worth more than a song now

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    There was a time when harmonicas, also known as mouth organs, were the subject of an intense corporate battle.

    In 1896, J. Albert & Son of King Street, Sydney, introduced the first home-brand mouth organs, the Woolloomooloo Warbler and the Kangaroo Charmer. These were made in Germany by Seydel & Son, but re-badged to suit a patriotic Australian market. Later that year, Alberts introduced the Boomerang series, the King Billy, the Native Waratah and, for the New Zealand market, the Moa.

    Such was their success that in 1902 Australias largest music house, Allan and Co. of Melbourne, responded with their own Crackajack series, again based on German imports but re-badged to appeal to Australian tastes.

    Trevor Griffiths has an amazing collection of Boomerang harmonicas.

    Trevor Griffiths has an amazing collection of Boomerang harmonicas. Photo: Jason South

    There followed intense competition in the vein of the Holden v Ford battles years later. In the case of harmonicas there was also the element of Sydney v Melbourne rivalry.

    Sophisticated marketing was applied by both companies, which hired the top Australian players to promote their brands at live concerts. Harmonica bands were formed under company names. Perhaps the most memorable was the Melbourne Ladies Crackajack Band, which performed live and in newsreels.

    Boomerangs were the top sellers up until World War One, but Crackajacks were never far behind. In the peak period between the world wars, Alberts is thought to have sold up to a million tin sandwiches a year. The Crackajack sold better in Melbourne. Others tried to grab a slice of the considerable profits. The Cobber was a short-lived contender, lasting until 1920. Other local brands included the Rozella, the Lyrebird and the Magpie, released by Macrows of Melbourne. This largely forgotten musical battle is highlighted in a new bookBoomerangs and Crackajacks, written and published by Ray Grieve. A former rock guitarist, Grieve previously wrote A Band in a Waistcoat Pocket, published by Currency Press in 1995.

    More of Trevor Griffiths' impressive collection.

    More of Trevor Griffiths' impressive collection. Photo: Jason South

    He notes there are many harmonica collectors around the world and the Australian brands are very collectible, especially in America, where big money is paid for significant instruments although one prominent Melbourne collector, who prefers to remain nameless, says he can still find good Australian examples relatively cheaply.

    The rare ones you always find in antique shops, he says. Sometimes you find a drawer full that the owner has forgotten about. He recently picked up a rare Magpie for $35 from an antiques centre. The seller had no idea of its significance and neither did he until he contacted the guru Ray Grieve, who dated it to around 1913. Grieve had never heard of another survivor from this company.

    The Melbourne collector began collecting ten years ago, inspired by the vintage car his daughter had found. A rare 1925 Packard coupe, it had been imported to Australia by Frank Albert, the mastermind behind the Alberts corporation that would later make a fortune from music publishing and sales of AC/DC recordings.

    Making music: a Boomerang harmonica.

    Making music: a Boomerang harmonica. Photo: Jason South

    Albert made a lot of money from mouth organs. His 1920s waterfront mansion, Boomerang, still survives in Sydney. His Packard was also given a boomerang-shaped radiator cap.

    The more advanced chromatic style of harmonica was released in the 1930s although the early diatonic instruments are the hardest to find, and most valuable if in good condition. Those produced in the fertile period up to World War One are the most desirable. The anonymous Melbourne collector has paid $200 for professional quality Crackajacks, less common these days than Boomerangs. He estimates one in mint condition in its original box would be worth up to $400.

    Among the rarities in his collection are some miniature Boomerangs, about of an inch long but still playable. Its thought they were originally designed for diggers to take to war. Their size meant they could easily be carried in a soldiers kit, or carried in a pocket. Experts could play them, literally, inside their mouths. They are now valued at about $125.

    Ray Grieves book, Boomerangs and Crackajacks, and companion CD of early harmonica recordings, is available from bushlarkmusic.com

    courtesy of The Age


    the original article comes complete with pictures (link below)


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