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Clink, chime!

Boom, clang, tinkle.

Last weekend my husband and I explored Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh. A converted 5 & 10 store in Franklin, now the home of DeBence Antique Music World, provided irresistible bait. From tour guide, executive director, and ace restorer Scotty Greene, we learned the history of the DeBence collection of over one-hundred working, automatic musical instruments. A retired mechanical engineer, Scotty and his wife Dottie are dedicated caretakers of this mechanical wonderland. It’s impossible not to grin widely while listening to music boxes, player pianos, street organs, fairground organs, calliopes, nickelodeons and other self-playing instruments.

Ring, jingle, toll.

The music that fills DeBence’s, though composed decades ago, comes to life on instruments unmitigated by the recording process. (Not surprisingly, recording technology rapidly displaced the technology of automatic musical instruments.) A tour of DeBence’s will easily prove that electric amplification is not required to produce sounds capable of traveling long distances.

WurliTzer 125 Military Band Organ, Bayernhof Museum

Drum, thrum,
clatter, throb.

Close your eyes. Are you at the circus? Riding a carousal? You might be standing in front of a live marching band. But this is no parade. It’s live music booming from a 1920s military band organ.

According to the company catalog of 1928, the WurliTzer band organ, manufactured in North Tonawanda, NY, was built for “skating rinks, fairs, carousels and summer resorts. WurliTzer Military Band Organs produce lively, enjoyable music of such great volume that they are sure to attract Crowds . . .” When Scotty flips the on switch, be ready to skate away. The volume directly in front of the mighty WurliTzer, style 165, succeeds in generating “the loud, lively, enjoyable music that everybody likes, and that cannot be drowned out by the noise of the skaters.”

Just across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, Sharpsburg’s Bayernhof Museum provides an opportunity to hear a band organ closer to home. Their WurliTzer Military Band Organ, Style 125, was also employed in amusement parks for carousels and in skating rinks. Bayernhof’s web site understates the sound when it proclaims, “It’s 101 pipes are a bit overpowering when played indoors, even in a room as large as its home in Bayernhof. In addition, it has percussion in the form of a bass drum, snare drum and top mounted cymbal. It is quite substantial, weighing almost 800 pounds. WurliTzer built band organs in several sizes, with the larger ones having trombone and saxophone pipes, bells, castanets, and crash cymbals, in addition to a larger number of organ pipes.”

Rattle, snap, thunder
Crash, roll!

Next time you’re strolling down a board walk, riding a painted horse, or gliding in a rink, hear the music. You might be in the presence of a self-playing musical instrument from another ear. In the mean time, the Music Department’s mechanical instrument guide books and recordings await you.


Barrel Organ: The Story of the Mechanical Organ and Its Repair, Arthur W. J. G. Ord-Hume

Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, Q. David Bowers

Player Piano Treasury: The Scrapbook History of the Mechanical Piano in America as Told in Story, Pictures, Trade Journal Articles and Advertising, Harvey Roehl


Catch the Brass Ring [Recording made from a WurliTzer band organ, style 165!]

The Circus Is Coming: Old Fashioned Calliope Music

Mechanical Music Hall: Street, Penny & Player Pianos, Musical Boxes & Other Automata

Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player: Old Fashioned Player Piano Music



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Good Listeners

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh holds history. The most obvious form of history housed here may be the written word, but the spoken word lives here too, in both recordings and transcripts.

I read in today’s newspaper that James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, announced that a collection of recorded interviews has been donated to the Library of Congress.

More than 25 years ago, retired music executive Joe Smith accomplished a Herculean feat—he got more than 200 celebrated singers, musicians and industry icons to talk about their lives, music, experiences and contemporaries. The Library of Congress announced today that Smith has donated this treasure trove of unedited sound recordings to the nation’s library.

Yesterday I leafed through Joe Smith’s book, Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. In entries of only a page or two, the individual voices of 200 musicians gleam like select gems.

