Thoreau, from May 27, 1851:
I saw an organ-grinder this morning before a rich man’s house, thrilling the street with harmony, loosening the very paving stones and tearing the routine of life to rags and tatters, when the lady of the house shoved up a window and in a semiphilanthropic tone inquired if he wanted anything to eat. But he, very properly it seemed to me, kept on grinding and paid no attention to her question, feeding her ears with melody unasked for. So the world shoves up its window and interrogates the poet, and sets him to gauging ale casks in return. It seemed to me that the music suggested that the recompense should be as fine as the gift. It would be much nobler to enjoy the music, though you paid no money for it, than to presume always a beggarly relation. It is after all, perhaps, the best instrumental music that we have.
A complex quote, for as you will hear below, it is not clear which is the kinder gift.
mp3: Chiappa Barrel Organ – Daisy Bell and Oh Mr. Porter
Not only is the quote complex, but for us to truely understand it, we would need to time-travel. While your listed MP3 is certainly that of a barrel organ (and of an organ in fairly decent shape I may add) it isn’t quite what someone in 1851 would have observed. The organ in the MP3 is rather large and from probably the late 1900s (1870-1900. See this youtube-video for an organ as available anno 1830 CLICK HERE.
Now one has to also take into account a few other things:
– the organ either was *brand*new* then, OR it was certainly under regular maintenance by the company that rent them out to the grinders
– hello! 1850! No Radio, no record-player or anything we are bombarded with these days – the organ grinder was the only musical entertainment aside of real musicians
Given the mechanical superiority in repeating the performance of a tune one could easily understand how this instrumental music was potential preferred to any other traveling musician.
The only instrumental acts that would have surpassed the organ grinder would have been entire bands, church organs or an orchestra (which would have been far and few between, reserved for large metropolitan areas).
In quite a historic sense, being able to listen to an organ grinder at all in itself would have been “a luxury”… that they still were considered “beggars” makes me ponder the structure of society back then. In large parts it probably has more to do with the grinders themselves then the instrument.
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