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.
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.
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!