Oral History as a scholarly discipline emerged with the advent of portable recording devices, which allowed taped interviews with subjects where they lived and worked. John and Alan Lomax, father and son oral history pioneers, collected folk songs as well as interviews with singers, preserving not only the music, but also the stories behind the songs. One of Alan Lomax’s best known projects is his 1938 recording of interviews with and performances by Jelly Roll Morton. The result is nine hours of recordings that fill seven CDs—Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax. An eighth disc includes a PDF document containing a complete transcription of all dialogue and lyrics on discs one through seven.

Studs Terkel, who helped establish oral history as an important historical genre, began his career with the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the WPA. The FWP produced written guides to each state. Part travelogue, part local encyclopedia, these books and pamphlets include material from oral histories collected from residents throughout the United States, many from previously unexplored and unrecorded regions. A history of the FWP was published in 2009,  Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, and a companion DVD, Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story: A Unique & Powerful Portrait of 1930s Americana.

Division Street: America, Studs Terkel’s first book of interview transcripts, debuted in 1967. Two companion books followed, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974). One reviewer stated, “His success is, I think, due less to the questions he asks than to his genuine interest in people and his genuine curiosity about their points of view. He is that rarest of birds among radio or television personalities, a good listener.”

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to a few more good listeners who documented musicians’ stories and songs, in both written and recorded forms.

Happy listening!



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What’s big and fun and read all over?


A poster showing the chorus girls of a 1900 extravaganza. Image from Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division, Wikimedia Commons.

And it’s coming to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland this Sunday, June 10, 2012.

Extravaganza’s official purpose is to promote summer reading programs. But whether or not you sign up for “Summer Reading” (we offer programs for every age group), there are many reasons to visit the Oakland Library between 12:00 and 5:00 PM this Sunday.

For the past eleven years, kids and adults, friends and families have gathered inside and outside the library on a June afternoon to celebrate the beginning of summer. This Sunday’s festivities will include lots of hands-on activities as well as entertainment—puppet shows, story tellers, and an enticing menu of musical offerings. I’d like to point you to one particular program, 2:30 – 3:30 PM inside the library. Come to the Quiet Reading Room (not so quiet today), get out of the sun, have a seat, and listen to the Riversong String Ensemble, from the Pittsburgh Mandolin Society.

The Riversong String Ensemble is six musicians, each of whom plays at least two different instruments. You will hear various combinations of fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin, mandola, mandocello, bass, guitar, tenor banjo, cello banjo, harmonica, and hurdy-gurdy. A YouTube channel provides a preview.

The leader of Riversong contacted the Music Department and asked if we’d be interested in assisting them put together a program that would highlight materials the library has to offer. She wrote, “For example, we could play a piece by John Dowland (16th century), and then tell the audience that, if they liked it, they can get copies of his works in your printed music section. Then we could play a piece by Gershwin, and tell the audience that they can hear more of his work in your audio music section.”

Librarians get excited by this kind of project. My colleague, Kirby, eagerly put together a long list of relevant printed music, recordings, and books.

I’ll be there Sunday, ready for the pluck, strum, plunk, pick, and twang.

By the way, as of April 18, I’m the new Head of the Music, Film & Audio Department. In a future post I’ll tell you more about myself and what the future might hold for MF&A.


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American Originals

Among the composers represented at the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra “American Originals” concert I attended on May 12, two stand tall for their groundbreaking work.

Charles Ives (not Burl Ives), composer and insurance executive, was the son of Civil War bandmaster George Ives. George Ives was a musical tinkerer, who taught his son to actively listen to whatever was going on around him. Born in 1874, Charles Ives grew up in rural New England. The music of his youth—hymn tunes, parlor ballads, marches—appears as quotes throughout Ives’ compositions. The intense listening his father taught is there, too. If the choir of his home church sounded like it was singing in two keys at the same time, then Ives wrote music that incorporated two simultaneous keys.

