Street Musician History of New York City


It would be interesting to know the number of street musicians to be found in New York. Judging from outward appearances, it must be their most profitable field, for one cannot walk two blocks in any part of the city without hearing one or more musical instruments in full blast. A few are good and in perfect tone, but the majority emit only the most horrible discords.

Prominent among the street musicians are the organ grinders, who in former days monopolized the business. They are mostly Italians, though one sees among them Germans, Frenchmen, Swiss, and even Englishmen and Irishmen. Against these people there seems to be an especial, and a not very reasonable prejudice. A lady, eminent for her good deeds among the poor of the Five Points, once said, “There is no reason why an organ grinder should be regarded as an altogether discreditable member of the community; his vocation is better than that of begging, and he certainly works hard enough for the pennies thrown to him, lugging his big box around the city from morning until night.” To this good word for the organ grinder it may be added that he is generally an inoffensive person, who attends closely to his business during the day, and rarely ever falls into the hands of the police. Furthermore, however much grown people with musical tastes may be annoyed, the organ grinders furnish an immense amount of amusement and pleasure to the children; and in some of the more wretched sections provide all the music that the little ones ever hear.

Very few of them own their organs. There are several firms in the city who manufacture or import hand organs, and from these the majority of the grinders rent their instruments. The rent varies from two to twenty dollars per month, the last sum being paid for the French flute organs, which are the best. The owners of the instruments generally manage to inspire the grinders with a profound terror of them, so that few instruments are carried off unlawfully, and, after all, the organ grinders are more unfortunate than dishonest.

Organ grinding in New York was once a very profitable business, and even now pays well in some instances. Some of the grinding fraternity have made money. One of these was Francisco Ferrari, who came to this city ten years ago. He invested the money he brought with him in a hand organ and a monkey, and in about five years made money enough to return to Italy and purchase a small farm. He was not content in his native land, however, and soon returned to New York with his family and resumed his old trade. He is said to be worth about twenty thousand dollars.

At present, in fair weather, a man with a good flute organ can generally make from two to five dollars a day. Those who have the best and sweetest toned instruments seek the better neighborhoods, where they are always sure of an audience of children whose parents pay well. Some of these musicians earn as much as ten and fifteen dollars in a single day. In bad weather, however, they are forced to be idle, as a good organ cannot be exposed to the weather at such times without being injured.

A monkey is a great advantage to the grinder, as the animal, if clever, is sure to draw out a host of pennies from the crowd which never fails to gather around it. The monkey is generally the property of the grinder. It is his pet, and it is interesting to see the amount of affection which exists between the two. If the grinder is a married man, or has a daughter or sister, she generally accompanies him in his rounds. Sometimes girls and women make regular business engagements of this kind with the grinders, and receive for their services in beating the tambourine, or soliciting money from the bystanders, a certain fixed proportion of the earnings of the day.

If the organ grinder be successful in his business, he has every opportunity for saving his money. Apart from the rent of his organ, his expenses are slight. Few, however, save very much, as but few are able to earn the large sums we have mentioned. The grinders pay from five to eight dollars per month for their rooms, and they and their families live principally upon macaroni. They use but a single room for all purposes, and, no matter how many are to be provided with sleeping accommodations, manage to get along in some way. As a general rule, they are better off here than they were in their own country, for poverty has been their lot in both. Their wants are simple, and they can live comfortably on an amazingly small sum. The better class of Italians keep their apartments as neat as possible. Children of a genial clime, they are fond of warmth, and the temperature of their rooms stands at a stage which would suffocate an American. They are very exclusive, and herd by themselves in a section of the Five Points. Baxter and Park and the adjoining streets are taken up to a great extent with Italians.

