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Book Fair Blog

Every book has a story

Every book has a story.

Check in frequently to read the behind-the-scenes scoop on the Newberry’s popular Book Fair. The blog is maintained by “Uncle Blogsy,” otherwise known as Dan Crawford, Book Fair Manager.

Mid-Century Music

Yes, in response to one of the questions I get about once a week, we DO accept collections of sheet music. I understand: sheet music doesn’t look like a book, so it’s best to ask. But sheet music is one of our best sellers, primarily because people don’t especially like paying what works out these days to more than two bucks a page.

I have rhapsodized about piano bench collections–the music families have stored in their piano bench for generations–and I have occasionally told you when we receive collections from other musicians. (So far this year we have one violinist–thanks for the four strings–and two guitar players.) Once in a while, we’ll get a collection that seems to involve a one-man band: a few ukulele pieces, some harmonica instruction books, an ocarina pamphlet, and some recorder music. Last week, we got a two-foot stack of music from an organist.

There are two types of organists who send us their working material. People who play the organ professionally seldom have any music specifically for the organ. They’ve learned how to adapt what they can get, and their collections tend to lean heavily on hymnals and piano music suitable for weddings. (Have I told you lately about the couple married at the Newberry who requested all Metallica tunes…from our harpist? Just another memorable Newberry weekend.)

This collection came from a family who played organ at home. Electric organs go back to the nineteenth century, but those were huge. In the 1930s, a couple of companies set out to produce a home console, smaller even than an upright piano. Hammond was the first company to succeed at it (other companies produce usable organs but didn’t make it through the Depression and World War II.) In the Postwar World, as people started to invest in dishwashers, wall-to-wall carpeting, and other domestic innovations, the electric organ became one of the signs of a comfortable and cultured home life.

Maybe you, like some customers of the time, don’t see the advantage of being able to play organ music any time you feel like it. Hammond, among others, was ready for you. Realizing that the technology which permitted a machine to imitate a pipe organ could enable it to imitate other instruments, they brought out consoles with other settings. The book I’m looking at right now suggests settings for xylophone, strings with flute, clarinet, and even jazz brass combo.

And once you could play any instrument at all from your keyboard, the variety of music expanded. If you felt silly playing “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window” on a pipe organ, you could flip a switch and do it as a tuba solo instead.

Advances in electronics made these organs smaller and smaller, until companies were producing plain keyboards with the same capabilities as the old Hammond organs. (The Newberry has had a couple of those donated over the years, too. They sell better if they still work, by the way.) Gradually, even those gave way to computer software which could do everything the organ could do, at the same machine you used for solitaire.

The sheet music and music books for the old organs can still be used, on any of these. This book I’m looking at–hits from 1967, fifty years ago now–is just as…. (Gosh, when I was a kid, fifty years ago meant something really bygone, like the end of World War I. Are you trying to tell me that…no, someone’s just pulling New Math one me. Can’t be.) The notes will play the same, no matter what your instrument. No doubt your phone has an app for organ music. If you want to tap out Penny Lane, you can use one of these bits of history.

Just don’t tell any passersby the song is fifty years old. They’ll punch you right in the organ.


The Newberry has its own harpist, but not a tubist?

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