In Search of the Lost Chord (Organ)

Levi Stahl  has said that the subtext of every movie from the 1970s is the material crappiness of the 1970s. Certainly, as a child of that era, I get his point. And I think that one of the emblems of all that — at least for me — was the presence of an organ in many homes. These were generally a cross between musical instruments and furniture, and were almost always accompanied by spiral-bound songbooks, which contained everything from relatively current hits to polkas and hymns

At the top of the heap (relatively speaking) was the Baldwin Fun Machine. It was in some ways an early analog synthesizer, with pre-programmed instrument sounds and a built-in rhythm box. A one-finger accompaniment feature provided the organist with arpeggiated chords and ticky-tocky rhythms in settings like “Rock” (the stock surf beat) and  “March,” along with “Waltz” and maybe “Tango?” The family down the street from me in Nashville had one of these. I got to noodle around with it from time to time — I liked pushing two of the rhythm settings at once to see what sort of odd beats I could create.

fun machine

Oddly, my memories of that time often are skewed and oddly proportioned as well.

But on my level of the financial food chain, we had the Magnus Chord Organ. Powered by a fan, it offered one voicing, a wheezy reed sound, and the more notes the organist would press, the quieter things got, as there was only so much air to pump at any given moment. My model had two sets of six chord buttons at the left, for major and minor chords — more upscale versions had a third row with seventh chords, presumably for any blues devotees in Magnusland. Such niceties as weighted keys and touch sensitivity were for people with more economic  clout — on mine, your choices were to play the note or not, and the attack on each note was drowned out (or created, depending on how you look at these things) by the rattle of the plastic keys.

Another feature of some of these organs was a decal above the keyboard with numbers corresponding to the various notes. While the songbooks would include actual sheet music, they also would display the melody as a set of numbers for the user who didn’t have time or inclination to learn how to read music (a trick that also showed up in elementary school music classes where we played xylophones or plastic recorders.) A side effect of this was that in my case, I instinctively understood the “Nashville number system” of notation when I started playing in bands down the line, Of course, since I play drums, this was entirely unnecessary, but I’ve been known to use it when trying to spot the wrong chord in a rehearsal setting.

Quite a few folks I knew had these things (I remember a neighbor who impressed local parents by figuring out the theme from The Waltons), and some of us grew up to play more substantial musical instruments. Our Magnus made the trip to Northern KY with us in 1978, but eventually, the fan ran out of power and the plastic cracked (that material crappiness I mentioned earlier), and it either disappeared in a yard sale or was simply junked.

All this came flooding back to me today when I received a text from my cousin Jack in Nashville, who also had one of the darned things. It was a screen shot of an ad from the Nashville Craigslist.

Magnus ad

As Jack noted, it’s a pretty remarkable stretch to call this “one of the good ones,” insofar as it suggests there are good ones. Plural, even. He then observed that the idea of recording with it was another stretch. This allowed me to introduce him to one of those folks at the intersection of “outsider music” and “exploiting the mentally ill,” the late Daniel Johnston. So in honor of someone on Craigslist in East Nashville, and of the kid up the street whose folks could afford a Fun Machine, here’s Mr. Johnston and his chord organ.

See you soon!

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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7 Responses to In Search of the Lost Chord (Organ)

  1. 1. The Baldwin Fun Machine could not be described by many purists at the “top of the heap,” as it’s pretty obscure. The rhythm section (by the left manual) had 17 presets: Fox Trot, Swing, Dixieland, Ragtime, Country, Hoe-Down, Pop Rock, Soul Rock, Hawaiian, Latin III, Rhumba, Bossa Nova, Polka, March, Old-Time Waltz, Waltz, Organ. I don’t know what happened to Latin I and II, but assume Cambridge took them for their classic language courses. Caecilius est pater, and all that.
    The “soloists” section (right manual) was indeed an analog synthesizer, with options ranging from Piano to Guitar to Harpsichord to Banjo…and all basically sounding the same with minor envelope changes to sawtooth waveforms. Well, today, we’d call it more of a ROMpler, since there was very little editing of the sound you could do.

    I found a manual for it, too: http://rtellason.com/manuals/Funmachine%20121sm.pdf in case you want to build your own and have about 3 years to spare.

    2. I did not know that the description of chord patterns through the use of numerals was the Nashville number system, developed by the Jordanaires. I do know, though. This is like discovering there’s a new name for the alphabet.

    3. Despite my encyclopedic knowledge of all things Clavier-related, I was utterly (and blissfully, going by “Walking the Cow”) unaware of the Magnus Chord Organ. It goes unspoken in the halls of the mighty keys, but I am aware of it now.

    Having said all that, I think your early-70s home organs were dominated more by the Kimball, Wurlitzer, Yamaha, Lowery, and the badass Hammond line, which positively ruled both homes, churches, and live bands…I’m not sure where I’d put Baldwin. Possibly above Kimball and Yamaha, depending where you lived.

    I had an elderly couple as neighbors, decades ago, who were both deaf. One could readily hear their mundane conversations because they shouted at each other, which could be entertaining because the non sequitur dialogues revealed neither could really hear the other very well and each likely thought the other was an idiot. Anyway, she was also an organist for their church, and she had either a Kimball or a Wurlitzer that she positively jammed on for hours a day. Full volume, of course: but every hymn she played had the bossa nova beat clucking along with it. I can still hear it. But it could have been a Baldwin, since they were lower cost and had similar models for home and churches; one might assume she’d want a similar instrument.

    And all this comes flooding back from reading your post.

    • profmondo says:

      I think the Baldwin stuck with me because after we moved to NKY, there was a Baldwin shop in the mall — my brother took some piano lessons there. And as I said, I had neighbors in Nashville with a Fun Machine. I occasionally whistle “A Mighty Fortress” in swing time (Mondoville being an ELCA school), but hadn’t thought about the bossa nova…

      • The Czar of Muscovy says:

        Lots of malls had Baldwin piano shops, which seems like a strange choice for a mall, given that a 400-lb Baldwin upright is not a common impulse item for teenagers, but yes! I’ve wandered through one or two of their mall stores during the 1980s. So perhaps I should rank them higher than I did.

      • profmondo says:

        Also, Baldwin was Cincinnati-based, so more exposure where I lived.

    • Czar of Muscovy says:

      “…depending on where you lived” explains that. In the Chicago area, Kimball products dominated.

  2. Jeff says:

    Oh my gosh—we had a similar organ in our dining room for a while when I was a kid. Why? I have no idea. It made an ominous sound when you turned it on, an invitation to the weird aural crossroads where humming collides with droning. Its volume settings included nothing that resembled “quiet.” Like a sparrow through a mead-hall, it passed through our lives from some unknown source and at some point passed back out again, whither I know not.

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