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At Brattleboro concert, old-fashioned pump organs are back in the limelight

While both pump organs and Tin Pan Alley music may be out of fashion on their own, combined they’re quite a show.

It sounds like a church organ, but it’s actually a pump organ, once common in churches and homes across the United States.

Imagine a player piano: about six feet long, four feet tall, and three feet deep. There are stops — pull knobs like you’d see on a church organ right above the keyboard — and intricate woodwork on the case. The pump organ was a way to show off.

This particular instrument, in concert Saturday at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro, Vermont, was made right in town.

Estey and Co., whose slate-sided factory buildings still stand on Birge Street, was established in the early 1850s by Jacob Estey, who accidentally wound up in Brattleboro and the music business; instead of collecting on debts, he took interest in a business he was renting space to. That business made melodeons, which eventually evolved into organs.

In the Victorian era, when such instruments were popular, pianos were mainly for the elite. But the pump organ, which replaces strings with brass reeds and is powered with pedal-pumped bellows, filled the gap.

Ethnomusicologist Dennis Waring wrote his doctoral thesis on them:

“So the one of the advantages of the reed organ is that you had at least the impression of having a keyboard in your parlor which is a big deal," Waring said.

They were also more suited to the American climate since pianos need regular tuning and other maintenance.

Being central to a parlor before the electric era meant most pump organs also came with built-in candle stands and decorative tops with large mirrors in the middle.

But what to play?

Deb Noe is with local ukulele group Green Mountain Strummers:

“Tin Pan Alley is the name given to a collection of New York City music publishers and songwriters who set up shop on West 26th Street in New York City between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. The shops were started in the late 1800s. And the period goes on to about the middle of the 1900s when people stopped using sheet music so much and were listening more to the radio," Noe said.

Tin Pan Alley’s reputation has evolved.

“Tin Pan is a derogatory term for cheap, upright pianos. Tin Pan Alley refers to many cheap, upright pianos playing different tunes at the same time. And that's red that was reminiscent of banging tin pans in an alleyway," Noe said.

As part of the concert, the audience joins in for a “Sentimental Journey.”

“It was written in 1944 by Les Brown and a couple of his cohorts and the musician strike was on in New York City. So it never got recorded in 1944. But in 1945, when the war ended, not only was this song recorded, but it was showcasing, for her very first number one hit- anybody know? No? Doris Day!" Noe said.

Many Tin-Pan Alley songs were romantic, like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” from 1929:

"It's about a young woman who, despite the loose morals of the Roaring Twenties, vows to remain true to her lover anytime," Noe said.

And some were soulful:

“This is our last number, it's I’ll Fly Away, which is a famous hymn, written in 1929 by Albert E Brumley. He was out picking cotton in the field. And this song came to him as a dream or a thought of flying away from the cotton field. And later the song took on spiritual significance. And it's the most recorded gospel song ever," Noe said.

While completely different styles of songs, they both sound great on a pump organ. Here’s Lisa McCormick, who led the concert:

“The organ just has such a range of everything. And so it's really like solidifies the beat behind the ukuleles also," McCormick said.

Despite the success of several Tin-Pan Alley songs, Noe explains most of them didn’t start that way, like “It’s Only A Paper Moon, originally titled “If You Believe In Me.”

“It was written by the team of Harburg, Rose, and Arlen in 1932 for an unsuccessful- there's a pattern here, you'll notice- for an unsuccessful Broadway play called The Great Magoo," Noe said.

Susan Rosano leads New England Expressive Art, which arranges public arts demonstrations, and helped organize this concert. She says the concert program was at the Organ Museum’s suggestion.

“I trained to do some arts programs with seniors for the state of Vermont. It's called Creative Aging. And so I got a creative aging grant for the Estey Organ Museum. And they were interested in doing some kind of program to bring more people into the museum. So that's how we got the grant. And we just advertised for seniors, it was all for people 55 and over," Rosano said.

McCormick says although this was a one-time grant, the public has been enthusiastic about the possibility for more concerts.

If that turns out to be true, it’ll surely lead to Blue Skies ahead.

That would be good news for the pump organ. Millions were made by more than 600 companies across the United States and Canada. Aside from Estey, well-known makers included Boston’s Mason and Hamlin and the New England Organ Company.

Today, many pump organs have been broken down and brought to landfills or haven’t been maintained.

That’s mainly due to rot and rodents: the bellows are made with a cloth that mice enjoy, and that breaks down with years of disuse.

There’s more information and photos of the organs at in the gallery at the top of this article.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.
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