CHAPTER IX. STREET MUSICIANS.

Street musicians in New York are as plentiful as the leaves in Vallambrosa. One cannot walk two blocks in the entire City, without hearing from one to half a dozen street instruments in full blast. A few of the instruments are good and in perfect tune, but the majority emit only the most horrible discord.

                     THE ORGAN GRINDERS.

Only a few of the organ grinders own their organs. The majority hire them from parties who make a business of letting them. The rent varies from two to twenty dollars per month, according to the quality of the instrument; the French flute-organ commanding the best price. The owners of the organs generally manage to inspire the "grinders" with a wholesome terror of them, so that few instruments are carried off unlawfully, and after all, the organ grinders are generally more unfortunate than dishonest.

The men are generally Italians. Occasionally a German or Swiss is seen, but Italy contributes the great majority. Women are not often seen on the streets in such capacities, except in company with their relatives or lovers, and then they accompany the organ with the tambourine.

In good weather, a man with a good flute-organ can generally make from two to five dollars a day. Those who have the best instruments seek the best neighborhoods in the upper part of the city. There they are always sure of an audience of children, whose parents pay well, and some of these seemingly poor fellows have made as much as from ten to fifteen dollars in a day and evening. In bad weather, however, they are forced to be idle, as a good organ cannot be exposed with impunity at such times. The "grinders" pay from five to eight dollars per month for their rooms, and sustain their families entirely upon maccaroni. They use but a single room for all the purposes of the family, and, no matter how many are to be accommodated with sleeping arrangements, manage to get along in some way. They are very exclusive, and herd by themselves in a section of Five Points. Baxter and Park and the adjoining streets are taken up, to a great extent, with Italians.

The better class of Italians keep their apartments as neat as possible. Children of a genial clime, they are fond of heat, and the temperature of their rooms stands at a stage which would suffocate an American.

As a general rule, the organ grinders are better off in this country than in their own. Their wants are simple, and they can live with comfort on an amazingly small sum.

There are, however, many who are not so fortunate as those to whom we have referred. These are the great majority of the organ grinders, the owners, or renters of the vile, discordant instruments which are the bane of city people. They earn comparatively little but kicks and curses. They are ordered off by irate householders, and receive but little or no consideration from the police. They live in wretchedness and want. Their homes are vile and filthy, and they are the perpetrators of a great many of the crimes that disgrace the city. They are frequent visitors at the Tombs, and are ready to be employed for any dirty job for which unscrupulous men may wish to engage them.

                     THE WANDERING MINSTRELS.

Any one who can turn a crank can manage a street organ. The arrangement of the instrument being entirely automatic, no knowledge of music on the part of the grinder is necessary. Another class of street minstrels are required to possess a certain amount of musical skill in order to perform creditably. These are the strolling harpers and violinists. Like the organ grinders they are chiefly Italians, but they are not so fortunate in a pecuniary sense. Their earnings are very slender, and they live lives of want and misery. A very few are excellent performers, but the great mass have not the faintest idea of music.

                     CHILD MINSTRELS.

It is said that there are several hundred child minstrels in the City of New York, by which we mean children below the age of sixteen or seventeen years. They are chiefly Italians, but there are a few Swiss and some Germans amongst them. They are generally to be found in the streets in pairs; but sometimes three "travel" together, and sometimes only one is to be found.

Mr. Nathan D. Urner, of the Tribune, whose experience of city life has made him a valuable authority in such matters, has recently contributed an article on this subject to Packard's Monthly for November, 1868, from which we make the following interesting quotations:

"As a general rule, the little ones have parents or relatives - mostly engaged in the same business - to whose support they contribute; but there are both men and women in the city - and most heartless, worthless wretches they are - who import orphan children from Naples and Tuscany, for the purpose of turning their childish talents, both as musicians and beggars, to practical account. Indeed, a number of years ago, there was a villain, living in Baxter street, who employed at one time fourteen children, mostly girls, in this manner. His name, if my memory serves me correctly, was Antonelli. At any rate, by a cruel system of punishment and semi-starvation, he reaped considerable profit from the unfortunates - compelling them to steal as well as beg, and converting the girls into outcasts at the earliest possible age - until his arrest and imprisonment in the penitentiary of a neighboring State released them from their bondage, though only, it is to be feared, to fall into hands quite as bad. But they are seldom much better off, even if they have parents. A detective police officer told me that he knew of half- a-dozen cases where Italian fathers of this class had made a regular business of hiring out their children for the purposes of prostitution; and the precocity of development and expression frequently betrayed by the girls, still young in years, is mournful evidence of the truth of his statement."