This is the life of the fortunate members of the class. There are many, however, who are not so lucky. These are the owners or renters of the majority of the street organs, the vile, discordant instruments which set all of one’s nerves a tingling. They earn comparatively little, and are not tolerated by the irate householders whose tastes they offend. The police treat them with but small consideration. The poor wretches are nearly always in want, and soon full into vagrancy, and some into vice and crime. Some of them are worthless vagabonds, and nearly all the Italians accused of crime in the city are included in their number. One of these men is to be seen on the Bowery at almost any time. He seats himself on the pavement, with his legs tucked under him, and turns the crank of an instrument which seems to be a doleful compromise between a music box and an accordion. In front of this machine is a tin box for pennies, and by the side of it is a card on which is printed an appeal to the charitable. At night a flickering tallow dip sheds a dismal glare around. The man’s head is tied up in a piece of white muslin, his eyes are closed, and his face and posture are expressive of the most intense misery. He turns the crank slowly, and the organ groans and moans in the most ludicrously mournful manner. At one side of the queer instrument sits a woman with a babe at her breast, on the other side sits a little boy, and a second boy squats on the ground in front. Not a sound is uttered by any of the group, who are arranged with genuine skill. Their whole attitude is expressive of the most fearful misery. The groans of the organ cannot fail to attract attention, and there are few kind-hearted persons who can resist the sight. Their pennies and ten-cent stamps are showered into the tin box, which is never allowed to contain more than two or three pennies. The man is an Italian, and is said by the police to be a worthless vagabond. Yet he is one of the most successful musicians of his class in the city.

The arrangements of a street organ being entirely automatic, any one who can turn a crank can manage one of these instruments. Another class of street musicians are required to possess a certain amount of musical skill in order to be successful. These are the strolling harpers and violinists. Like the organ grinders, they are Italians. Very few of them earn much money, and the majority live in want and misery.

Some of these strollers are men, or half-grown youths, and are excellent performers. The best of them frequent Broadway, Wall and Broad streets, and the up-town neighborhoods. At night they haunt the localities of the hotels. They constitute one of the pleasantest features of the street, for their music is good and well worth listening to. They generally reap a harvest of pennies and fractional currency. They form the aristocratic portion of the street minstrel class, and are the envy of their less fortunate rivals.

The vast majority of the strolling harpers and violinists are children; generally boys below the age of sixteen. They are chiefly Italians, though a few Swiss, French and Germans are to be found among them. They are commonly to be found in the streets in pairs; but sometimes three work together, and again only one is to be found. There are several hundreds of these children on the streets. Dirty, wan, shrunken, monkey-faced little creatures they are. Between them and other children lies a deep gulf, across which they gaze wistfully at the sports and joys that may not be theirs. All day long, and late into the night, they must ply their dreary trade.

Although natives of the land of song, they have little or no musical talent, as a class, and the majority of them are furnished with harps and violins from which not even Orpheus himself could bring harmony. Not a few of the little ones endeavor to make up in dancing what they lack in musical skill. They work energetically at their instruments, but they do no more than produce the vilest discord. At the best, their music is worthless, and their voices have a cracked, harsh, monotonous sound; but the sound of them is also very sad, and often brings a penny into the outstretched hand.

At all hours of the day, and until late at night you may hear their music along the street, and listen to their sad young voices going up to the ear that is always open to them. They are half clothed, half fed, and their filthiness is painful to behold. They sleep in fair weather under a door-step or in some passage way or cellar, or in a box or hogshead on the street, and in the winter huddle together in the cold and darkness of their sleeping places, for we cannot call them homes, and long for the morning to come. The cold weather is very hard upon them, they love the warm sunshine, and during the season of ice and snow are in a constant state of semi-torpor. You see them on the street, in their thin, ragged garments, so much overpowered by the cold that they can scarcely strike or utter a note. Sometimes a kind-hearted saloon-keeper will permit them to warm themselves at his stove for a moment or two. These are the bright periods in their dark lives, for as a general rule they are forced to remain on the street from early morning until late at night.

