The barrel organ at San Juan Bautista The Barrel Organ 
at Mission San Juan Bautista

One of the interesting stories about music in early California is the barrel organ still on display at Mission San Juan Bautista. The sources quoted below differ about its origin, but it has certainly gathered a fine stock of anecdotes about itself. We took a trip down to San Juan Bautista to have a look at it. However, the staff at the mission museum knew little more than was given in the museum guidebook. Thanks to the staff in the California Room of the San José public library, I did find quite a lot of information, including Captain Vancouver's journal entry.

Mission San Juan Bautista The town of San Juan Bautista was bypassed by the railroad, and lost out to the neighbouring town of Hollister (known as "the earthquake capital of the world") in the competition to become county seat when San Benito county was created. Therefore, it is little changed in appearance from a century or more ago, save that the taverns, blacksmiths and other businesses of yore have been replaced by upscale restaurants and antique dealers. The mission is located directly on the San Andreas fault, which is clearly visible nearby. Also visible beside the mission is a section of El Camino Real, the old highway connecting the missions, in more or less original condition. The historic buildings of the town plaza across from the mission are operated as a State Park.

The mission is seen in Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo, but  the film also uses another location for the tower featured in the big chase scene. This is not part of the mission but was added to it by the magic of Hollywood.

To begin the story of the barrel organ of San Juan Bautista, I have included some introductory material on the use of music in the California missions. It should be noted that other writers paint a much different picture of mission life: they describe how the Indians, when not toiling in the fields, were locked into large dormitories in order to prevent mingling of the sexes; these dormitories provided an ideal breeding ground for diseases which the whites had brought with them, and the Indians died by the hundreds; any who tried to escape were hunted down by soldiers, brought back and flogged. But this debate exceeds the range of the subject matter at hand.

Unfortunately, some of the writers quoted below take a rather racist attitude toward the Indians. But it should be noted that these were written some years ago, when such attitudes were more common and more acceptable. I decided that trying to edit out the objectionable portions was too difficult. But they do not reflect my own opinions!

An instance of how soon the missionaries began with music, and of how quickly the neophytes learned a hymn, is found in the diary of Padre Francisco Palóu. He writes that he and some companions were traveling from Mission San Diego to Mission San Gabriel in 1773, when, at the ranchería of Rincón, about two leagues north of San Diego, they encountered fifteen Indians, who had been baptized but a short time before. These neophytes greeted the travelers by kneeling in the road and singing the Alabado. "This caused so much emotion in all of us," says the kindly padre, "that we could not keep back tears of joy at the thought that those, who but a few days before had been barbarian gentiles, now as children of the Church thankfully praised the Lord. We rewarded them with a sack of pinole (corn meal) and some Rosary beads, and continued on our way."

For some years after the founding of a Mission it seems that no attempt was made to organize a formal choir; there were too many other and more necessary things to be done. During this period all singing was congregational. Men, women and children were taught to sing the common hymns in unison; such hymns as the popular Alabado (Song of Divine Praise), the Cántico del Alba (Morning Song), the Salve Regina, and many others. Some prayers were chanted to a simple psalm tone; often antiphonally with the padre, a few chanters, or even little children, taking one part, and the congregation responding. Besides certain Litanies the neophytes most probably also had to learn some of the long but simple Spanish alabanzas which embody the Commandments of God, the Sacraments of the Church, and other religious teachings. Be that as it may, it was due to the daily singing of hymns as well as to the regular recitations of the Doctrina, a summary of the Catholic Faith, that the neophytes became true Christians. “Thus," says Father Engelhardt, the great historian of the California Missions, "the Indians became so used to the prayers and hymns, and they were so firmly grounded by practice on the doctrinal and moral points of Religion, that even after half a century, when no priests had appeared among the descendants of the Mission Indians away from the cities and ranches, they recited all that their fathers and mothers had learned and practiced. Hence it was that they preserved the priceless treasure of Christian Faith, even when, for lack of guidance and moral support, they lapsed into a wild life."

The padres also taught their wards secular songs, gay and catchy. A melody, for example, known as a Santa Bárbara folksong, the Libertad, has been traced to Padre Narciso Durán. Undoubtedly some of the sweet love songs of Old California were handed down by the padres to promote Christian courtship and happy hours of recreation.

Father Owen Francis Da Silva, O.F.M.
Mission Music of California:
A Collection of Old California Mission Hymns and Masses
Warren F. Lewis, Los Angeles, 1941, 1954
p. 6
It is not surprising, then, that music quickened the entire activity of a Mission day even before a regular choir or a village orchestra was formed. At sunrise the bell called all to the Mission church, and then, if every community followed the custom in vogue at Mission Santa Inés, the alcalde passed through the village crying out: "A misa! A misa!" At Mission San Juan Capistrano, and possibly at other Missions, upon awakening, the neophytes, and even the soldiers in the guardhouse, would throw open their windows to the sun, and the Morning Hymn to Mary would echo from every adobe: Ya viene el alba, "Now breaks the glowing dawn." At Mission Santa Clara the custom was to sing the Morning Hymn in the enclosure before the church.

All over nine years of age then made their way to the church for Holy Mass. Before and during the Mass morning prayers were said in Spanish and the Doctrina recited, one of the missionaries leading the people. After Mass all sang the Alabado. Padre Pedro Font says that this hymn was sung to the same tune at all the Missions and he adds that, even if the presiding padre did not possess a good voice, he always made it a point to sing along with the neophytes for the sake of uniformity.

