If you think that the life of the
itinerant organ grinder in the "good old days" was romantic, just read the
following bigotted article. Try to visualize the organ grinder's life along with the smell
of horse manure in the streets! What a treat....
Music of the Street
from Harper's Weekly, 1867
in the Flora Collection
It certainly requires a very considerable quantity and a very brilliant quality of
imagination to see any poetry in the life of a street organ grinder. And yet, easy and
idle as the life appears to be, it is by no manner of means all sunshine.
The able-bodied organ-grinders of New York are nearly all Italians, who have left their
native hillsides with strange ideas of this blessed land of liberty, and reaching here are
very much astonished to hear the first official authority in the land declare that
"freedom means the liberty to work", and that men actually have to work for
their daily bread. Naturally they seize upon pursuits that require no previous preparation
or acquaintance with the language, and become either fruit-dealers, image-peddlers, or
organ-grinders - generally the latter.
It has long been a custom both here and in Europe for speculative Italians to induce their
countrymen to emigrate by paying their passage and loaning them organs for street music.
The conditions are that a certain sum shall be brought home nightly, the over-plus being
retained by the employee. This business has been conducted in past years with great
success, and has in many instances realized moderate fortunes.
In this city there are establishments also where organs are loaned for about twenty-five
cents a day, to itinerants, who often realize from two to three dollars daily by their
All these people are apt, on arrival, to betake themselves to the vicinity of the Five
Points, where both sexes, to the number often of a dozen or more, occupy promiscuously one
room, and sleep in an atmosphere of dirt, grease, and onions, mingled with the fumes of
bodies more or less diseased. The floor, or a thin, filthy mattress, is their only
bedding, with a covering either of their day-clothes or a ragged blanket of the most
In the hot nights of summer they fly from this atmosphere of vermin and suffocation to the
roof, while their fellow-lodgers, Irish and colored, resort to the carts lying in the
street or to the sidewalk. Sometime for a brief hour of prosperity they escape from these
purlieus, but oftener they have no roof of any sort under or on which to seek shelter or
But everybody does not look on the subject in this sentimental light, as witness one of
our poets on the same subject, but in a very different strain:
Yes, the war-whoops of the Indian may produce a pleasant thrill
When they're mellowed by a distance that one feels increasing still;
And the shrilling of the whistle from the steamer's brazen snout
May have minor tones of music, though I haven't found them out.
In the orchestra of Nature - in the wind, the wave, the cloud -
There are harmonies unnumbered, though the style is rather "loud".
Nay, I'm willing to acknowledge that, throughout the realms of sound -
With one dreadful reservation - there may melody be found.
But oh, human fellow-creatures, of the cheering faith possessed
That there lurks a charm in music to beguile the savage breast,
Now I put it to you meekly, did there ever bosom beat
With a throb of joy responsive to the Music of the Street?
Did you ever know a brother, whether civilized or wild,
From the pale-faced son of Europe to the dusky Afric child,
Who could find a charm of music in the strangulary wheeze
That is twisted from the organ of the nomad Genoese?
Was there ever human tympan so inveterately hard
That it was not wrenched with torture by the strolling Savoyard,
When with grimy little talons he is plucking at the sharp,
Tintinnabulating catgut of his wretched little harp?
Ah! No wonder fabled Orpheus moved the stolid rocks and trees,
If his efforts "held a candle" to such fearful ones as these;
Nor that Pluto, in the anguish of his music-troubled sleep,
Sent Eurydice to stop him, and believed the bargain cheap.
Up and down the highways gathered in a heaven-ascending pyre,
Should those dreadful organs perish in a holocaust of fire,
And if any swarthy beggar thenceforth broke the rest of sound
I would grind him by the Powers, finer than the tunes he ground!
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