A recent writer, well informed on the subject, says: “It is a cruelty to encourage these children with a gift of money, for instead of such gifts inuring to their benefit, they are extracted for the support of cruel and selfish parents and taskmasters.” This is true, but the gift is a benefit to the child, nevertheless. These children have parents or relatives engaged in the same business, who require them to bring in a certain sum of money at the end of the day, and if they do not make up the amount they are received with blows and curses, and are refused the meagre suppers of which they are so much in need, or are turned into the streets to pass the night. The poor little wretches come crowding into the Five Points from nine o’clock until midnight, staggering under their heavy harps, those who have not made up the required sum sobbing bitterly in anticipation of the treatment in store for them. Give them a penny or two, should they ask it, reader. You will not miss it. It will go to the brutal parent or taskmaster, it is true, but it will give the little monkey-faced minstrel a supper, and save him from a beating. It is more to them than to you, and it will do you no harm for the recording angel to write opposite the follies and sins of your life, that you cast one gleam of sunshine into the heart of one of these children.

A number of Italian gentlemen resident in New York have generously devoted themselves to the task of bettering the lot of these little ones, and many of those who formerly lived on the streets are now in attendance upon the Italian schools of the city. Yet great is the suffering amongst those who have not been reached by these efforts. Only one or two years ago there were several wretches living in the city who carried on a regular business of importing children from Tuscany and Naples, and putting them on the streets here as beggars, musicians, and thieves. They half starved the little creatures, and forced them to steal as well as beg, and converted the girls into outcasts at the earliest possible age. The newspapers at length obtained information respecting these practices, and by exposing them, drew the attention of the civil authorities to them. One of the scoundrels, named Antonelli, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to the penitentiary, and the infamous business was broken up. The police authorities are possessed of information which justifies them in asserting that some Italian children fare quite as badly at the hands of their own parents. There have been several instances where Italian fathers have made a practice of hiring out their daughters for purposes of prostitution, while they were yet mere children.

As a rule, the future of these little folks is very sad. The Italian and the Mission schools in the Five Points and similar sections of the city are doing much for them, but the vast majority are growing up in ignorance. Without education, with an early and constant familiarity with want, misery, brutality and crime, the little minstrels rarely “come to any good.” The girls grow up to lives of sin and shame, and many fortunately die young. The boys too often become thieves, vagrants, and assassins. Everybody condemns them. They are forced onward in their sad career by all the machinery of modern civilization, and they are helpless to ward off their ruin.

During one of the heavy snows of a recent winter, a child harper trudged wearily down the Fifth avenue, on his way to the Five Points, where he was to pass the night. It was intensely cold, and the little fellow’s strength was so exhausted by fatigue and the bleak night wind that he staggered under the weight of his harp. At length he sat down on the steps of a splendid mansion to rest himself. The house was brilliantly lighted, and he looked around timidly as he seated himself, expecting the usual command to move off. No one noticed him, however, and he leaned wearily against the balustrade, and gazed at the handsome windows through which the rich, warm light streamed out into the wintry air. As he sat there, strains of exquisite music, and the sounds of dancing, floated out into the night. The little fellow clasped his hands in ecstasy and listened. He had never heard such melody, and it made his heart ache to think how poor and mean was his own minstrelsy compared with that with which his ears were now ravished. The wind blew fierce and keen down the grand street, whirling the snow about in blinding clouds, but the boy neither saw nor heard the strife of the elements. He heard only the exquisite melody that came floating out to him from the warm, luxurious mansion, and which grew sweeter and richer every moment. The cold, hard street became more and more indistinct to him, and he sat very still with his hands clasped and his eyes closed.

The ball ended towards the small hours of the morning, and the clatter of carriages dashing up to the door of the mansion gave the signal to the guests that it was time to depart. No one had seen the odd-looking bundle that lay on the street steps, half buried in the snow, and which might have lain there until the morning had not some one stumbled over it in descending to the carriages. With a half curse, one of the men stooped down to examine the strange object, and found that the bundle of rags and filth contained the unconscious form of a child. The harp, which lay beside him, told his story. He was one of the little outcasts of the streets. Scorning to handle such an object, the man touched him with his foot to arouse him, thinking he had fallen asleep. Alas! it was the eternal sleep.


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