Ibid., p. 6
Padre Estevan Tapis tells us that the young men of Santa Bárbara seldom let a night pass without arranging for a dance in the kitchen court or Mission patio. He says that the same youths would also play the violin, viola, and guitar, and entertain themselves with games.
Ibid., p. 7
But the padre longed for more solemn services, such as the Sunday High Mass, chanted Vespers and the sung ceremonies of Holy Week. Often well trained in choir work, and accustomed to the impressive liturgy of the great churches and monasteries of Spain and México, he yearned for something more devotional, more elaborate than these simple songs and chants He had already decided on the better voices among the men and boys. These he set apart. They were the chosen ones, destined to be the chanters and musicians of the church and village, and by that fact never to be vaqueros or anything else that would take them away from the Mission on Sundays and Feast days. And what rivalry to be a chorister or musician! It was the ambition of every Indian family to have a member in the Mission choir or band, a músico.
Ibid., p. 7
However it was, with perseverance, almost every Mission soon had a choir that was pleasing to the ear as well as to the heart of the padre maestro. No women were allowed in these choirs; they were strictly liturgical. The plainchant was naturally unison, sung at times antiphonally. The part music was for male voices, and often written high enough for boy tiples (sopranos) to assist the older contraltos, the tenors and the basses. Thus begun, the chair progressed well; it was easy to add a few good voices from time to time, the new boys simply standing beside the older members until they were able to join in the singing with ability. Such were the first schools of music in California!
Ibid., p. 8
The last Indian choir of old mission San Buenaventura, c. 1860As a rule the singing was accompanied by instruments, often playing the identical notes sung by the choristers; at other times it seems the accompanists simply played short introductions and interludes. The purpose of continuous accompaniment was to keep the singers on pitch as well as to enhance the music. Such accompaniment must have been agreeable since no Mission possessed an organ. The customary instruments in use at the Missions were the violin, the viola, the violincello, the bass-viol, the flute, the sweet German flute, the trumpet, horns, the bandola (lute), the guitar, drums and the triangle.

From the few accounts that have come down to us, we conclude that ordinarily only string instruments and flutes were used in church, with perhaps a drum or triangle to keep time. Padre Durán mentions only strings and flutes in connection with his choirbook; Otto von Kotzebue, a sea-captain of the Russian ship Rurik, visiting Mission San Francisco on October 4th, 1816, describes the choir as consisting of "a violincello, a violin, and two flutes … played by little half-naked Indians … often out of tune;" Padre Tomás Esténaga, a capable musician who had charge of the same Mission some years later, tells us that in 1837 the instruments of the choirloft had been increased to eight violins, two bass-viols and two drums, and undoubtedly the ability of the players had also improved under his tutorship.

Ibid., p. 8
Certainly all available instruments were used in the Mission band or orchestra, unless it were a small one such as the orchestra at San Gabriel in 1816. Regarding this group, an American trapper and "stalwart Calvinist," Harrison S. Rogers, who stayed for about two months at the Mission, tells us that it consisted of "two violins, one bass viol, a trumpet and triangle." He heard them play one evening for about two hours before the padre's door, and added in his homely chronicle: "they make tolerable good music."'

Other Missions possessing a band or orchestra, and often we believe a rather large one, were Missions San José and Santa Bárbara, the work of Father Durán, and Missions: Santa Inés, Purísima Concepción, San Fernando, San Antonio and San Juan Capistrano. Besides contributing to the solemnity of special church celebrations, these Mission bands and orchestras, added much to the life and  happiness of the Indian village They were also in demand to play for the weddings and dances of the white colonists, the gente de razón.

Ibid., p. 8-9
The last Indian choir of old mission San Buenaventura, c. 1860Our admiration of an Indian church orchestra or village band increases when we recall that not a few of the instruments, especially those of the viol family, were made right at the Missions. The remains of a locally made violin can still be seen in the museum at Mission Santa Barbara. In the rare picture of the last Indian choir of Mission San Buenaventura we note that the flute was cleverly made from the barrel of an old gun.
Ibid., p. 8
Alfred Robinson was another early visitor to California who had the excellent fortune to attend High Mass at an Old Mission. He heard the choir at Mission San Gabriel in 1829, and has left us a brief description. "At six o’clock," he writes, "we went to the church where the priest had already commenced the service of the Mass. The imposing ceremony, glittering ornaments, and illuminated walls were well adapted to captivate the simple mind of the Indian, and I could not but admire the apparent devotion of the multitude, who seemed absorbed, heart and soul, in the scene before them The solemn music of the Mass was well selected, and the Indian voices accorded harmoniously with the flutes and violins that accompanied them. On retiring from the church, the musicians stationed themselves at a private door of the building, whence issued the reverend father, whom they escorted with music to his quarters; where they remained for a half hour, performing waltzes and marches, until some trifling present was distributed among them, when they retired to their homes."
Ibid., p. 8
Interior of Mission San Juan BautistaFrom the liturgical standpoint, or rather looking at things in the light of the Motu Proprio of Pope Pius X, which was issued a century later, and which sets the standard for Catholic Church music throughout the world, the Indian choirs were admirable. By far the greater part of their singing was plainchant. Their figured masses were perhaps somewhat sweet and dull, but when we recall that at that time the Catholics of Europe were singing the scandalously gay works of the classical composers, and when we take into account the distant place and native talent, and the absence of solos, repetitions and the like in the works themselves, we must admit that the Mission singers and their songs were close to the spirit of the Church and deserving of great praise.

