The true story, never revealed, of the barrow organ

There’s more to this eggcorn than Somerset genius.

I couldn't find a photo of Little Pete.

I couldn't find a photo of Little Pete. Image: International Big Pete Monster Truck Team.

There may be ancestral reasons why I’m grateful for Ruth Ander and her land- and seascapes: as a family we spent many days traipsing and discussing the wider Wessex of sunshine and flowers (but you must have showers); at home there was my dad’s youthful watercolour Stonehenge blasting its purple palette at us from the wall; and she just does it all so much better.

But now there is her contribution to popular linguistics. She reports that ex-Bedminster neighbour and entertainer Little Pete says that what we have here is actually a barrow organ. This is because it’s so heavy you need a barrow to carry it. See eggcorn, you say, but it didn’t start with Little Pete.

Appleton’s Annual Cyclopædia (1886) appears to describe an organ worked by sunlight (how do I get at a full-text version of this?) and notes:

The Hand-Barrow Organ and the Horse-Cart Organ are large structures, sometimes vast, and might be mistaken for wild-beast vans. They are crammed with every known mechanical contrivance for the production of ear-stunning noises.

Are you so sure now that “barrel organ” came first, smart harse?

One of the best known evangelical children’s stories by Mrs O. F. Walton (1849-1939), is Christie, the King’s Servant, aka Christie’s Old Organ:

‘What is it, Jack?’ I asked. ‘Is it an old musical box?’

‘No, it’s an organ, a barrow-organ, Mr. Jack.’

‘Oh, a barrel-organ you mean, little chappie; [decapitation scene omitted] why, however in the world
did you get hold of a barrel-organ? Is it a little toy one?’

‘No, it’s big, ever so big,’ he said, stretching out his hands to show
me its size.

‘Why, whoever gave you it?’ I asked.

‘It isn’t Jack’s own organ,’ said the child.

‘Whose is it, then?’

‘It’s father’s, father’s own organ.’

It seemed to me a most extraordinary thing for the mission preacher of
Runswick Bay to have in his possession, but I did not like to ask any
more questions at that time.

Now they (may) make them in China, people perform Clash songs on them, and here’s a 21st century Amsterdam barrow-organ-and-a-half with a cunning hatter (collector) and expert Eastern Wessex commentary from Al Watkins:

Al himself plays and sings originals and covers. He evokes for me a kindly version of Leidschendam’s Charlie H, whose monkey shriek now enlivens the comments, as well as other unforgettables like Martin Newell. “Where I live” is a lovely thing that would go like HS2 a train on the street organ – mine or anyone else’s:

Hear also the rest of his YouTube, his MySpace and his SoundCloud.

I’ve never really listened to Hal Kemp’s bands. I guess my references for this number would be Arthur Tracy (< Dennis Potter) and Jack Hylton, but I really like the henpecked arrangement linked to above. Wikipedia:

In 1932, during the height of the Depression, Kemp decided to lead the band in a new direction, changing the orchestra’s style to that of a dance band (often mistakenly referred to as “sweet”), using muted triple-tonguing trumpets, clarinets playing low sustained notes in unison through large megaphones (an early version of the echo chamber effect), and a double-octave piano. One of the main reasons for the band’s success was arranger John Scott Trotter. Singer Skinnay Ennis had difficulty sustaining notes, so Trotter came up with the idea of filling in these gaps with muted trumpets playing staccato triplets. This gave the band a unique sound, which Johnny Mercer jokingly referred to as sounding like a “typewriter”. The saxes often played very complex extremely difficult passages, which won them the praise of fellow musicians.

There will still be those who wonder re “barrow organ” what more you can expect of people who can’t even pronounce the name of their place of residence:

But unto them I have this to say:

Back home in Knowle West. Image: Kalebeul.

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