AUSTIN, TX—In an investigation of the phenomenon’s tendency to occur during barroom brawls, a report published Thursday concluded that 83 percent of cases in which a player piano spontaneously begins to play were on account of a couple local ruffians went and got themselves into a gunfight.
A team at the University of Texas analyzed data from saloons, watering holes, and brothels across the western frontier and found 428 instances in which, right after some no-good rascal had shot off his Colt .45, a self-playing piano began hammering out a spirited rendition of “Oh! Susanna.” The report stated that the majority of these cases resulted when disputations between two ol’ scoundrels got out of hand, causing guns to be drawn and starting an all-out tussle that darn near wrecked the entire premises.
“Our findings indicate that roughly four out of every five player pianos are set off by a stray bullet, either when a notorious outlaw is finally cornered by a young gun, or when pistols are fired in a bordello following a quarrel over a kindhearted prostitute,” said the report’s lead author, Marina Fuller, noting that in most cases the piano continued to play right up to the moment the sheriff arrived and fired his gun into the air, putting a stop to the whole ruckus. “We also observed quite a few cases in which, as soon as the player piano started up, a grizzled old-timer who had been asleep in the corner jerked awake and began to pick out a rollicking accompaniment on his banjo.”
She added, “Even in cases when a bullet ricocheted off the bar before shattering some unsuspecting fellow’s whiskey glass mid-sip, it usually set off the player piano along the way.”
According to the report, an additional 11 percent of player pianos began playing when some lucky prospector who had just struck it rich got hit over the head with a jug of wine, fell off the second-story balustrade, and landed on the instrument, while another 6 percent started up when a fancy man from back East was thrown down the full length of the bar, smashing into every beer mug along the way and flying headlong into the piano.
Researchers confirmed that in approximately a third of these fights, a bullet went through a huge barrel labeled “XXX,” causing moonshine to pour directly into the mouth of the town drunk, who had staggered in and passed out near the bar. In nearly every instance, the dusty old piano reportedly began to play even faster as the gunfight escalated.
“Interestingly, we noticed these pianos will cease playing immediately—right in the middle of the song—if at any point during the shootout a famed gunslinger rumored to have died steps into the bar and causes the stunned brawlers to stop dead in their tracks,” Fuller said. “Otherwise, these altercations tend to continue until all the furniture in the saloon has been broken over someone’s head and the entire melee has poured out onto the street.”
“These types of scuffles can even spill over into the Women’s Temperance League meeting going on next door, forcing the ladies in attendance to fan themselves and run out of the building,” she continued.
The report stressed that the best way to stay safe during such gunfights is to jump inside a barrel to hide, though it also warned that if a man pokes his head out to see what’s going on, he’s liable to get his hat shot clean off the top of his dang noggin.