The same cannot always be said for the instrumental numbers played by the neophyte musicians before, after and even during the divine services. Robinson, whilst praising their selections as good music, says that they were at times inappropriate for church, being rather dance tunes. This situation possibly arose from the fact that the Indian musicians were serving “two masters;” unlike the choristers they had to perform not only in church, but also as members of the village band and dance orchestra, and as such did not draw a sufficiently rigid line between sacred and secular music. Or did the padre have them introduce these lively tunes for a definite purpose? After all, his neophytes were in many ways like little children, and he may have considered this a laudable way to hold their attention and interest during the long devotions.

Then, too, these secular interludes did not always conveys the same associations to the Indian that they did to a visiting American or European; to the redskin musician a well known continental March, might have been just the “March in G.” This fact is strikingly brought out by an incident found in the writings of an attaché to the French Legation in México, M. Duflot de Mofras; an incident as amusing as it is illustrative of the native talent for music. De Mofras says that he attended Mass at Mission Santa Cruz on the Feast of the Holy Cross, September 14th, 1841, when the singing and playing were performed by some neophytes from Santa Clara. They arrived clad in uniforms which the Padre of Santa Clara had bought some years before from a French vessel. Their singing was excellent, De Mofras testifies, but what was his surprise when, at the very moment of Elevation, the players broke forth with the “Marseillaise,” and afterwards accompanied the procession with the air “Live Henry IV!” After the Mass and procession he inquired of the local padre how the Indians happened to know the two pieces, and to his greater surprise was told that they had heard them played on a barrel organ and, liking the melodies, had, all by themselves, harmonized and arranged the tunes for their band.

Ibid., pp. 10-11
Father Angelo Casanova, appointed in 1863 to a parish including Monterey and the mission, started the custom of holding mass amid the ruins once a year on the feast day of its patron, San Carlos Borromeo, followed by a fiesta on the site.  Robert Louis Stevenson attended the event in 1879…[November 4th, 1879]
Harold and Ann Gilliam
Creating Carmel:  The Enduring Vision
Layton, Utah 1992
p. 51
Only one day in the year, the day before our Guy Fawkes, the padre drives over the hill from Monterey; the little sacristy, which is the only covered portion of the church, is filled with seats and decorated for the service; the Indians troop together, their bright dresses contrasting with their dark and melancholy faces; and there among a crowd of somewhat unsympathetic holiday makers, you may hear God served with perhaps more touching circumstances than in any other temple under heaven. An Indian, stone blind and about eighty years of age, conducts the singing; other Indians compose the choir; yet they have the Gregorian music at their finger ends, and pronounce the Latin so correctly that I could follow the meaning as they sang. The pronunciation was odd and nasal, the singing hurried and staccato. ‘In saecula saeculo-ho-horum,’ they went, with a vigorous aspirate to every additional syllable. I have never seen faces more vividly lit up with joy than the faces of these Indian singers. It was to them not only the worship of God, nor an act by which they recalled and commemorated better days, but was besides an exercise of culture, where all they knew of art and letters was united and expressed. And it made a man’s heart sorry for the good fathers of yore, who had taught them to dig and to reap, to read and to sing, who had given them European mass-books, which they still preserve and study in their cottages, and who had now passed away from all authority and influence in that land—to be succeeded by greedy land thieves and sacrilegious pistol shots. So ugly a thing may our Anglo-Saxon Protestantism appear besides the doings of the Society of Jesus. [He is in error here. The Missions were founded by the Franciscan Order. Mission Santa Clara, as part of Santa Clara University, is in charge of the Jesuits, but this situation came to pass long after the end of the Mission system.]
Robert Louis Stevenson
Across the Plains
Scribner's, New York, 1892, 1899
pp. 106-106
That the Indians learned well and sang well is borne out by the fact that long after the Mission period old singers still remained at some of the Missions who sang most commendably. Mission San José had old Silvestre, who not only sang the hymns and masses, but was also a skillful performer on the violin and guitar. Mission San Fernando long depended on Rogerio Rocha, an excellent flutist as well as singer and master of ceremonies. Mission Santa Inés could boast of two fine choristers in Rafael and Fernandito, the one a bass and the other a tenor. Fernandito especially is well remembered. He was not a California Indian but a native of Peru, who came to the Mission around 1850. He lived to the year 1919, the last, perhaps, of the real Mission singers, and it was from his faithful lips that the historian, Father Engelhardt, O.F.M., and many others heard the old hymns and masses.
Father Owen Francis Da Silva, O.F.M., op. cit., p. 11

Secular music, in the form of dance tunes and folk songs were also widely used at the missions both by the Indians and the Spaniards though there is only one manuscript source that survives. It is known that a number of tunes of Anglo, Irish, and French origin were used in California having been transmitted to this distant region on cylinders used in barrel organs left by merchant ships. There are a number of curious comments made by French and English visitors upon hearing the Marseilles and other non-Spanish patriotic and secular songs being played by Indian orchestras during processions at Mass.

William John Summers, Ph. D., A History of Mission Music
Music manuscript by Father TapisPadre Estevan Tapis, the third Presidente of the Missions, was also a musician, and an outstanding one. After laboring at seven other Missions, he was assigned to Mission San Juan Bautista, where he spent ten years, passing away in 1825. He was a true apostle and beloved by everyone. In regard to music, he excelled in writing beautiful manuscripts, and perhaps composed some of the part music that we find in the particularly fine music book still extant at Mission San Juan. Local tradition ascribes to him the clever invention of colored notation…

Companion to Padre Estevan Tapis at Mission San Juan Bautista was Padre Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta. He was born in Old Castile, came to California in 1807, and died at Mission Santa Inés in 1840. Although never in very good health, Padre Arroyo labored cheerfully and strenuously, making many converts. He had an exceptional talent for languages and mastered the Indian tongues better than any other missionary. At Old Mission San Juan they tell you that he preached in thirteen Indian dialects, and they show you the pulpit, still in use, that was the scene of his linguistic triumphs…

