Come listen to songs of by-gone era

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 24, 2016

“I wanna hear it again, so won’tcha play it again, those Old Piano Roll Blues!”

Such ends the words of an old standard from “way back when” named, appropriately enough, “The Old Piano Roll Blues.”

Why bring up this old number?

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Because on at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 30, I’ll be sitting at the old Steinway grand and playing tunes from that way-by-gone era. The performance will take place, once again, at New Covenant Church on Homochitto Street.

There is no admission fee for this hour — or more — of musical antiquity, but I would encourage anyone who feels so moved to leave a love offering, which will go toward the last phase of the Baker Grand Theatre organ restoration work.

That night, you will hear, along with the aforementioned tune, such clever old works as “Grandpa’s Spells” by Zez Confrey. You will hear an old barrelhouse number called “The Twelfth Street Rag” and probably a couple of pure ragtime pieces like “Solace” and “The Mapleleaf Rag.”

How about “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “A Porter’s Lovesong (to a chambermaid)?” And certainly, “They’ll Be Some Changes Made.”

And that is just to name a few! These pieces will have you tapping your feet and smiling, I guarantee.

So why pick these songs?

This is the genre of music that several of us pianists used to pound out every night down at the old Cock of the Walk restaurant.

Sitting in front of an old, painted red upright, LaUna Oliver, Faye Booker and I used to spend hours tickling out these old work-horses, much to the delight of not only the older clientele, but also to the younger set. Let me tell you, three to four hours of sitting on a hard piano bench playing with all your strength night after night was pretty tough! But it was incredibly enjoyable.

One of the special pieces I will be playing will be “Sawmill Blues,” which was written by the father of LaUna Oliver. Very much a stylized piece, it is a strange combination of ragtime and blues, with a repeating theme. This was one of Mrs. Oliver’s signature pieces, and she played it for years at the restaurant and also as a part of the old “Mississippi Medicine Show,” where she was a featured pianist.

Those were good days, playing at that great catfish restaurant. One had to know a lot of music and be ready for requests that came your way. Not to mention the ability to dodge the stray pone of cornbread that the ceiling fan hit or the occasional crock of coleslaw accidentally spilled on your by an overzealous waiter!

This will be the last concert I will be performing to raise funds for the theater organ restoration.

I will tell you this: It has been a three-year project that has consumed almost all my free time (and even some time that wasn’t free!) I knew going into it that it would be a massive undertaking, so I have not been surprised at how much work it has taken, nor the hours it has gone through.

I am tickled beyond words to say that the organ is playing!

Yes, I did make a “quick-and-dirty” interface to wire up the key contacts just so I could play it and let people hear it. I have posted all of the clips on my Facebook page, and I will be uploading them to YouTube in the very near future.

The response has been overwhelming!

For the first time in close to 50 years (or more, I haven’t been able to accurately ascertain when the organ ceased playing), music issued forth from that majestic instrument. The sounds were just incredible, and I have to admit that when I first got it hooked up and could play it, it brought a big ol’ lump to my throat!

It appears by the comments that were posted on social media that others were just as amazed and astounded. So many left little stories about the Baker Grand, and a few had recollections about the organ itseld.

So, now the old girl has a voice, once again. She looks good. She is properly cleaned and rebuilt, and her tones are just as pleasing as they were 94 years ago when she was first installed in the theater.

The last phase of this project is to acquire and install a micro-MIDI system, which will basically run the organ. It will replace the original pneumatic relay system and operate very reliably.

Perhaps the most alluring part of upgrading the organ to micro-MIDI is that if every there was a desire to add a couple of ranks to the organ itself, it could easily be done. The old relay system would not allow any changes or additions. I have a good friend in the theater organ world that has a spare set of trumpets he would be willing to part with and maybe a violin celeste. The addition of those ranks would really make the organ fuller and more complete in tonal abilities.

That is where it all stands, and I would be remiss if I did not thank everyone again for the support the project has received, both in word and by contribution. It would never have gotten this far without the support.

So, mark your calendar and plan to attend “Songs from Cock of the Walk” at 6 p.m. June 30 at New Covenant.

Who knows, I may even demonstrate how to play piano blindfolded with a paper bag over by head!


Burnley Cook is a Natchez resident.