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Max Morath : The Piano
Max Morath The piano, which, of course, goes back way into the late 18th century and is the big instrument of the 19th century, was a musical instrument for the elite. You didn't have a piano unless you had the bucks because they were grand pianos. Now, sure, they were those characteristic little square grands that were seen in covered wagons in old westerns. They were terrible pianos. They didn't stay in tune. They were a piece of furniture. Now no one inventor does this, but in the latter part of the 19th century, instead of the piano action being this way, somebody says, "Ah, let's do it this way and we'll call it the upright and it can go against a wall, so it can fit in your home." And by 1900, the upright piano -- forget the grand -- you still had to have money -- the upright piano, a good piano that stayed in tune, had all the versatility of the keyboard, is now available to families, middle families, all over America and in clubs and saloons where these young musicians could get access to a good piano that stood up under a lot of playing. I looked I up some years back in a bunch of books that the Department of Commerce puts out and between the year 1900 and 1920, something like five million pianos were sold. And when you think that they went into homes where maybe who knows how many, 10-12-15 people, used them, it means that the piano was accessible to almost everybody in America. Now along comes the 1900, the beginnings. Again, here's a pivot of the player piano. The player piano, which was originally called the Borsetzer and was invented in Germany and actually came up with felt fingers, another instrument that played the piano, was put inside the piano around 1900. Another bunch of patents. It's a mess. Nobody knows who exactly did this, but now the upright player piano is also a part of the musical scene. So there's a hit song and the first thing you do is go down and get somebody to make a player roll for it, and that's another way of selling it and getting money, merchandising it, because people more and more are getting players. Now, again, 1900 was not loaded with player pianos, but it was there, it was happening, it was leading toward the explosion to come.

The piano is so versatile. The banjo, you probably aren't gonna play it by yourself. The guitar was there acoustically, of course. The mandolin family, but when you're by yourself and you set the sheet music up there and there are three or four people and you say, "Let's sing this latest hit song 'The Bird in the Gilded Cage'," the daughter of the family, nine times out of ten, would sight read it. "Oh, yeah." Sing it. The guys'll start to harmonize because the barber shop quartet was the big thing, of course. Women sang. It becomes a very cohesive force, I think. And I would not want to say that the advent of popular music in the best sense was not a very good thing in this country.

It gave people a means of expression that perhaps they didn't have personally, and still does, by the way. It certainly was fun. It was fun. There were fun songs and there still are. I mean there were funny songs. There were songs that were attractive harmonically. What's more fun than to get together with two or three people and try to harmonize? And you had time. Here's another thing I think - gee, I did a show years ago about the advent of leisure time. We're getting near the -- we don't have the 40-hour week yet certainly, but there is Sunday and there's a little more time and a little more money to have some fun, to sing, to play the piano. This is another thing that happened in society that fed into beginning of popular arts.

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