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The hurdy-gurdy: Providing the 'soul-torturing' soundtrack to 19th century Buffalo

In 1874, in roughly the same place where Buffalo’s new train station is being built, a hurdy-gurdy man was putting on a show with his monkey at what was then Buffalo’s New York Central Train Station. As a part of the act, while he was grinding away music, the “itinerant organ grinder” handed the “trick monkey” a loaded gun – and the monkey shot a man in the face.

A mob chased the man and his monkey out of town.

This was the general feeling behind the 1870 City Ordinance banning hurdy-gurdy playing on any “street, sidewalk, crosswalk, dock, wharf, or any public place in the city.” In 1885, city fathers made the law even tougher, and verbiage including the barrel organs and hurdy-gurdies in a category of machinery making “loud, unusual, and disturbing noise.”

The News put into more poetic words some thoughts on the city’s organ grinders.

“The malignity of the sad-eyed Italian who first applied it as an instrument in his soul-torturing and murderous assaults upon melody of all degrees, has been felt and anathemized in this country for years.”

While illegal to play on the streets, the organ grinder was the jukebox of the day, and the sounds of the hurdy-gurdy bleated out of many of the gin mills and taverns that filled a spot on most blocks of the city. The Sunday News again took umbrage with the instrument.

“Coming from the Central Depot Wednesday midnight having met a late train, I heard a most abominable hurdy-gurdy in a dive opposite, rasping out 'There’s No Place Like Home.' There was nothing like home in that place.”

Dominic Zanelatti on the streets of Buffalo with his hurdy-gurdy, 1927.

In 1891, Mayor Charles Bishop suggested that licensing street musicians might make sense.

“If a deserving man can earn a living playing a musical instrument and keep out of the poorhouse, he should be allowed to do so,” Mayor Bishop told the Buffalo Courier. But there was loud opposition to the hurdy-gurdy being included, as it was “street music which shocks the public’s ears.”

The advent of the phonograph began driving out the hurdy-gurdy players. With their dwindling numbers, there came some nostalgia for the sound that was once everywhere but was quickly going away.

“Nearly everybody loves the gay airs and the sobbing tremolo that proceed alternately from the piano-organ,” reported the Buffalo Enquirer. A reporter followed an Italian couple “pulling a piano-organ over the asphalt. She stops long enough to adjust her brightly colored kerchief which crowns her dark hair, and looks to her companion, grim Giovanni, in a corduroy coat and checked trousers.”

Even worse for the hurdy-gurdy than the phonograph was the automobile, according to one-time impresario John Mario, who spent many years working the dock near the Crystal Beach boat. He ditched his street organ for a factory job in 1921.

Around 1900, there were about 20 hurdy-gurdies grinding away in Buffalo. By 1927, there were three.

The city’s last organ grinder, Dominic Cocco was beloved and in demand in the 1940s.

"Feels good to get out again," he told the Courier-Express after making his first rounds of the spring in March 1948. After four decades, he still walked the streets playing standards like "O Solo Mio" and "My Wild Irish Rose," and he even had a weekly engagement at a hotel, where people would sit and enjoy the sounds of days gone by.

The hurdy-gurdy era in Buffalo came to an abrupt end a few months later when Cocco, 76, died, the victim in a hit-and-run accident. The Buffalo Historical Society bought Buffalo’s last hurdy-gurdy, where it was put on display to remember an era that had come to an end.

Dominic Cocco, Buffalo's last hurdy-gurdy player.

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