Friday, 13 March 2015

The Barrel Organ

We all have peripheral images left over from childhood storybooks of monkeys turning cranks on boxes from which cheerful organ music piped. One type of organ operated in this way was the barrel organ, which consisted of bellows and one or more tiers of pipes housed in a (usually highly ornamented) box. The music was created by the turning of wood "barrels" or cylinders which were encoded with music using an array of pins and staples.
("Detail of barrel organ (1)" by Chmee2, Wikimedia Commons)
Amazing what you can make music out of, isn't it? While the playing of this device doesn't require great musical talent--just a steady arm, the composing of music on one of these barrels is quite complex, so hats off to those who did and still do create their own barrels.

But, on to what I really wanted to share:

 First, this guy, because he's awesome

And second some historic images of barrel organs and their grinders. I find these fascinating, as they show a type of street performing you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the world today (though organ grinder hobbyists do still exist, as is evidenced by the awesome dude above). These images show a quirky array of people, many of them seeming a bit rough around the edges, which really makes you wonder about their stories. How did they come by their barrel organs? Were they all hand-made, or inherited? If not, what sort of a business investment is a barrel organ? How much would that have set you back in the early 1900's? Were these people wacky free-spirits, or hard-working individuals desperate for a few coins in an over-saturated job market? Literature from the time depicts them as almost exclusively as vagabond extortionists, however as with any profession, I'd imagine the personal histories of those involved were as varied and colorful as the instruments they played. 

Organ Grinder, 1922. Toronto Public Library X 65-211
Eugene Atget's Organ Grinder

Children with Organ Grinder in New York
The scene with the organ grinder and the Gypsy girl 
Organ Grinder With Monkey, Ohio County Public Library, W.C. Brown Photo 83

"An organ grinder at Mtskheta" by N_Creatures, Wikipedia Commons

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