The barrel organ at San Juan BautistaEven if these facts did not justify us in naming Padre Arroyo among the musical padres of California, his "órgano" entitles him to mention in musical circles. In 1829 he reported that Mission San Juan Bautista had received an "órgano de 3 cilindros." This "órgano" has afforded much amusement to historians because it was just an English barrel organ that found its way down from Monterey, where, some years previously, it had been given to Padre Fermín de Lasuén by the British explorer Vancouver. It is still at Mission San Juan and is quite imposing, being over five feet in height, over two feet in width, and a foot and a half in depth. The wooden case  is of Gothic design and its two front panels each bear five ornamental wooden pipes. Inside we find 17 wooden pipes and 29 metal pipes, all of which still sound when the crank is turned. The "3 cilindros," barrels, are also still there; each barrel containing ten tunes. A list of these tunes is pasted on the side of the case, but time has rendered some of the titles indistinguishable; others, however, are clear: "Go to the Devil, Spanish Waltz, College Hornpipe, and Lady Campbell's Reel." Not just the music for a sacred service or monastery, but excellent music for recreation! We can well believe that the gay tunes afforded Padre Arroyo and his neophyte charges much pleasure.

Ibid., p. 21-22
At the end of 1829, Fr. De la Cuesta, then again alone, reported an interesting item which to this day has caused no little discussion and amusement. Under the caption Iglesia he wrote: "Se añadio un Organo de 3 cilindros." Unfortunately it was nothing more than a barrel organ, and the unholy titles of its music indicated clearly that it was not intended for church services. As noted on the machine, the "organ" came from London, and furthermore intimated that the tunes were intended to entertain rude British sailors, who the world over were not known for piety in word or music. The "organ" was probably donated to the Fathers at Monterey by some English skipper, or perhaps by some hilarious British sailors, who wanted to play a joke on poor Father De la Cuesta. Apparently he in his simplicity placed the thing in the organ loft, where it remained till some one with a knowledge of English discovered that Fr. De la Cuesta's simplicity had been abused. At all events the "organ" was relegated to the museum where we saw it as early as 1904. It was then out of order, so that we never learned what sort of music it rolled off. There is no evidence that the thing was ever put to use in the church. Its lively tunes could not harmonize with the stately Roman plain chant, nor with the devotional Latin and Spanish hymns sung by the congregation. Being a musical instrument, the barrel organ was simply stored with the band music in the loft.
Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, OFM
Mission San Juan Bautista: A School of Church Music
Mission Santa Barbara, 1931
The parish books give the names of forty-two Indian tribes belonging to this mission, speaking twenty-nine dialects and thirteen different languages.

Mission San Juan BautistaA jolly old soul was Father Arroyo de la Cuesta, who lightened, with many a whimsical comment, the tedious labor of preserving in book form these various Indian dialects. "The best way," he writes, "to see and hear a new dialect is to associate mostly with old ladies—and some young ones—for you must see it as well as hear it, as in talking it is necessary to mouth your speech, working the teeth just as you would when eating, and," he adds, "after half an hour's talking I get hungry." Again he writes that "a verb with no past tense is above my comprehension but I will ask God's help and will learn, though it take bloody tears." Once he learned the language of a tribe he would at once teach the simplest of the religious truths, finally bringing the whole tribe under the protecting cloak of the church. But the first language of this padre was a little music box which he would load on the back of a sturdy mule, and carry to some far-away Indian settlement; there he would set it up in some prominent place and rapidly turn the crank. When the Indians first heard the strange noises they fell on their faces with fear, but as the music continued their fear left them and they began to enjoy the sweet sounds, ending by slowly approaching and gathering about the padre, listening to the wonderful song box with delight. Then Padre Arroyo, just at the right moment, always turning the crank, would reload the mule and, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, wend his way back to the mission, all the Indians following after.

This is probably the very organ given to the mission San Carlos by Vancouver on his second trip, as it is of English make, being built in London in the early 1700s. After years of use the organ lost its voice and lay neglected in the mission storeroom until a wandering tinker, announcing that he was a music tuner, asked for something to eat. Put to work on the old music box he brought back to life its long disused voice, and to-day among the mission relics it still speaks, somewhat huskily to be sure and even hesitatingly, as if feeling ashamed at being forced to play "Go to the Devil" amid such holy surroundings. Probably none of the old padres was able to read English, and so in all blissful ignorance they would crank out "The Siren's Call" or "The Hungarian Chicken" with deep religious solemnity.

Trobridge Hall
California Trails—An Intimate Guide to the Old Missions
Macmillan, New York, 1920
pp. 184-185
The wind coming from the south prevented our sailing the next day as I had intended ; but I did not regret the detention, as it afforded us the pleasure of a visit from our very highly esteemed and venerable friend the Father president of missionaries of the Franciscan order in this country [Father Fermín Lasuén], who was then on a visitation to the several missions between St. Francisco and this point [San Diego], where he had arrived the preceding evening from St. Juan Capistrano. He expressed much concern that our departure was so near at hand, since the great fertility of St. Juan's would have enabled him to add abundantly to our stock of refreshments. Although I was not less thankful for these offices of kindness than convinced of the sincerity with which they were made, yet I was under the necessity of declining them, having now determined to embrace the earliest opportunity of proceeding on our survey.

I had great difficulty to prevail on the father president to desist from sending to St. Juan's for the supplies he had proposed, as in all probability we should have sailed before they could have arrived from thence.

