Forgotten Arts: The Music Machines
Goatboy first became fascinated with music machines when he was a child. It started with wind-up phonographs; he obtained his own machine for his birthday when he was thirteen and developed an interest in working on the machines. A farmer in his hometown owned a player piano; he worked on the machine and eventually bought it from the man. Goat talked his parents into helping him buy some simple tools when he became interested in woodworking and he built a harpsichord using plans from a friend. "All I had was a table saw and a router and basically built the harpsichord with those two tools," he said.
He honed his skills working for others. For one company, he worked on player piano mechanisms, reworking older machines and building new ones. For another, Goat learned advanced woodworking techniques by working on custom projects -- ornate stairways, fireplace mantles, and custom shelving and entertainment centers. Here, Goat was often called on to build front doors for houses, a definite sign of his skills since they are often the most prominent part of a home.
The woodworking company fell on hard times during the Reagan recession and Goat decided to strike out on his own. With many changes in his life, he finally settled near the Radical Fairie commune at Short Mountain, opening his own shop, Short Mountain Music Works, in a small town in the heart of Tennessee. There, Goat works on a variety of projects for clients, including rebuilding and restoration of player machines, refinishing, and music roll duplication. The area provides Goat with a more "laid back" way of life that he enjoys and a much more cost effective place to do business.
When you drop in on Goat's shop, you never know what machines he may be working on at any time. When I visited in the Summer of 1997, he had several projects in various states of repair. A reproduction band organ was ready for a client and Goat demonstrated the machine and talked about the work he had done. Band organs were typically used on merry-go-rounds and the machines would include organ pipes and drums. This particular machine was a reproduction dating from the 1970's and his work consisted mainly of replacing plastic tubing that had "turned to gook" with more permanent materials.
Player machines operate through a complicated system of pneumatics -- controlled by a paper roll with holes for each note to be played, air is forced through a series of tubes and bellows to control the flow of air through pipes or to cause a hammer to strike. Originally, the user pumped the machine by hand; this reproduction used an electric blower.
Another player machine Goat was working on dated from the turn of the century. The Brisgovia, originally produced in Europe, was a player piano with xylophone and pipe accompaniment (the pipes simulated the sound of a string instrument). Manufacturers made hundreds of types of rolls to work with the many different types of machines that were produced. There are only six rolls in existence that can be played on this particular rare machine, so Goat, in addition to restoring and rebuilding the mechanism, is reworking the pneumatics of the Brisgovia so it can play more commonly available rolls.
A different type of player machine he had in the shop during my visit was a Criterion music box. These machines, which were produced from the mid 19th century until the early part of this century, used a metal disc that rotated and plucked small reeds; the design originally based on an African folk instrument. Criterion and Regina were the most well-known producer of music boxes and they were often seen in the Western United States just after the Civil War.
Before the arrival of the phonograph and radio, player machines were used in homes in addition to public gathering places such as bars, restaurants, and salons, performing a function similar to jukeboxes today. (Some even included automatic roll changers to play multiple songs).
Goat has also worked on machines known as "Photoplayers", automatic player pianos that included supplementary instruments and sound effects that were used in early movie houses where the owners could not afford a group of live musicians.
of thousands of various automatic player machines were produced around
the turn of the century and only a few remain today. Over the years,
they have become victims of changing times, replaced by other forms of
entertainment technology. (Read about one
composer who gave new life to player machines.) They were often
discarded when they fell into disrepair; many were dismantled and used
for firewood and scrap metal in Europe during World War II. Those
that do remain are mostly in the hands of private collectors.