Saturday night the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra performed Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” A string orchestra played on stage, while a woodwind quartet and solo trumpet performed from the back of the auditorium. The three groups kept their own tempo and key, the trumpet asking and the flutes responding to questions that have no answers. Ives’ biographer Jan Swafford wrote of Ives, “Obsessed by the past, he wrote a music of the future.”

The Edgewood Symphony Orchestra presented a new arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” made by John Wilson for trumpeter Roger Dannenberg and the Orchestra.

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, twenty-five years after Ives. While Ellington and Ives both shared a belief in the importance of the vernacular—melodies “hummed while men are at work and at play, and that are handed down from generation to generation,” as an Ellington interview from 1930 states—it is the contrasts between these two creators that feeds my curiosity. Specifically, each composer worked in a method unique to his temperament.

Ives composed in virtual isolation. Much of his music was imagined and lived in his own fantasies before taking form on the page. In contrast, Ellington’s creative output nearly always reflected his daily work with his orchestra. Rehearsals with his players shaped his compositions. Pieces were continually tempered and amended by his musical associates.

Ives musical laboratory was the whole world around him, his experiences steeped in the cauldron of memory. He invited no one else to share his musical pondering. Ellington tried out his compositions on everyone with whom he worked. Today we would say he workshopped his music.

Though neither of these men represented mainstream ideas about how a composer works, Ives and Ellington have emerged as two of our greatest American originals.

For further reading:

The Duke Ellington Reader

Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music


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Songsters, Writers, Rovers

In California last week a friend taught me a hobo song. The tune flew back to Pittsburgh with me and followed me to work at the library. I still wake in the night with the melody teasing my sleepy brain. “Hobo’s Lullaby” is a beautiful song.

“Hobo’s Lullaby” was written by Goebel Reeves (born 1899). Teen-aged Reeves adored vaudeville and hobos. He traded a middle-class life for the adventure of roaming the U.S., singing, yodeling, and recording under pseudonyms, including “The Texas Drifter.” He wrote and performed autobiographical songs, and limited his chances for a lucrative career by refusing to settle in one place for more than a few months—a dedicated hobo.

Other musicians who hoboed are Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Utah Philips. Writers who hoboed include James Michener, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac (fictionalized in The Dharma Bums), and Jack London.

Hotel de Gink (hobo hotel) — preparing Muligan stew, photo Library of Congress, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915

In its depression-era heyday, hobodom implied an itinerant lifestyle, usually lived by riding the rails (no ticket required).

Hobo, tramp, and drifter, often used interchangeably, are slang terms, lacking definitive etymologies. However, hobos defined themselves like this—hobos worked, tramps worked only when made to, bums did not work at all.

Jack London wrote in The Road (1907) of his adventures riding the rails.

It began to look as if I should be compelled to go to the very poor for my
food. The very poor constitute the last sure recourse of the hungry tramp.
The very poor can always be depended upon. They never turn away the
hungry. Time and again, all over the United States, have I been refused
food by the big house on the hill; and always have I received food from
the little shack down by the creek or marsh, with its broken windows
stuffed with rags and its tired-faced mother broken with labor. Oh, you
charity-mongers! Go to the poor and learn, for the poor alone are the
charitable. They neither give nor withhold from their excess. They have no
excess. They give, and they withhold never, from what they need for
themselves, and very often from what they cruelly need for themselves. A
bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog
when you are just as hungry as the dog.

Also last week in California, I listened to “West London,” a song by Charles Ives, that musically illustrates and elevates a poem by Matthew Arnold.

Crouched on the pavement close by Belgrave Square,
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.

Some laboring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Passed opposite; she touched her girl, who hied
Across, and begged, and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.

Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.

She turns from that cold succor which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.