The enjoyment of the society of this worthy character was of short duration; it however afforded me the satisfaction of personally acknowledging the obligations we were under for the friendly services that had been conferred upon us under his immediate direction and government; being perfectly allured, that however well disposed the several individuals might have been to have shewn us the kind attention we had received, the cordial interest with which the father president had, on all occasions, so warmly espoused our interests, must have been of no small importance to our comfort. This consideration, in addition to the esteem I had conceived for his character, induced me to solicit his acceptance of a handsome barrelled organ, which, notwithstanding the vicissitudes of climate, was still in complete order and repair. This was received with great pleasure and abundant thanks, and was to be appropriated to the use and ornament of the new church, at the presidency of the missions at St. Carlos.

Captain George Vancouver
A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World,
vol. II
Journal entry for Saturday, 7 December 1793
London, 1798, Da Capo Press, 1967
pp. 471-472
Why did Vancouver bring a barrel organ along on his explorations? One possibility is that it was to impress the native inhabitants of the lands he was exploring. He did state that he brought fireworks along for that purpose, and in fact put on a fireworks display for the inhabitants of Monterey.

Another possibility may have been that the organ was brought along to provide "music while you work" for the sailors. The sea chanteys we associate with sailing ships were not used in the British Navy (in fact, there are no reports of sea chanteys at this early a date). But it was common in the Navy to have a fiddler or a small band to play music to keep the sailors in step while at work on the capstan. The barrel organ may have served this purpose. If so, it would have been outside in all weathers, which may be what Capt. Vancouver meant when he mentioned "the vicissitudes of climate".

Interior of Mission San Juan Bautista Boy-like, when my parents first moved to San Juan, I was timid and afraid of the black-robed padres that governed the mission. They were a new species of beings to me. I was very anxious to see the interior of the old mission but I was afraid one of those friars might grab me. Friars were mysterious objects to me. One day when I was running around barefooted and passing along the corridor alongside of the church I peeked through one of the windows to see what those strange men were doing. It must be remembered that, at the time, the padres lived in that long building that fronts the plaza, adjoining the mission church. Whilst engaged in peeking through the window, to my dismay, a gentle hand touched my shoulder—one of those dreaded padres had stepped silently behind me and I looked up into a face beaming down on mine with kindliness and humor. He asked me if I was afraid, but one glance at his kindly countenance banished all the fears I had previously felt, and I replied, "No." The gentle father then invited me to inspect the church; this was something that I had long desired to do but was afraid that if I attempted it misfortune might come to me. The priest took me through the church explaining the various objects of worship and then took me up into the ancient organ loft where there is to be seen (I suppose it is there yet) an immense bass viol that was made hundreds of years ago by the Indians [he was describing events taking place about 1860; the Mission was founded in 1797, so "hundreds of years ago" is an exaggeration], also a musical curiosity in the shape of a barrel organ. This barrel organ was made in London, it was turned by a handle and played, if I remember aright, some three or four tunes. The first tune that I recollect on this organ was "The Devil's Dance." When the padres settled at the San Juan Mission the Indians were very timorous and afraid of them. The legend runs that the organ played an important part in their conversion. It was brought out and played and the Indians' curiosity overcame their fear in their desire to see what that strange thing was. Thus the padres got a chance to become acquainted with the Indians and the acquaintanceship ripened into devotion on the part of the aborigines. But, I think, it was a funny thing that the Indians were lured to the shadow of the church by a tune called, "The Devil's Dance."

Isaac L. Mylar
(b. Missouri, 1848, went to California by covered wagon 1852, died 1939)

Early Days at the Mission San Juan Bautista:
A narrative of incidents connected with the days when California was young
Evening Pajaronian, Watsonville, California, 1929
Republished San Juan Bautista Historical Society, 1976
pp. 23-24

The Indians were very fond of music and song and retained some of their pagan tunes, some sad and some cheerful, depending on the circumstances. They had their own musical instruments for non-church occasions, such as sticks on a hollow ball containing small pebbles, and whistles made of goose or deer bones. They would sometimes deck themselves out with feathers and paint their bodies, and, as they cavorted about in circles, would give out shouts and yells.

In 1829 Father de la Cuesta reported the addition of a three cylinder barrel organ. In her book, California Missions and Their Romances, Mrs. Fremont Older told about Father Tapis playing the organ to frighten off invading Indians—a good story but hardly likely. One of the tunes to come out of the organ, enjoyed by Indians and not recognized by the padres until years later, was "The Siren's Waltz."

Marjorie Pierce
East of the Gabilans: The ranches, the towns, the people—yesterday and today
Western Tanager Press, Santa Cruz, 1976
p. 3
The barrel organ at San Juan BautistaBarrel organ brought to mission in 1829, duly reported by Father de la Cuesta. It had come to Monterey by whaling ship.
Ibid., p. 5 (caption to picture)

Where did this information come from?

Fr. de la Cuesta knew more than a dozen Indian languages, and could deliver his sermons in seven tongues. During his stay at San Juan Bautista, he wrote two important works one was a compendium of Indian phrases, and the other was an exhaustive study of the Mutsumi language which received scientific recognition in 1860. An English barrel organ was acquired in 1826 and this crank-operated music maker produced wonder and enjoyment for the neophytes. A number of legends grew around this marvelous instrument, one of which gave it unusual powers and linked it with the founding of the mission.

This is an interesting website, but unfortunately it does not give references. Note the inconsistency of the date.

