It has survived a plague of vultures, champagne bubbles and electric guitars. Now the accordion, the original acoustic synthesizer, is back -- reincarnated on roots-reaching rock records, squeezing wheezing, pleasing Old World sounds into an age of musical screech and thump.

Polka prisoner no more, the accordion is galloping across the pop-tune airwaves like a funky carrousel pony cut loose from its merry-go-round rut.

From John Cougar Mellencamp's countrified Rust Belt rock to Tom Waits' new wave vaudeville, from the Tex-Mex rockabilly of Los Lobos to the new-age soft rock of Bruce Hornsby, the 19th-century Viennese mix of bellows and buttons, keyboards and reeds is making a major splash in the modern music mainstream.

Influencing all this has been the increased exposure given zydeco music, the exuberant, accordion-based dance music created by the Creoles of southern Louisiana.

Long dismissed as a dorky dinosaur, the accordion's recent rise offers answers to pop culture's perennial questions: What is hip? And why?

"If there was a stigma {to the accordion}, I think it has a whole different image now," says keyboardist Rob Hyman of the Hooters, another popular rock group whose recent album and concerts are accordion-flavored.

Ah, yes, a stigma. To comprehend the utter unlikeliness, the wild wonder of the accordion's rock 'n' roll resurgence, you have to consider its dark demise. For this was a musical instrument not just displaced from the past generation's musical menu but actively mocked and scorned.

Even the accordion's staunchest defenders, after they have reeled off its virtues as a kind of Swiss army knife of musical instruments, will eventually cite, with appropriate horror, the popular view expressed in a "Far Side" cartoon. It depicted new arrivals in Heaven being handed harps while their counterparts in Hell get accordions.

This fall from grace is all the more boggling when you consider that well into the 1950s, the accordion was among America's most popular musical instruments.

Obedient sons and daughters of European ethnics packed accordion schools, their left arms sore from working the bellows; their little bow ties straight beneath dry mouths as they went before the judges in then-innumerable contests.

In central Italy, the town of Castelfidardo swelled with accordion factories, says Julio Giulietti, 77, whose Giulietti Accordion Corp. is in Westfield, Mass.

As Giulietti tells it, in 1864 a religious pilgrim from Eastern Europe passed through Castelfidardo with an accordion. Giulietti's maternal grandfather, a maker of plows and scythes, exchanged "two chickens and a silver coin" for it. He dissected it and began making the finely balanced brass and steel reeds that comprise the instrument's tongues.

Giulietti's father built the business in America. When Julio took its reins in the 1950s, he was importing thousands of accordions from Italy each year.

And fine creations they were. Organic synthesizers such as da Vinci might have designed, they were made not of microchips and lead solder but of American walnut and three-ply mahogany and goat skin and 224 hand-cut, double-riveted steel reeds glued down with a fragrant mix of beeswax, rosin and oil.

Covered in colored celluloid, perhaps spangled with rhinestones, the portable orchestras lined the factory shelves like mad mixes of monster armadillos, adding machines and toy pianos. Their plastic-louvered aluminum sound vents were like the grills and dashboards of old luxury automobiles, like the ornate facades of the big radios from which their sounds regularly poured.

And hip? In 1947, accordionist Dick Contino was just 17 years old when he first blew them away on Horace Heidt's nationally broadcast radio talent show. He played "Lady of Spain" with lightning speed and threw in a hot new maneuver called the bellows shake.

Dubbed the "Valentino of the Accordion" by Heidt, and later known as "Mr. Accordion," he became a teen idol with a million fan club members nationwide and, as he recalls, "hundreds of bobby soxers pulling at me."

"I played with a lot of intensity ... I put my arms, legs and body into it. Not because I thought, 'This is the formula,' but because this was me, that's how I felt," says Contino, now 58 and living in Las Vegas.

So what happened? How did such a popular instrument, a fine instrument for which Tchaikovsky composed the Suite No. 2, Op. 53, get degraded in the popular mind to the status of an overgrown kazoo?

An abbreviated history of the accordion begins with Chinese instruments built 2,700 years before Christ and ends with Lawrence Welk.

In the late 1950s, Welk's popular television show featured the dapper noodlings of accordionist Myron Floren, the adroit "Happy Norwegian," who fronted the Champagne Music Makers.

Grandparents and parents may have loved it, but to rebellious baby boomers getting turned on by Elvis Presley, that only made the accordion's enshrinement in prime-time kitsch all the more unsavory.

Then came the knockout punch.

Tom (T-Bone) Wolk, who now plays bass with Hall and Oates and the Saturday Night Live band, was a teen-age New York State accordion champ when the Beatles landed in America.

"When the Beatles came, I was just like all the other kids on the block who said, 'Gee, I want to play that Beatles song.' ... I just picked up the guitar," Wolk recalls.

With a few exceptions -- the old Parisian sound on the Rascals' "How Can I Be Sure," and Bruce Springsteen's early evocations of the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J. -- rock obliterated the accordion.

But even as imports plunged to a fraction of their former levels, as factories folded and accordion schools closed or diversified, a subculture kept the instrument alive.

"Three years ago, I found that 150,000 beginners' method books were being sold annually . . . at a time when the concept was that nobody was playing accordion," says Faith Deffner, vice president of the American Accordionists' Association.

But the accordion was deep in a cultural closet, reflecting the mainstream rejection not just of Welk's wimpiness but of old-fashioned ethnicity.

"I figured it wasn't hip enough for me," recalls Stanley (Buckwheat) Dural Jr., the blazing accordionist whose zydeco band is the first to get a record distributed by a major international label, Island Records. "On a Night Like This," released in late August, already has sold 50,000 copies in the United States.

Even though zydeco accordion playing, traditionally accompanied by spoons rubbed across a modified washboard known as a frottoir, went back four generations in his family, Dural chose the Hammond organ instead and spent most of the '60s and '70s playing mainstream soul music.

Dural rejected zydeco because, like the speaking of Creole French, it was then frowned upon by southern Louisiana's increasingly urban and Americanized culture. "It's like you're running away from your roots . . . 'Don't get caught with the accordion,' " Dural recalls.

But his attitude changed after a late '70s stint in the band of accordionist Clifton Chenier, the king of zydeco who died in December. The lesson: "Don't be ashamed of who you are. Hey, this is you. This is your music . . . You don't have to put a quarter in a juke box to get this music," Dural says, his speech coming in hurried bursts, as if driven by squeeze box bellows.

When Dural took up the accordion and started his own band in 1979, he spiced traditional zydeco with rock and blues -- a recipe that has won him four Grammy nominations and made obvious what accordion supporters have claimed all along: The instrument's sound can be as wickedly hip as you want to make it.