It is astonishing to see how little musical talent is exhibited by these little ones, whose natures are drawn from the land of music. We have repeatedly seen them sawing away patiently at a violin, or jerking the strings of a harp, but could detect no semblance of melody in the noise they made. Not a few of the little ones endeavor to make up in dancing what they lack in musical skill. Their parents or proprietors are harsh and stern with them, and endeavor to beat some slight knowledge of their art into them, but it is a long time before they succeed. Sometimes death steps in to end the troubles of the child before success has crowned the efforts of the parent. Let us hope the little voices will be more melodious in the unseen world.

Sometimes these children will be found in pairs on the streets, consisting of a boy with a small harp, and a girl with a violin; or sometimes two girls; one with an old, broken guitar, and the other with a tambourine; or, again, of two boys, with harp and violin. Their music, at the best, is but worthless, and their voices have a cracked, harsh, monotonous cadence, but they also possess a sadness which rarely fails to bring a penny or two into the outstretched hat. They are dirty, ragged, and more like monkeys than children, but they have a wistfulness and weariness about their gaze and manner that make one's heart ache. It is so sad to see young children condemned to such lives. They are very young, the average age being eight years, but they do not seem like children. You think they are little old men and women.

At all hours of the day, and until late at night, you may hear their music along the streets, and listen to their sad, young voices going up to the ear that is always open to them. They are half fed and half clothed, and their filthiness is painful to behold. They sleep in fair weather under a door step, 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 sun, 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 they are permitted by the keeper of some saloon to approach his stove for a moment or two. These are the bright periods of their dark lives, for as a general rule, they are forced to remain in the streets, plying their avocations until late in the night, for blows and curses are their reward should they fail to carry to those who own them a fair day's earnings. Give them a penny or two, should they ask it, reader. You will not miss it. 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 little minstrels.

                     AN INCIDENT.

During one of the heavy snows of the last winter, one of these child harpers was trudging wearily down Fifth Avenue, on his way to the vile quarter in which he was to spend the night. It was intensely cold, and the little fellows strength was so much exhausted by 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. 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 ecstacy 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.

                     A SAD STORY.

Mr. Nathan D. Urner, from whose interesting paper in Packard's Monthly we have already quoted, draws the following touching picture of minstrel life:

A horrible murder had been committed. All engaged in it, including the victim, were foreigners. There was not a redeeming feature, not even the rather equivocal one of passion's frenzy, connected with the deed. It was deliberate, long-concerted, mercenary, atrocious, and bloody. The murderers - there were two - were shortly afterwards arrested; tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, with a dispatch and inexorableness which - probably owing to their friendlessness - was somewhat unusual under the statutes of this State. The most affecting incident connected with the condemned - both of them desperate villains - was the parting scene between the Italian criminal (his comrade was a Spaniard) and his child. This was a little girl, scarcely ten years of age; I doubt if she numbered so many. The man was low-browed, narrow-templed, and of a generally brutal, repulsive aspect. They were about to lead him into the dungeon of the condemned, the studded door of which would not open again save to admit his passage to the gallows-tree; and his poor child was beside him. Hardened, sin-stained as he was, the father was himself visibly affected; but the tempest of wild, passionate grief that agitated the little girl, so soon to be left an orphan, was something remarkable in one of her years.

She was evidently a child of the streets. Her dress was ragged and foul, and even her face so unclean as to be barely redeemed by the large, beautiful black eyes which would alone have betrayed the sunny clime of her origin. While the wretched criminal stood, shame-facedly and with drooping crest, before her, she fell upon his manacled hands, kissing them wildly, and betraying in her childish grief all the deep, sensitive, despairing sorrow of a woman. The villain before her might have often beaten her, debased her immeasurably, but the mysterious cord that linked their beating hearts was unbroken, though it sang like a bowstring in the gusty horror that swept between, and stretched to attenuation as the elder spirit sank, groaning, into the abyss of its own wickedness. Hot tears gushed from her eyes, her little throat was swollen with the choking sobs, and her narrow, rag-covered chest heaved with tumultuous agony. But after he was taken away, when the iron door which to her was, indeed, the door of the tomb, had closed between them forever, she became quickly calm, and her face soon wore an air of quiet resignation.

