A. O. Babel, the “Cowboy Pianist,” was billed as a musical phenomenon who marveled audiences throughout the United States during the 1880s and 1890s. Many of the details of his life were shrouded by a sensationalized account published about 1890 by Dick Publishing House in New York. The dime novel-like book titled Life of A. O. Babel: The Original and Famous Texas Cowboy Pianist portrayed a young man who had worked as a cowboy as well as a scout who could speak nine Indian languages and who had served as an interpreter and guide for the United States military. His feats included ferreting out desperadoes in Mexico and bringing them back to justice. Supposedly, Babel suffered a terrible fall from a horse, resulting in one broken arm and one badly sprained arm, and during a lengthy convalescence, he discovered that he had developed a miraculous talent for the piano.
The real Babel was born, probably in Seguin, Texas, in Guadalupe County, to Amandus and Amalia Babel, both immigrants from Prussia. Babel’s book listed his birth date as December 22, 1858; his headstone gives only a year—1857; the 1860 census of Guadalupe County gave his age as four and listed his given name as Oscar. In 1870 the family was living in New Braunfels, and Oscar was listed as thirteen years old. His father, Amandus, was a professor of music, and most likely he instructed his son Oscar from an early age.
By 1880 the Babel family was again living in Guadalupe County, but by this time Oscar Babel had moved to Houston, where he played piano at the Solo Saloon on Congress Street. He also advertised himself as a professor of music and may have been the “Prof. O. A. Babel” who married Emma Rumpel of Houston, as reported in the Galveston Daily News on June 8, 1880.
In the Houston city directory of 1881 he went by the name Alexander O. Babel and continued to be the musical attraction at the Solo Saloon. The Galveston Daily News later commented in 1885: “Whether he played by note or not, he tossed from the keys of the grand piano that stood on a stage at the side of the large hall every variety and shade of music from the most delicate to the most sonorous tones.” Babel also gave concerts in other towns and church festivals in Texas. He left Houston after 1881. The facts of his life during this time are sketchy. He may have traveled to Mexico. Afterwards, he spent time in the mining camps of New Mexico.
He emerged in 1885 as A. O. Babel with the amazing musical persona, the “Cowboy Pianist.” His performances created a sensation in Chicago, where he was heralded as a “musical prodigy.” According to the New Orelans Graphic, “Mr. Babel plays entirely by ear and is a genuine cowboy never having been out of the State until about a month ago. He says playing came to him naturally.” When news of Babel’s miraculous newfound ability reached Texas, some readers took notice. An item from Waco, published in the Galveston Daily News on August 28, 1885, noted that Babel had previously played at the Horseshoe Variety Theater in Waco and characterized his talent of strictly playing by ear as “a romance.”
On March 10, 1886, Babel made his debut in New York at Steinway Hall to lavish praise by the New York Mirror which described the “Steer Puncher” as a “marvel of queer talent.” The periodical commented, “His wrists are of spring-steel, and his finger [sic] like unto the comb of a musical box. His octave playing is beyond all doubt the most extraordinary we have ever heard. His chromatic scale playing is like the rippling waters, and his staccato like the dropping of crystals.” The paper further surmised that Babel was “musically a case of arrested development.” One writer to the Dallas Morning News called the New York praise “humbuggery” and further riled:
A. O. Babel is not and never was a cowboy…and this boy, whom I remember almost from his infancy, was running the scale and playing chords and simple pieces of music as soon as he could walk—indeed, long before he could reach an octave. He was his father’s pupil for years—up to his manhood….
The writer further charged that Babel played strictly by note—not by ear—and that the story of Babel’s father trading twelve bushels of corn for a piano was pure fiction.
The Seguin Record commented that many of Babel’s claims were at “direct variance with those of old citizens who knew him,” and recalled that Prof. Amandus Babel made his young son Oscar learn the piano “from the time he could stand alone.”
Despite the disparaging remarks from some Texas periodicals, Babel created a sensation across the United States to the delight of audiences in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Atchison, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, and Bangor. He was hailed as a piano master who played more than 1,200 songs and even performed at times with a cloth over the keys. The “Texas Wonder” played at dime museums, concert halls, theaters, and other venues and sometimes gave hourly recitals. By 1887 advertisements included mention of his musical partner, Mattie Babel, dubbed the “cowgirl cornetist.” Most accounts called her Babel’s wife (though at least one newspaper referred to her as his sister). Given that no one named Mattie appeared among the Babel household in early censuses, Mattie Babel was probably A. O. Babel’s wife and possibly the same Emma Rumpel mentioned as the spouse of O. A. Babel in Houston.
Not everyone, however, was apparently impressed. One critic for the Atchison Daily Globe caustically described his “delirious tune” on a “jim jam piano”:
He had three or four revolvers strapped to his waist, and wore a greasy suit of buckskin shadowed by a huge sombrero, and the quality of his music was not strained, for it was so bad that everyone wondered how any people outside of a lunatic asylum could be fooled by such a dizzy fraud.
A reporter for the New Orleans Daily Picayune described his playing as a “Babel of confused noises.”
Babel and his wife Mattie continued to give performances well into the 1890s and toured Canada and Europe. They established a home in Randolph, New York, where he was active in several local fraternal organizations. He died there on January 19, 1896, and was buried in Randolph Cemetery.