Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 2 (Winter 2001-2002)

A Catalog of Music Rolls for the Wurlitzer Military Band Organ Style 165

Of the dozen or so websites I use on a weekly basis, this one is my personal favourite. Ostensibly a record of all the known tunes arranged for a particular style of band organ (the Style 165) used to play music for, among other things, large amusement-park carousels, is also an indispensable tool for those interested in the history of the American popular song, practices of various band-organ arrangers and manufacturers, Americana (in the Edith Wharton sense of the word), and particularly, a treasure trove of hard-core data for those wanting to scrutinize a public musical practice inseparable from its means of distribution and production.

Originally compiled by band-organ enthusiast Gary Watkins in 1969, this catalogue was taken over more than a decade ago by Matthew O. Caulfield, recently retired Senior Rare Book Cataloguer at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Fortunately, Caulfield's 35-year stint at the Library of Congress allowed him to indulge his passion for American band organ music and its little-known history. During those years, he began to collect copies of all known Style 165 band organ rolls and helped to ferret out lost rolls from various collections, barns, and attics around the US, getting them re-cut (in multiple copies) and thus preserved from further loss. As well as completing the task of putting the Style 165 catalogue on-line (August 1999), Caulfield is currently at work compiling the tune contents of other styles of band organs. An avid band-organ and carousel enthusiast, Caulfield looks forward each summer to helping to maintain the beautifully restored carousel and Wurlitzer 165 band organ at Seabreeze Park in Rochester, New York.

Caulfield reports that the American band/fairground organ industry didn't get started until the late 1800's, with organs of that era operated by pinned barrels, not the paper rolls that came into use in the early 1900's in America. Until Eugene DeKleist and Farny Wurlitzer got going with band organ manufacture in North Tonawanda, there was no real American source of organs for carousels, skating rinks, and dance halls -- the main users of band organs in the US.

Aside from the numerous sections of band-organ roll contents, which make for a fascinating read beginning with tune listings from the 1910's up until the late 1990's (yes, someone actually arranged “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” for band-organ carousel!), the catalogue contains various explanatory notes and appendices on such aspects as the particular scale specifications for the Style 165, observations on various roll makers and arrangers (when they are known), perforating machinery, particulars of Wurlitzer roll numbering and dating, and observations on the metrical arrangement of tunes. Did you know, for example, that the bulk of these thousands of tunes (whether Strauss waltzes, Sousa marches, hymns, vaudeville tunes, “coon” songs, polkas, various ethnic songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes, patriotic songs, etc.) were basically arranged in three shades of metrical organization -- fox trot, march or waltz? Or, that very popular tunes -- whether old favourites or new hits -- could get a new metric (or other) facelift? Take the lilting “Carnival of Venice,” for example. It pops up as an energetic fox trot on a 1924 roll (no. 6622), renamed “So This Is Venice.” Another example of an adaptation for band organ, the circus and carousel favourite “Over the Waves” (an instrumental waltz), composed by the Mexican-Indian Juventino Rosas in August, 1888, was re-arranged more than 60 years later by Kennedy and Finn, sporting the new title “Merry-Go-Round Waltz.”

The on-line Wurlitzer 165 band organ catalogue boasts an alphabetical Tune Index, which, for those wanting to know how many times a particular show tune might turn up within the decades of production of this style band roll, which kinds of songwriters were represented, or, what kinds of tunes (pop, religious, classical, show, etc.) were popular at any given time, is absolutely precious. What I have discovered is if I go directly to the Tune Index, bypassing the scads of band-organ roll contents, I can then jot down the band organ roll number affixed to the tune title and then search it out within the relevant section. Another bonus with this website, and something which is impossible to find in any other source (written, on-line, or otherwise), is the deadly accurate dating (often, down to the day and month) of these thousands of tunes. In transcribing the original listings as they appeared on the roll labels, Caulfield, checking against the records of the US Copyright Office in the Library of Congress, was able to correct dates and supply names of songwriters and composers - usually missing on the band organ rolls.

Curious to hear what the arrangements for the Style 165 sound like? There are down-loadable MIDI versions of various tunes, and one can also listen to tunes played on real Wurlitzer Style 165 band organs in MP3 or RealAudio format by selecting the Sound Files section of the catalogue.

Lastly, I hope I've given the impression this site is not just for specialists of the carousel band organ; it offers a great deal more to a variety of scholars.

-Teresa Magdanz