederson songs, live at the community hall in Piney.

But first, we need to practice.

Travis Pederson and his 85-year-old grandpa, Ivan, wrote and recorded this waltz together before their debut performance in Piney, Manitoba.

We write and record a polka and a waltz together. They turn out nicely. Next, we are going to try some of the songs I want to play. I ask him to play a White Stripes song on the banjo. My singing is off-key and he quickly lets me know.

"You know, they might throw tomatoes at you!" he said. I start to panic. He thinks someone is going to throw tomatoes at me? All this criticism is taking a toll on my confidence.

It's the day of the big show. My grandpa and I have been writing, recording, and practicing all week leading up to the showcase. This is it, I am finally going to be playing a live show with him!

Back to where it all started

On the way to the show, I ask him if he remembers his first live performance.

"Well, the guy I bought my accordion from, he played. His brother played [too], so we started playing at the hall in Piney," he said.

The significance isn't lost on me: we are going to play a show together in the same hall he first played in. We get to the hall, and there is a real excitement in the air. The community has come out in full force.

A 13-year-old fiddler impresses at the community concert, with grandpa Ivan on the accordion. (CBC / Travis Pederson)

I can barely speak, and I am hoping that I can sing. I look over at my Grandpa, and he's ready to go. His accordion is strapped on over his plaid shirt, his trucker hat is tilted to the right as always.

I start singing and I can feel it: my grandpa is cringing on the inside. I miss a note, I go off key. I'm looking around to see if anyone else is noticing my mess-ups.

I look at some of the musicians in the audience and start to wonder what they are thinking. I see my first grade teacher in the back row. My brother is making a weird face.

Then I look across the stage at my grandpa. He is smiling ear-to-ear.

Grandson and grandpa, playing together at the Piney, Manitoba community hall. (CBC / Travis Pederson)

'He has given me my love and appreciation of music'

As I am standing on stage looking at him, I'm taken back to the moment I first fell in love with music. He was right there on the bench beside me, playing my first song on the piano at six years old.

He has given me my love and appreciation of music. Tonight I was reminded of that.

In the end, the musical showcase was a smashing success. Everyone is talking about making it an annual event in Piney.

"Maybe we started something," Grandpa said at the end of the night.

And not one tomato was thrown at the stage!

An original song written by Travis Pederson and his grandpa, Ivan - based on the Now or Never theme.

To hear the full documentary about Travis and Ivan's big performance, click the 'listen' button above