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MMD > Archives > February 1998 > 1998.02.01 > 02Prev  Next

Gem and Concert Roller Organ Cobs - Part 1.
By Richard Dutton

Many people I have met who own roller organs divide the cobs into two
categories, "hymns" and "non-hymns", and have little or no interest in
the hymns, with the exception of perhaps a few familiar titles and the
Christmas carols, which they regard as very desirable.  This is
unfortunate, because many of the hymns on the roller organ are full,
richly harmonious and even powerful arrangements of beautiful tunes
that show off the little instrument well.

Of something like 1,050 different roller organ cobs that were produced,
about a quarter of them are hymns.  In this introductory article, I
will say a little about cobs #1-100, all of which are hymns.

This group of titles includes some still-familiar evangelical standards
that are among the most commonly-found cobs on the roller organ, like
#1, "In the Sweet Bye and Bye", #2, "Nearer My God to Thee", #24,
"Bringing in the Sheaves", #65, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus", and
#73, "Jesus Lover of my Soul".

The great frequency with which these cobs turn up is no doubt a
function of the facts that these hymns were so popular and well-known
and that these low-numbered cobs were, presumably, available throughout
the period of about forty years (roughly 1885-1925) during which the
roller organ was manufactured.  Perhaps they were even sometimes
included in an introductory "package" when a roller organ was sold.
(Three non-hymns that are, similarly, exceptionally common are #109,
"Marching Through Georgia", #123, "Home Sweet Home", and #144, "Nelly

Other relatively common cobs in the #1-100 range are #6, "Onward
Christian Soldiers", the popular march by Sir Arthur Sullivan,
better-known for his collaborations with W. S. Gilbert; #13, "Just As I
Am", the simple hymn by blind Charlotte Elliott that is still used
regularly by Billy Graham at his mass altar calls; #14, "America" ("My
Country `Tis of Thee"); the very pretty but now seldom sung #21, "Is My
Name Written There?"; #23, "Where is my Boy To-night?", which sounds
more like a popular song than a hymn but is a Skid-Row tear-jerker that
appeared in hymnals of 100 years ago in which a distraught mother
laments her son's fall into vice; #67, the eighteenth-century chestnut,
"Rock of Ages"; the tune to three great evangelical hymns by the
prolific hymn writer Fanny Crosby, #72, "Pass Me Not", #90, "All the
Way my Saviour Leads Me", and #91, "Rescue the Perishing"; the haunting
and largely forgotten #80, "Shall We Meet Beyond the River?"; and the
old favorite of "sawdust trail" revival meetings, #89, "Softly and

Another group of fairly common hymns in this numerical range were
written by Philip P. Bliss, who died tragically shortly before the
roller organ was invented and would have been remembered as a recent
martyr in the 1880's.  Bliss had just begun to receive recognition
when, in 1876, when he was 37, a train on which he was traveling
plunged off a railway bridge into a ravine at Ashtabula, Ohio and,
although he escaped from the wreckage, he died in the fire that
followed because he refused to leave his trapped wife's side.  Hymns by
Bliss on the roller organ include #12, the powerful "Hold the Fort",
and #26, "Only an Armor Bearer", both of which liken the evangelizing
Christian to a soldier in battle; #22, "Almost Persuaded"; #25, the
still-sometimes-sung "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning", and #29, "Pull
for the Shore", also known as "The Life Boat", both of which use the
image of a saved Christian as a sailor rescued from drowning; and #27,
"I Will Sing of my Redeemer".

Less commonly found are the many hymn cobs with one-word titles, like
#48, "Webb" (a beautiful arrangement of the tune more familiar as
"Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus") and #40, "Dennis" ("Blest Be the Tie
that Binds").  Hymns like these were identified by tune name because
they were often used with more than one set of words; for example, the
powerful eighteenth- century English hymn tune, #5, "Duke Street", is
still associated with the two familiar hymns "Come Let Us Tune our
Loftiest Song" and "0 God Beneath Thy Guiding Hand", among others.

Other less common, hut familiar, hymn cobs in the #1-100 range are #36,
"Pleyel's Hymn", which will be recognized by anyone who has been raised
as a Master Mason, #39, the "evening hymn" "Abide With Me", and #100,
"We're Marching to Zion" (incorrectly shown in some lists as "We're
Marching to Jesus"), a wonderful hymn in march time by the great
Brooklyn pastor Robert Lowry.

The most highly-prized of the low-numbered hymns on the roller organ
are the Christmas carols, #15, "Antioch" ("Joy to the World"); #31,
"Christmas" ("As Shepherds Watched their Flocks"); #32, "Hark the
Herald Angels Sing" (probably the easiest to find of the Christmas
carols on the roller organ, but still uncommon); and #59, "Portuguese
Hymn" ("O Come All Ye Faithful").

If there is sufficient interest on the part of Mechanical Music Digest
subscribers, I will from time to time contribute additional informa-
tional pieces on roller organ cobs, perhaps next time discussing cobs

Richard Dutton

(Message sent Tue 27 Jan 1998, 16:51:06 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  1, Cobs, Concert, Gem, Organ, Part, Roller

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