There is a small collection of objects of interest connected with the old Mission preserved in one room of the monastery. Among other things are two of the chorals ; pieces of rawhide used for tying the beams, etc., in the original construction ; the head of a bass-viol that used to be played by one of the Indians ; a small mortar ; and quite a number of books. Perhaps the strangest thing in the whole collection is an old barrel-organ made by Benjamin Dobson, The Minories, London. It has several barrels and on one of them is the following list of its tunes : Go to the Devil ; Spanish Waltz ; College Hornpipe ; Lady Campbell's Reel. One can imagine with what feelings one of the sainted padres, after a particularly trying day with his aboriginal children, would put in this barrel, and while his lips said holy things, his hand would instinctively grind out with vigor the first piece on the list.

George Wharton James
In and Out of the Old Missions of California
Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1906
p. 238

The old "magic" barrel organ was manufactured in London about 1737. No one knows how it came to the mission. While its gay tunes were unsuited for mission use, doubtless its music charmed the Indians, and at one time is said to have saved the mission from an attack by the fierce Tulares.

Caption on picture postcard for sale at the mission

During mission days the community also made use of a wonderful music box which has likewise been retired to the museum. The box is actually a five-foot-tall handcranked barrel organ whose tones were once thought particularly gay. Among its selections were songs designed to soothe the soul and to inspire "foxy" dancing; the one most loved and requested by the natives was marked simply "Number 3." The machine is also inscribed with the name of the maker and year of completion: Benjamen Dodson, 22 Swan Street, London, England, 1735.

Bruce Walter Barton
The Tree at the Center of the World: A Story of the California Missions
Ross-Erikson, Santa Barbara, 1980
p. 200

All about the town is evidence of its Spanish and Mexican heritage: the original baptismal font carved from local sandstone, the wonderful music box which rests in the museum. Now, only in the imagination can be heard the song that so delighted the natives — selection Number 3 — The Siren's Waltz.

Ibid., p. 201

No story of the mission would be complete without mention of its famous hurdy-gurdy, whose termite-ridden remains are displayed in the mission museum. This wondrous instrument is supposed to have been brought to California by Captain Vancouver in 1792, given to Mission Carmel, and passed along to San Juan Bautista in 1829. However, the instrument in the museum does not match the description of the Vancouver organ and the tunes punched into its tin cylinders were not known at the time Vancouver left England on his long voyage. According to one theory, the hand-organ that he left at Carmel is now at a seminary in Benicia—but where the one at San Juan Bautista came from is still a mystery.

[I'd like to know where they found the description of Captain Vancouver's barrel organ!]
Whatever its source, the hand-cranked music box was very popular with the Indians, who loved to grind out its rollicking tunes at every opportunity. Although hardly appropriate to the sedate cloisters of the mission, the Indians' favorite tunes were the sprightly "Go to the Devil," "Lady Campbell's Reel," and "A College Hornpipe."

Of the many stories concerning this barrel organ, one of the best shows its almost hypnotic power over the child-like savages. A tribe of warring Tulare Indians swooped down on the mission one day, and the neophytes ran for cover. Fortunately the padre kept his wits. He lugged out the hand-organ and began cranking. The neophytes caught on and began to sing with the music at the top of their voices, with the result that their foes were so entranced that they lay down their weapons and demanded more music, even asking to stay so they could enjoy it all the time.

Sunset Magazine
The California Missions: A Pictorial History
Menlo Park, California, 1964, 1979
pp. 244-245
Note:  according to the guidebook at the Mission, some of the Mission Indians were Tulares also.

It would seem to be somewhat of a coincidence to find two early 18th century English barrel organs in the California missions. But unless the points raised above can be dealt with, we cannot be certain that the organ in San Juan Bautista is really the one given by Vancouver.

I wonder where the Sunset magazine book found the description of Vancouver's barrel organ. I must admit that I did not read every page of all three volumes of Capt. Vancouver's report, but in the quotation above he does not write as though he had mentioned it before—and it's hardly the sort of subject that he typically deals with. I wonder if any of those Sunset magazine writers are still working there. (I notice that they got the year wrong for the donation of the organ, so their accuracy is not complete.)

The question of the tunes on the barrels might be easier settled. The barrels are not necessarily of the same date as the organ. In fact, I would imagine that when these instruments were in use on the streets of London, there would be a continuing demand for new barrels playing the "hits" of the day. So when Capt. Vancouver was preparing for his voyage, he could well have purchased some of the latest tunes. For example, the "Marseillaise" was composed during the French Revolution, just a few years earlier.

I was a little more skeptical about the waltzes, but on consulting some reference books I find that waltzes became popular in the late 18th century. The dance itself was forbidden by the church in California until the 1830s, but presumably this did not apply to the music.

With a little luck, the tunes mentioned could be dated, which I intend to attempt in the future. I would also be interested to find out what other tunes are on the cylinders, since it seems that there are more there than have been mentioned.

I had another idea, which was to investigate whether the style of the organ was typical of those built around the middle 1700s. Unfortunately, a web search was not very helpful. There were not very many useful sites. Some of them contained incorrect information, such as the assertion that the barrel organ was invented in 1800! The Britannica entry for music recording contains the following information:

Until the end of the 19th century, music was reproduced primarily by means of the mechanical method. There are reports of other methods, probably based on the action of wind or forced air, dating as far back as about 1500 BC, in the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt, when a colossal statue of the god Memnon at Thebes made some sort of sounds to greet his mother, the goddess of the dawn. (Toppled by an earthquake in the year 27, the statue seems to have lost this ability upon reconstruction.) Friar Roger Bacon is reported to have invented some sort of talking head in the Middle Ages, and Josef Faber created in Vienna in 1860 a talking man with ivory reeds for vocal cords, a rubber tongue and lips, and with a keyboard that altered the mouth cavity to control word formation. The most common technique, however, called for a human hand or clockwork to turn a cylinder embedded with pins that would strike or otherwise operate some sound-producing apparatus, such as the metal teeth of a music-box comb; the hammers, quills, or pipes of a keyboard instrument; or the clappers of a set of bells. Automatic carillons are known from the 1300s; automatic harpsichords and organs, from the 1500s. King Henry VIII of England owned an automatic virginal; his daughter Queen Elizabeth I in 1593 sent the sultan of Turkey an elaborate musical clock. Every six hours it played a tune on 16 chimes, followed by a two-trumpet tantara, then by an organ tune and performance by "a holly bushe full of birds and thrushes, which at the end of the musick did singe and shake theire winges." In the 19th century Queen Victoria of Great Britain owned a bustle that would play "God Save the Queen" when she sat down.

