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MMD > Archives > March 1998 > 1998.03.12 > 03Prev  Next

Gem and Concert Roller Organ Cobs -- Part 2
By Richard Dutton

When I wrote an introductory piece on roller organ cobs for MMD
(published on 2/1/98), I said that if there was sufficient interest on
the part of subscribers I would submit similar pieces from time to time.
The only response was from a reader who pointed out (correctly) that the
proper name for the pinned wooden cylinders that play on the roller organ
was not "cobs", as they are now almost universally called, but "rollers".
     I nevertheless thought I'd try again, with a St. Patrick's Day piece
on Irish music on the roller organ. I hope some of you out there are
reading this!



     In light of the enormous number of Irish immigrants who arrived in
the United States before and during the roller organ era (which lasted
from the 1880's through the 1920's) and the fact that the roller organ
was a readily available, easy-to-operate and thoroughly enjoyable source
of music that was within the financial reach of many working-class
immigrants, it is not surprising that a large number of tunes on the
roller organ are Irish ones.

     One could write at great length about what it means for a piece of
music to be "Irish", but several categories of tunes from that era with
Irish associations immediately come to mind: traditional dance music that
originated in Ireland, including jigs, reels and hornpipes; the greatly
revered sentimental and national songs of Irish poet laureate Thomas
Moore; operatic pieces by the Irish composer Michael Balfe; and the
innumerable popular songs of the era that contain references to Ireland
(like "Come Back to Erin") or Irish names (like "Sweet Rosie O'Grady").

     The dance tunes on the roller organ include a number of Irish jigs,
like #217, "Medley Jig", and #246, "the Irish Washerwoman", reels, like
#247, "The Devil's Dream", and #298, "Miss McLeod's Reel", and hornpipes,
like #213, "College Hornpipe", #122, "Sailor's Hornpipe", and #1131,
"Fisher's Hornpipe" (To confuse things, the tune on cob #213 is more
commonly known as "Sailor's Hornpipe", and the tune on cob #122 is more
commonly known as "Fisher's Hornpipe" and is the same as the tune on cob
#1131!). There are also a number of similar American dance tunes on the
roller organ that may, ultimately, have been Irish in origin, like #106,
"Soldier's Joy", and even #207, "The Arkansas Traveler", and #1172,
"Turkey in the Straw".

     One can picture a roller organ being cranked as Irish immigrants
danced jigs, reels and hornpipes (but only for about thirty seconds at a
time, until the cob snapped back and started over!). Central to their
more serious music were the songs of Thomas Moore (1779-1852), a Dublin
grocer's son who attended Trinity College and became poet laureate on the
basis of his romantic, sentimental and often melancholy poems, frequently
lamenting the loss of Ireland's former glory, which he set to his
pianoforte arrangements of traditional Irish harp tunes. Moore's Irish
Melodies is said to have been the most widely-owned book among
nineteenth-century Irish immigrants in America. Among the Melodies are
cob #149, "The Last Rose of Summer", and cob #186, "Oft in the Stilly
Night", both sentimental songs with no particular Irish reference, and
the beautiful, spirited march tune, #165, "The Minstrel Boy".

     Less well-known than Moore and now remembered primarily for several
songs from his opera "The Bohemian Girl" is Dublin-born composer Michael
Balfe (1808-1870). The lyrics to his "I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble
Halls" (#134) figure prominently in the story "Clay" in James Joyce's
Dubliners, and Balfe's "Then You'll Remember Me" (also known as "When
Other Lips") (#157) was recorded by Irish tenor John McCormack in the
early days of phonograph records and, along with Balfe's "Killarney"
(#266), continued to be popular long after that.

     Because such a large percentage of Americans at the turn of the
century had Irish roots, the popular songs of the time contain any number
of references to Ireland and Irish names. For example, songs on the
roller organ about "Irish sweethearts" include the still-remembered
"Little Annie Rooney" (#335), "Sweet Rosie O'Grady" (#1071) and "Peggy
O'Neil" (#1259) as well as about half a dozen now-forgotten pieces like
the hauntingly pretty "Belle Mahone" (#208). "Love's Old Sweet Song"
(#329), though it contains no specifically Irish references, has Irish
associations because of John McCormack's beautiful recorded rendition of
it and the central part its lyrics play in James Joyce's Ulysses. ("Lilly
Dale" (#1192), another turn-of-the-century drawing-room piece, was also a
favorite of Joyce and a phrase from its lyrics plays a part on the first
page of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).

     Roller organ versions also exist of other sentimental Irish
favorites like "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" (#251);  "Come Back to
Erin" (#392); "Mother Machree" (#1230); "Where the River Shannon Flows"
(#1191); and "Ireland Must Be Heaven" (#1229); the spirited World War I
favorite "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary" (#1193); the
mournful-sounding "Mr. Dooley" (#1137), about the fictional Chicago
Irish-American character whose published opinions on many subjects were
avidly followed at the turn of the century; and, of course, the St.
Patrick's Day standard, "The Wearing of the Green" (#163), as well as the
full, harmonious and more appealing arrangement of the tune "St.
Patrick's Day" itself (#297).

     Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Richard L. Dutton
16 Bloomfield Way
Llewellyn Park
West Orange, New Jersey 07052

 [ Richard,
 [    Thanks for taking the time to write a second article.  Robbie and
 [ I feel very strongly that we need articles like yours to provide breadth
 [ and variety for our subscribers.  In addition, articles like yours will
 [ become cataloged by the Web "search engines" and be available in the
 [ future for other's online research in the years to come.  This is both
 [ a benefit to the "Internet Community", but also provides an opportunity
 [ in the future for the author to receive feedback and research assistance
 [ from others around the world.  I hope you'll continue to write to us from
 [ time to time, and that others with knowledge or insight to share
 [ will also take the trouble to write.    Thanks.    --Jody

(Message sent Thu 12 Mar 1998, 20:13:00 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  2, Cobs, Concert, Gem, Organ, Part, Roller

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