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Gus Would Love It

The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985

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David M. Greene


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This record bears the subtitle ''Mechanical Music for a Victorian Sunday," which rubric im­mediately put me in mind of Irvin 5. Cobb. Cobb was a popular, if minor, humorist in that marvelous era that began with Artemus Ward and ended with S.J. Perelman, in which we could laugh at ourselves, and did. In A Plea for Old Cap Collier, Cobb describes the Sundays of his Victorian childhood thus: "Sunday was three weeks long, and longer than that if it rained. About all a fellow could do after he'd come back from Sunday school was to sit round with his feet cramped into the shoes and stockings which he never wore on week days and with the rest of him incased in starchy, uncomfortable dress-up clothes-just sit round and sit round and itch. You couldn't scratch hard either. It was sinful to scratch audibly and with good broad, free strokes, which is the only satisfactory way to scratch. In our town they didn't spend Sunday; they kept the Sabbath, which is a very different thing."

Nowadays young cobb would probably keep the Sabbath, beer in hand, observing the agonies and the passion of Jimmy Swaggert on the small screen, but there was no small screen back there-and no radio and no phonograph. In my family, matters were not quite so bad. Perhaps things had relaxed by the 1920s or perhaps it was that the dominant presence was Low Church Episcopalian. Dressing up was still mandatory (it was the day my father shaved and smoked ready-rolled cigarettes), and most of the activity was devoted to Sunday dinner, at which the wimpy little parson, whose two maiden sisters noised it abroad that they did not approve of cooking on Sunday, was a regular and ravenous guest. There were also ritual visits from relatives, which involved endless querulous discussion of the relative merits of Al Smith and Herbert Hoover.

But in the evenings we often gathered around the piano and sang hymns. The Cobbs were, perhaps, farther down the social scale and so did not own a piano; but we did, and my mother, wholly tone-deaf, had been prepared for mar­riage with piano lessons in the way of the times. It was perhaps the only satisfactory accomplish­ment that she brought to her ill-fated union, for my father had a good bass-baritone voice and loved to sing, though he privately deplored her habit of letting her left hand encounter the keyboard (pa-chung pa-chung) slightly ahead of her right one.

We also had a music box-a 10-tune Swiss cylinder affair. The Victorian world (of which our Virginia farm was a last backwater 25 years after the fact) was preoccupied with the notion of mechanical music which would provide, without human effort, a sonic environment (like unto Muzak, or like our streets rendered hideous with

trunk-size radios borne by juvenile· delinquents). Utopian novelists like Edward Bellamy and Samuel Butler dwelt at length on such possibilities.

In fact, Victorian cities were already cursed with surround sound. In the first published volume, The Romantic Age 1800-1914, of the Athlone History of Music in Britain, (London, 1985) Richard Middleton notes th,1t mu􀀖,c in the streets from all sources was so pervasive and cacophonous that laws were constantly being for­mulated to control it. But he also quotes a con­temporary observer on the positive effects of public music machines: "The mechanical organs and pianos, which penetrate into the remotest slums and alleys, spread musical culture even among the dregs of the people. They are, in ef­fect, so many perambulating conservatoires teaching the masses the most accepted music of the day." (This sort of thing is admirably brought to life in the PBS film "The Life of Verdi," though today the shoe is on the other foot, what passes for democracy having triumphed.)

Anyhow, our music box offered no holiness, being given over to waltzes, opera airs, and other such sinful frivolities. But in our house it would not have played most of the repertoire of­fered on this record, we being guided by the Episcopal Hymnal. I note such approved works as "Abide with Me" and "Lead Kindly Light''

(despite its R.C. authorship!), but my parents would both have snorted at such "gospel hymns" as "Beulah Land" and "Scatter Seeds of Kindness," proper to a much lower order of life than we considered ours. I note, however, two versions of Arthur Sullivan's "Onward, Christian Soldiers," which was my own personal favorite.

In the mid-1940s I worked in the great G. Schirmer emporium on 43rd St. near Grand Cen­tral in New York. At that time it was dominated by the elder Gus Schirmer, whose presence made his employees, with reason, shake in their shoes. I once heard a lawyer describe him as "one of the great labor minds of the 14th cen­tury," and his interest in music was apparently limited wholly to the black ink on the ledgers. His chief concern was his music box department, located in the middle of the ground floor; where he could observe it from a mezzanine balcony. One day, while one of the clerks was checking some of the boxes, Gus popped out of the elevator onto the balcony. He listened for a mo­ment and broke out into a rare grin of delight. "/ know that piece!" he graveled. "It's 'Onward, Christian Soldiers'." There was a silent cheer from the sales force.

Gus would've adored this record.

Review of The Road to Heaven pg 7

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