Some of the most illustrious composers in the history of music wrote for mechanical devices. Haydn wrote tunes for musical (pipe organ) clocks; Mozart wrote several pieces for mechanical organ; and Beethoven wrote his Wellington's Victory (or Battle Symphony) for the panharmonicon, a full mechanical orchestra invented by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (Mälzel), a German musician who perfected the metronome.,5722,118777,00.html

When in doubt about things musical, the most reliable source is usually the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Here we find the following information:

In 1597 the Levant Co., with the approval of Queen Elizabeth I, decided to send an elaborate barrel and organ as a gift to the Sultan of Turkey, and Thomas Dallam was entrusted partly with assembling it, partly with making it, and also delivering and erecting it in the Sultan's palace. Dallam's diary, reproduced by Mayes, gives full details of the organ and of his voyage.

In 1615 Salomon de Caus described and illustrated a barrel organ in which the barrel was divided into bars each each bar into eight beats for the quavers. The whole drum was pierced with holes at the intersecting points, the pins being movable so that they could be reset to produce another tune. De Caus did not claim the invention as his own but merely the adaptation of hydraulic power to revolve the drum. ...

There can be few musical instruments whose nature and construction have given rise to such confusion in terminology. Today even the average musician will immediately associate the barrel organ with the small street organ or barrel piano formerly played mainly by Italian mendicants, often accompanied by a monkey. These musicians were recalled to Italy after 1922 by Mussolini who considered their presence derogatory to the Italian nation. The instruments, however, were made in England and families noted for their production were centred around Saffron Hill in Clerkenwell ...

A much more sophisticated form of the barrel organ made its appearance in England in the middle of the 18th century when it replaced the small church bands which normally played in the west gallery, with the choir around the instrumentalists. The introduction of a barrel organ to an English church dates from c1700. ... The main period of the church barrel organ, however, may be regarded as c1760-1840; during that time hundreds of them were made by over 130 makers, principally in London. ...

Certain other makers specialized in chamber barrel organs, i.e. those for use in the home; the barrels in these cases were pinned with secular tunes. The titles of some 1300 such tunes have been recorded by Langwill and Boston. ... Chamber barrel organs were often enclosed in very handsome cases which reflect the high standard of cabinet making of the period.

Stanley Sadie, editor
The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians
London : Macmillan ; Washington, D.C. : Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1980
Vol. II, pp. 183-184

In reference to my question, the results are inconclusive. The date of 1737 (1735?) is earlier than the peak period of English barrel organ manufacture, but well after the beginning of this industry. There does not seem to be anything in the design that would rule out this early date. The organs produced in the early 19th century added additional features such as optional keyboards for manual playing. I have not found any good detailed reference for dating barrel organs.

A brief note about the use of the barrel organ in English churches might be in order. If you do a web search on barrel organ, you will find many pages that are histories of English parish churches. Many small parish churches in the 17th and 18th centuries could not afford an organ. Many existing organs had been destroyed during the Civil War and the Commonwealth period in the middle 17th century. (The Puritans thought that organs were related to "Popery", and made a point of destroying them along with church sculpture and decorations.) And even if there was an organ in the church, it could be difficult to find a trained organist. Music in the church was usually provided by "west gallery" musicians, who led the choir in song by playing on fiddles, flutes, cellos, bassoons and other instruments. In the later part of the 18th century there arose a movement in the Anglican church to replace this homemade music by a more standardized and controlled repertoire. The church made use of the technology of the day, barrel organs, to bring small, isolated churches up to standard. There was considerable resentment of this move by the west gallery musicians, which is described in Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree. Additional information on these topics can be found at:

The conditions which led to the use of the barrel organ in Anglican churches did not occur in Catholic churches, however. At least some of the mission churches even in remote California had organs. I have taken part in a performance in Mission San José accompanied by the old organ, which is still in working order. The barrel organ was probably used more for entertainment in the missions, although some of the quotations above indicate that the mission orchestras had a tendency to launch into secular tunes as incidental music for the mass.

While research on this topic languished without progress at this point, I received the following e-mail message from Gerry Dobson.

Actually, another barrel organ aficionado had given me this information already, but I had misplaced it. This would seem to indicate a date much too late for the organ to have been carried by Capt. Vancouver. However, in itself it is not conclusive, since a family business could have operated at that location for generations, and it's possible, for example, that the organ was built by the grandfather of the 1807 Dobson, also named Benjamin. However, Gerry replied that:

Gerry also adds:

This information seems to rule out the theory that this is the same organ that was left by Capt. Vancouver. That organ, apparently last heard of in Benicia, seems to have been lost to history. There remains the question of the date of 1737 which is apparently marked on the San Juan Bautista organ. I wonder if it could be some type of serial number rather than a date. I would still like to get an opportunity to examine the instrument itself.