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Mirror to the Past

Just as the Civic Arena tore apart the relationship between downtown Pittsburgh and the Hill District neighborhood, that dome, known as The Igloo, is being torn apart now. In 1960-61, black and white images of the dome’s construction  were captured by a local studio and Pittsburgh Courier photographer. From 1937 to 1983, Teeny Harris snapped photos of events and locales central to the African American experience in Pittsburgh. His images hold a mirror to Pittsburgh’s past. Since 2001, Carnegie Museum of Art has archived nearly 80,000 Teenie Harris negatives, with nearly 60,000 images scanned and cataloged to date.

Sit with me at Carnegie Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story. In a darkened gallery, a jazz soundtrack—newly commissioned and recorded for this installation—sets an appropriately bouncy mood. Seven bigger-than-life projections flash on and off, each projection releasing a volley of images. Nearly 1,000 Harris photographs are grouped in seven themes: “Urban Landscapes,” “At Home,” “Style,” “Crossroads,” “Gatherings,” “Words and Signs,” and “Rise and Fall of the Crawford Grill.”

The Crawford Grill jazz club, the first incarnation of which was demolished for construction of the Civic Arena, once crowned the Hill District. Do you see that glittering piano on the stage, tiled entirely with mirror? Who is the woman playing and singing? Look, there’s Satchel Paige seated at the bar, regaling a group of friends. According to the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper of July 26, 1941, “Satch’ is shown telling . . . how he struck out Joe DiMaggio three times and beat Dizzy Dean four out of five. Satchell is slated to pitch in the East-West game Sunday.”

With seven scenarios projected at one time, we could spend hours in this room before we’d see all the available Harris photos. Catch the ones you missed, or revisit favorites on the Museum’s web site. Each image is carefully annotated. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to add their own knowledge of identities, locales, and circumstances to the archive.

Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story
Carnegie Museum of Art
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA
through April 7, 2012


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2012: Out With the New

Merce Cunningham.

A household name? In the world of modern dance, yes. Outside that world, probably not.

Cunningham, born in 1919, formed a dance company in 1953. With music director, composer John Cage, he turned dance on its head. In an entirely new way of envisioning dance, movement was separated from music. Choreography, sets, and music were developed independently of one another and brought together after completion.

Pure movement was Cunningham’s passion. Audience members who expected to witness a story, with traditional elements of conflict, climax and resolution, were frustrated. Successful observers, however, checked preconcieved notions at the door, including assumptions about dance music. Beginning with Cage, Cunningham collaborated with more than fifty exploratory composers of the late 20th century.

“Hi, Merce!”

It’s October 2007. I can still hear the voice of one of his dancers as she aborted her on-stage warm-ups in Chicago to take a phone call from wheelchair-bound Cunningham in New York. Though no longer able to dance or even travel with his company, Cunningham phoned them before every performance. From my view from the orchestra pit at Chicago’s Harris Theater, I am grateful for my first and only opportunity to experience these provocative works of movement and sound.

When Cunningham died in 2009 at age ninety, he left a plan for his dance company. The dancers would continue to perform his work on a “Legacy Tour,” with their final performance in New York City, December 31, 2011. If you were there, good for you. If not, it’s too late to see Cunningham’s choreography performed by the company he trained. The new ended with the last day of 2011.

Though the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs no more, it’s not too late to read about, listen to, and view recorded dances and interviews. The library houses a treasury of material for those curious about Merce Cunningham’s work.

Music for Merce, 1952-2009, a ten CD set published by New World Records, is available to check out, and also to listen to at the Main Library on the streaming music database, DRAM, the Database of Amercian Recorded Music.




Cage/Cunningham, a documentary film by Eliot Kaplan, captures a heartfelt portrait of the fifty-year collaboration between composer John Cage and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham.




Merce My Way: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Photographs, by Mikhail Baryshnikov, features still photographs snapped by a famous fellow-dancer that capture dress rehearsal movement by Cunningham and Company.




Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, chronicle and commentary by David Vaughan, is the most comprehensive book of Cunningham’s life and work through the mid-1990s in the library’s collection.




Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham, by Carolyn Brown, offers a dancer’s perspective of the Cunningham Dance Company’s formative years in a revealing memoir by one of its original members.








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