As she was about leaving the court-room she stooped and picked up a weather-stained guitar. I guessed her vocation, and was resolved to speak to her.

'What is your name, little one?'

'Angela, sir.' It was a sad voice, but very sweet.

'And do you play on this for a living?'

'I play and sing also, sir.'

The court had been dismissed, and the crowd were confusedly dispersing.

'I say, little gal, can't you give us a song 'afore you go?' said an inconsiderate policeman, meaning to be good-natured.

'I shall not sing to-day, sir!' said the little girl, decisively; and then, with a dignity of grief which sat well upon her, despite her rags, she passed out of the room with her dingy guitar, while the large man who had accosted her so rudely shrank back, abashed, before the glance with which the black eyes reproached him to the heart, ere they vanished in the crowd.

Here was a chance for me. I happened to be the only reporter present at the scene - 'sensation' was my forte - a 'beat' upon all the other dailies had come directly to my hand. It was late in the week, and I was also afforded the chance of cooking the thing up remuneratively for two or three weekly papers. But the whole thing stood before me like a picture which it seemed a sacrilege to copy. So I cheated theTribune with the rest, and, for the first time in my life, let the opportunity for a sensation slip my hand. No credit to either heart or head, however, for a relapse into my chronic state of impecuniosity, on the following week, caused me to curse a squeamishness whose absence might have earned a score of dollars.

But I soon forgot the incidents in the court-room in the manifold and hum-drum duties of my profession.

Several months afterward, however, I was passing down Park Row, when my attention was attracted to a little girl playing a guitar and singing an Italian song in a plaintive, monotonous air. Her dress and voice attracted my attention on the instant, and, when I saw her face, I recognized Angela, the girl of the trial-scene. It was her father whom, at that very moment, I was going to see hanged. I stood stock-still with amazement, the coincidence was so startling.

When she had finished her song, and had garnered up the few coppers placed in her hand by the careless and uncritical crowd, I stepped up to her and said:

'Angela, do you remember me?'

'Yes, sir,' she replied, her dark face lighting up with a gleam of recognition.

'Do you know what day this is?'

'It is the morning of my father's death - how should I forget it?'

'You refused to sing on the day of his sentence - can you find heart, then, to do so in this dreadful hour?'

The dirty little fingers fluttered nervously over the music-strings - as the creative hand might do with a human heart of whose destiny there was a doubt. For an instant a pang of agony wreathed the young face to the depth of its expressions, but she resumed her sorrowful complacency immediately.

'I am singing to my mother across the sea,' she said, quietly.

"Then, resuming her guitar, she swept out a yet more plaintive air, and lifted her young, shrill voice in song. The crowd around her did not increase, the interest was not enhanced, and the chary pennies of approbation were as few as before. But to me there was a wild, desolate melancholy in the melody that fell so unheedingly upon the ears of the crowd. They did not see nor hear what I did. They merely saw a dusky foreign girl using her voice for a scanty livelihood. I saw a patient, suffering, religious spirit, singing out its agony to a kindred spirit beyond the eight hundred leagues of heaving brine (I would wager my life that the mother heard that song, were she buried in the bosom of the Appenines); and the deep melancholy of those large, dark eyes, uplifted so plaintively, the saintly refinement of sorrow that lingered in the soft, olive face which spoke of far Italy, the 'divine despair' of the mellow voice, haunted me strangely and unpleasantly as I hurried away to the scene of death."

                     WHAT BECOMES OF THESE CHILDREN.

It is very sad to think of the future of these little ones. Without education, with an early familiarity with want, misery, brutality, and crime, the little minstrels rarely "come to any good." The girls grow up to lives of shame, and fortunately die young. The boys become vagrants, thieves, and often assassins. They soon find their way to the reformatory establishments and prisons of the city. The police watch them closely, and never overlook one of their offences. Everybody condemns them, and no one reflects that they are irresponsible for their sins. "As the twig is bent the tree is inclined."