There are a number of unanswered questions still remaining. If this is not Capt. Vancouver's organ, how did it get to California? Most of the shipping along the coast of California in the early 19th century was American. Perhaps the organ may have been brought from England to Boston, the home port of most of the California trade. However, merchant ships were much less likely to carry a barrel organ than a navy ship.

The use of music on board ship was to time rhythmic activities related to hauling lines, turning capstans and the like. British navy ships frequently had a fiddler or small band. The film Bounty (the Mel Gibson version) shows this quite well on Captain Bligh's ship (although the tunes played by Barry Dransfield, a well-known English fiddler, are not correct for this period). However, navy ships carry a larger crew than is necessary to run the ship, because in combat many of them would be needed for firing guns and other such activities. Merchant ships in peaceful times reduce expenses by carrying much smaller crews. To make these crews work more efficiently, the use of the sea chantey, in which the crew participated, was widespread. Interestingly, one of the first detailed descriptions of the use of the chantey is in Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, a book describing his experiences as a crew member on a merchant ship sailing the California coast in 1834-1836. (There is an on-line copy of the complete text of Two Years Before the Mast.)

It would be more unusual to find a barrel organ aboard a merchant ship, as 19th century ship owners were not usually that concerned about keeping their crews entertained. Perhaps, as suggested in one of the quotations above, it came from a whaling ship, as there were long tedious periods in the life of a whaler. However, as Benjamin Dobson seems to have had a successful business selling barrel organs by the London docks, perhaps there were more barrel organs on sailing ships than history records.

Gerry followed up with the following information:

It appears that these items may have been common items of trade. I became curious how much such an organ would have cost. Gerry replied:

I asked a distinguished economist (who happens to be my father) to estimate what this would be worth in today's money. Of course it is only an approximation as the relative prices of commodities and labour change over time as well. His answer:

30 guineas is £31/10/- or £31.50 in decimal currency. The modern buying power would be £693, or (at £1 = $1.5) $1039.50 in US currency. If you look at what it would cost you to buy a barrel organ today, you'd find it is quite a bit more expensive. For example, Flora and Company state that "prices for our 20-Note Busker Organs start at $3750.00 plus shipping in the US". This is because wages paid for skilled hand labour are a lot higher than they used to be. Just look at how much it would cost you to get a pair of custom-made shoes nowadays.

Another interesting question is why the padres acquired not one but two barrel organs. Unlike English churches, it seems that they were not used in the services. Perhaps they helped to entice the Indians into the missions as many of the accounts say. It may be also that they provided a little nostalgia for the padres themselves, as in the early years they must have had very little contact with any Europeans at all, much less opportunities to hear musical performances.

It's astounding how much history lies behind this one neglected artifact in a small museum! If it could only speak, what stories it could tell! It would be wonderful to have it restored to playing condition and hear the famous Siren's Waltz again. I doubt if the museum could afford to restore it; it would have to be done by volunteers from the barrel organ collecting community, if any such exists in the area.

Additional resources:

Here's another item I discovered about Vancouver. It happened in 1792 when he was visiting the island that later became known after him. He and the Spanish Commandant, Senor Quadra, together with a small party of English and Spanish, visited a local chief named Maquinna.

Vancouver stated that during dinner they had the company of Chief Maquinna and also his thirteen-year-old daughter who was seated at the head of the table and conducted herself with much propriety and decorum. The description of the entertainment provided by the Indians varies considerably. The following excerpt is from Menzies' journal:

"… a number of the Natives were equipping themselves in the adjacent houses, & now assembled at the Chiefs door in a group of the most grotesque figures that can possibly be imagined, dressed, armed, & masked in imitation of various characters of different Countries,some represented Europeans armed with Muskets and Bayonets, others were dressed as Chinese & others as Sandwich Islanders armed with Clubs & Spears; the rest were equipped either as Warriors or Hunters of their own Nation. After a party of them armed with long Spears entered & were drawn up at the further end of the House, the Actors came in one at a time & traversed the Area before us, with the most antic gestures. -- The Hunters equipped with varius marks & implements, shewed all the wiles & strategems usual in taking or chasing of different Animals as Deers, Bears &c. …"

The description which follows is from Bell's journal: "… they joined in a song which they executed with great exactness in keeping tune and beating the ground together with their different weapons. Some of their songs were not devoid of Harmony. They were all of the Fierce & Warlike style and subject and one or two of them ended with a frightful Yell that to a strangers ear was truly terrific.

"Maquinna, dancing, now entered, dressed in a very rich garment of Otter skins with a round Black Hat, and a Mask on, and with a fanciful petticoat or apron, around which was suspended hollow tubes of Copper and Brass and which as he danced, by striking against each other made a wonderful tingling noise. After dancing thus some time in the course of which he play'd some dextrous Pantomimical tricks with his Hat & Mask, he retired and two more songs were sung by the Performers, to which they danced."

The entertainment proved to be a mixture of American Indian and English dancing because as soon as the Indians finished Captain Vancouver got a number of the British sailors to dance a few reels to the accompaniment of the fife.

James Stirrat Marshall & Carrie Marshall
Vancouver's Voyage
Mitchell, Vancouver, 1967
pp. 69-70

So we see there was at least one musician in Vancouver's crew! It's my understanding that the British navy required all the sailors to dance as a form of shipboard exercise.

Go to California music index page.

BookGo to music encyclopedia directory

Hearth Go to The Standing Stones home page

Lighthouse Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)

Stonehenge border

STANDING STONES is registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office as a federal service mark. Unauthorized use of this mark for performing live or recorded music, or providing music-related information over the Internet, in interstate commerce in the United States, is prohibited. For full details on the activities covered by this mark, consult the US Patent and Trademark Office database.