Period literature often represents the grinder as a gentleman of ill repute or as an unfortunate representative of the lower classes. Newspaper reporters would sometimes describe them cynically or jocularly as minor extortionists who were paid to keep silent, given the repetitious nature of the music. Later depictions would stress the romantic or picturesque aspects of the activity. Whereas some organ grinders were itinerants or vagabonds, many were recent immigrants who chose to be street performers in order to support their families. Those who actually owned their barrel organs were more likely to take care of them and pursue the "profession" more seriously. A few organ grinders still remain, perhaps most famously Joe Bush in the United States.
Exceptionally, the grinder could be a woman, or small child, cranking away on a smaller organ or on a large organ mounted on a pushcart that was sometimes pulled by a donkey. More often than not the grinder was a man, bearing a medium sized barrel organ held in front of him and supported by a hinged or removable wooden stick or leg that was strapped to the back of the organ. The strap around his neck would balance the organ, leaving one hand free to turn the crank and the other to steady the organ. A tin cup on top of the organ or in the hand of a companion (or an animal) was used to solicit payments for his performance. There was an endless variation in the size of the organ. The size varied from a small organ with only 20 notes weighing only 18 pounds to a huge barrel organ with hundreds of pipes weighing several hundred pounds. Larger organs were usually mounted on a cart, although organ grinders were known to carry an instrument weighing over 100 pounds. The most elaborate organs could even have mechanical figures or automata mounted on top of or in the front of the case.
The grinder would crank his organ in a public place (either a business district or in a neighborhood), moving from place to place after collecting a few coins or in order to avoid being arrested for loitering or chased by persons who would not appreciate hearing his single tune over and over again. The grinder would often have as a companion a White-headed Capuchin monkey to do tricks and attract attention. The monkey would collect the money from the audience and sometimes collect other shiny objects that attracted his attention. Other attractions might be parrots, dogs, dancing bears and members of the organ grinder's family who would dance and sing.
Many cities in the United Kingdom had ordinances prohibiting organ grinders. The authorities often encouraged policemen to treat the grinders as beggars or public nuisances. In Paris there was a limited number of permits for organ grinders, and entry in that reserved circle was based on a waiting list or seniority system. In New York City (USA), there were as many as 1500 organ grinders on the streets at a time - one on almost every block.
Music lovers usually hated the organ grinders, since most grinders seemed to be tone deaf and lacking any sense of rhythm. They apparently were not interested in keeping their instrument in tune or cranking at a rate suited to the music which was "programmed" in their barrel organ. This was most likely true of the organs that were rented for the day from "organ liveries". The organ grinder would pick up an organ in a small store-front shop and then walk or take the streetcar to his chosen neighborhood. After moving from block to block throughout the day, they would return the organ to the livery and pay a portion of their take to the owner.
Often, they would make more money than was earned by the people who made donations. Of course, they dressed shabbily to conceal this fact. City dwellers who needed some measure of quiet for their writings or their scientific reflections could absolutely loathe organ grinders.
Charles Dickens wrote to a friend that he could not write for more than half an hour without being disturbed by the most excruciating sounds imaginable, coming in from barrel organs on the street. Charles Babbage was a particularly virulent enemy of the organ grinders. He would chase them around town, complain to authorities about their noisy presence, and forever ask the police to arrest them. Yehudi Menuhin on the other hand is quoted to have said: "we musicians must stick together" while handing an organ-grinder some change.
According to Ord-Hume the disappearance of organ grinders from European streets was in large part due to the early application of national and international Copyright laws. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century European publishers of sheet music and the holders of copyrights to the most popular operatic tunes of the day often banded together in order to enforce collection of performance duties from any musician playing their property in any venue.
When faced with notaries and the hounding of other legal representatives of the "music industry" of the time, in addition to the other sources of hostility mentioned above organ grinders soon disappeared.
Street organs were banned in New York City in 1936 by Fiorello La Guardia. An unfortunate consequence was the destruction of hundreds of organs. This was unfortunate because the barrels in these organ contained a record of the popular music of the day. Before the invention of the cylinder record player, this was the only permanent recording of these tunes. The law that banned barrel organ in New York was repealed in 1976 but that mode of musical performance had become obsolete by then. However, organ grinders did return to New York on the 9th of April 2006, when the first organ rally in the area was held on Coney Island.
There are still persons, at the beginning of the 3rd millennium, who own and sometimes operate a barrel organ on a street. They have very little in common with the calling of the organ grinder of yore. For instance, it is considered lucky for a couple in Denmark to have a barrel organ playing outside on the morning of their 25th wedding anniversary, thus creating a small niche for professional musicians or musicologists capable of tuning one of the few surviving barrel organs, and interested in maintaining an old tradition in their spare time.
In addition to a few antique barrel organs, there are many more modern organs that have been built. These do not operate on pinned barrels anymore, but use perforated paper rolls (analogous to player pianos) or perforated cardboard book music (this method is mostly to be found in France Orgue de Barbarie, Holland or Belgium) and sometimes even electronic Microchip- and/or MIDI-systems. Organ grinders are a common sight in Mexico City.
The picture on this page is a good example for a modern organ grinder, as he is very well dressed. Some organ grinders like to dress in period-costumes, albeit not necessarily the period-clothes of an organ-grinder. He would be found at an "organ rally" (in case of the picture the "MEMUSI"-event in Vienna), where lots of enthusiasts would come together and entertain on the streets, but equally so at a wedding (usually performing the "Lohengrin"-tune) or at any other event where he might be chosen over hiring an entire band or a deejay.
Mark Knopfler (Musician, born August 12, 1949), "Punish the Monkey," from Kill To Get Crimson due 9/18/07: "Somebody's gonna take the fall / There's your quid pro quo / Punish the monkey / Punish the monkey / Punish the monkey / and let the organ grinder go."
Bob Dylan (Musician, born May 24, 1941), "I Want You," from Blonde on Blonde 5/16/1966 "The guilty undertaker sighs, the lonesome organ grinder cries, the silver saxophone says I should refuse you" (verse 1)
James Blunt (Musician), "Out of My Mind", "Judging by the look of the organ grinder/he'll judge me by the fact that my face don't fit/it's touching that the monkey that sits on my shoulder/he's waiting for the day that he gets me"
Also, in Marilyn Manson's first official release "Portrait of an American Family", 1994, the fourth song is called "Organ Grinder".
Emilie Autumn (Musician) recorded an instrumental track called "Organ Grinder" for the German Saw III soundtrack.
In the game "Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time", there exists an organ grinder inside a windmill in Kakariko Village who grinds away at his organ day and night.