The Roller Organ Cob Handbook

by Richard Dutton1)

General Introduction

Let me begin by providing some information about myself, how I became interested in roller organ cobs and what my Roller Organ Cob Handbook is intended to be. Anyone who wishes may skip this section and scroll down to the entries concerning individual roller organ cobs that follow.

In 1953, when I was six years old, my father brought home a Concert roller organ and 30 cobs that he had bought at a roadside auction on Long Island for $6. The case was dark brown with age and the stenciling barely visible, but the organ itself played well. I was immediately fascinated with it and, because no one else in the family cared about it as much as I did, it became a plaything of mine growing up. I played each one of the cobs many, many times and knew every note of every tune and each tune by name (except for the titles of tunes on two cobs without labels, which I did not learn until many years later). Often I would drag the organ around the way other children carry a favorite toy and I would play it for my friends on the picnic table in the backyard behind our Brooklyn row house.

By the time I reached my teens, I was less interested in the organ and after I went away to college it spent many years in the cellar. Then, in 1977, when I had completed my education and had moved back to Brooklyn, I took the organ to Rita Ford's music box shop in Manhattan and had one of her repairmen completely overhaul it. At that time, I became seriously interested in acquiring additional cobs to play on it, but (in the days long before eBay) I had no idea where to look for them. Rita sold me a few, I was able to buy a few more from a woman who at that time had a music box shop up in Westchester, and I bought a larger number from a fellow out on Long Island who, I somehow found out, at that time bought and sold roller organs and repaired them in his basement.

My grandmother, who was in her early nineties, was living with us at the time. Although she had otherwise completely lost her memory and didn't even know who we were, when I would bring home an unidentified hymn cob and play it, she would begin singing the words, which she remembered from her childhood growing up in the Sunday Breakfast Mission in Wilmington, Delaware, a Skid Row mission where my great-grandfather was the Superintendent. I was able to identify a number of obscure hymn cobs this way.

Sometime in the mid-1990s I heard from an antique dealer I had contacted about cobs that there was a mechanical music show being held in Bound Brook, New Jersey, and when I went to it my whole perspective on roller organ cobs changed. While I had always thought that my roller organ was very special and rare, I found that there were a number of other people around who had them and that there were even people who specialized in cob roller organs and had large numbers of cobs for sale, like the late Alvin Moersfelder in Wisconsin (who had driven all the way from there to Bound Brook in his old Cadillac, loaded up with roller organs and cobs, catching naps at rest stops on the way). At that point, I began acquiring any cobs that I could find that I did not have, sometimes buying large lots of them, sight unseen, often with organs, keeping the cobs I needed and trading the duplicates for others I could add to my collection. I met more and more people in the mechanical music realm as one transaction led to another and, with the advent of eBay, I began buying cobs and organs in online auctions as well. In my “wheeling and dealing” I eventually completed over 450 transactions and expanded my collection to more than 1,000 different cobs, all but 28 of the 1,050-plus 20-note cobs known to have been made.

As I acquired cobs, often in large batches that included many without a label containing a legible number or title, I found that I had a special ability to remember tunes and associate them with titles and then numbers so that, after a while, I was able to recognize hundreds of tunes on the roller organ and identify cobs immediately upon hearing them played. As a result of this, people all over the world send me cobs or recordings of cobs with missing, partial or illegible labels for me to identify by ear. Sometimes, they even call me and play them for me over the phone.

In 2002, at an annual meeting of Musical Box Society International in Chicago, I had the opportunity to buy a Grand roller organ, the larger, much scarcer 32-note model that plays 13-inch cobs, and I immediately went back to my roller organ contacts to acquire as many different Grand cobs as I could find. I now have all but 10 of the approximately 160 Grand cobs known to have been made.

The records I kept of my hundreds of transactions involving roller organ cobs provide a large volume of data about the frequency with which the various cobs have turned up. I have organized this data and assigned each cob a “scarcity rating” of either “most common” (MC), “very common” (VC), “common” (C), “less common” (LC), “scarce” (S), “very scarce” (VS) or “no known copy” (N). The rating of “most common” was given to just 5 cobs that turn up many times more than the others. Perhaps these were manufactured in much larger quantities because they were included with an organ as a “starter package”. Two of them are #1, “The Sweet Bye and Bye”, and #2, “Nearer, My God to Thee”, the lowest-numbered cobs, which were, presumably, issued first and available for a longer time than any of the others; the other three are also low-numbered cobs (#65, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, #109, “Marching Through Georgia”, and #123, “Home, Sweet Home”). At the other extreme are cobs of which I am unaware of any existing copy. Of these 28, about two-thirds are Spanish or Polish titles.

I have always been interested in the music on the roller organ as well, the hymns because of my family's religious background and my long-standing interest in hymnology, and the popular songs, dance tunes, classical pieces, etc. because of my general fascination with the “roller organ era” and the prevailing popular culture of that time. My love and appreciation for the music stem in part from the fact that so many of the cobs contain appealing, harmonious, full arrangements of very pretty tunes. It was a remarkable accomplishment for the Autophone Company of Ithaca, New York, the manufacturer of all cob roller organs and cobs, to put hundreds and hundreds of musical pieces popular in the mid-1880s through the early 1920s onto pinned cobs and it is a joy to crank through them and listen to them!

For some time I planned to compile my statistical information about the relative scarcity of the various roller organ cobs and combine it with details concerning the individual tunes—how they came to be written, who performed or popularized them, what role they played in the culture of the times—as well as providing references to sources of sheet music for anyone interested in finding lyrics or playing the tunes on their own musical instruments. While I now have index cards prepared with information I have gleaned from a wide variety of sources for about three quarters of the cobs, I have come to realize that this is probably a lifelong project and it would probably be best to make available the information I have as I put it into presentable form as a “work in progress” rather than waiting for the time when I complete all my work in final form, which may never come. Todd Augsburger has generously agreed to provide me space on his roller organ website for my Roller Organ Cob Handbook and I plan to add to it regularly for the indefinite future.

At the outset, let me say where I stand on the question of accuracy of information. I want my Handbook to contain only information that I feel reasonably confident is accurate and I am planning to document my sources as I would if I were writing a scholarly book or paper for publication. I have found that some standard published “authorities” of long standing contain some incorrect or conflicting information and I suppose this is unavoidable in researching an area like popular music where much of what has been written is more in the nature of entertaining lore than scholarly analysis. I am more concerned, however, that a good deal of the information I have found online about the music of the roller organ era is glaringly inaccurate or incorrect. This may be a function of the nature of the Internet: it is very easy for anyone to say something on a website (as opposed to including it in a published book) and it is then “in print” for all the world to see and looks authoritative, so that others pick it up and repeat it and it becomes widely disseminated even if it is inaccurate or untrue. I do not want this to be the case with any of the information in my Handbook and I invite readers to contact me at rollerorgancobs@aol.com to correct any inaccuracies they find in anything I have written or to provide additional information about any individual tune or about the music generally that I have missed (provided that they document their sources!).

Apart from some details in general introductory sections, the Handbook will consist largely of entries for individual cobs listing the number, title and scarcity rating and providing some background information about the tune. At the end of each entry will be a series of coded references listing the sources of my information and books and online sheet music collections where the music and words (if any) to the piece can be found. (For example, the reference “GH” followed by ”#110” would indicate that the piece can be found in the hymnal Gospel Hymns Nos. 1-6 Complete as hymn #110). A complete list identifying all the coded references appears at the very end of all the individual cob entries.

1) ©2007 by Richard Dutton. All rights reserved.
 
 
 

Todd Augsburger's Roller Organ Website