Tuesday, February 10, 2009
The Kazoo: “Ineffably Cool”
Or should that be “ineffably kool”? Anyhoo, as you may have figured out by now, Eberle & I have a thing for odd instruments, including instruments that don’t get much respect. To a degree, this is true of the uke—the respect part, I mean, tho folks who’ve heard a competent player play a decent instrument acknowledge ukes as the real deal; the same goes for the melodica, one of Eberle’s main instruments; even really nice melodicas, like Eberle’s 36-key Hohner, are often greeted with puzzled faces—until the folks hear Eberle play, that it.
But let’s face it: while they may not be widely known or accepted by the general public, ukes & melodicas are used in lots of bands by really fine musicians. So let’s take things a step further—let’s talk about that least respected of all instruments, the kind you get imprinted for the office bash or that you give as favors at a kid’s birthday party. I’m talking about the kazoo.
First point: kazoos are cheap. Sadly, in a society that values brand name & cost as signs of virtue & quality, this is a big strike against them. They also can be home-made quite easily (if you don’t mind having your lips tickled) with a tissue paper & comb. & on top of this, it doesn’t require much skill to produce a recognizable version of a melody on a kazoo (should this really be a mark against an instrument?) Of course, you do need to be able to carry a tune, but beyond that the basics are about as basic as they can get: more elementary than harmonicas or jaw’s harps or slide whistles or nose flutes.
But here’s the thing: while most folks can make music with a kazoo (a good thing), it’s not like the instrument’s possibilities end at the basics. As evidence: Red McKenzie & Dick Slevin of the Mound City Blowers (also see yours truly writing about these guys here); further evidence: listen to Dave Van Ronk’s Ragtime Jug Stompers perform “You’s a Viper” or “Stealin’,” or listen to Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band perform “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me”; or you can go back to roots music with Cannon’s Jug Stompers doing “Mule Get up in the Alley,” the Memphis Jug Band’s “Bob Lee Junior Blues” or The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Crazy Blues”—just to name a handful. For the rock fans out there: Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Crosstown Traffic”; Queen, “Seaside Rendezvous”; Beck, “Steal My Body Home.”
These folks sound like they’re having fun, but I also don’t sense they’re using the kazoo “ironically” (well, I can’t speak for Beck or Queen on that one). The Mound City Blowers, who were all about the kazoo, were more than a novelty act in their day (tho of course they had that aspect, too—but so did the great banjoist/guitarist/uker Roy Smeck, who is given his due as a masterful instrumentalist). As I mentioned in my earlier review, the Mound City Blowers played with big name hot jazz folks like Eddie Lang, Harry Reser & Paul Whiteman.
& as further evidence of the kazoo’s musicality: my own dear wife, Eberle Umbach, who fulfilled what she called a lifetime ambition by playing a full on melodic kazoo solo for our Grub Stake soundtrack (backed by yours truly on plectrum banjo). You can hear that piece in the clip below. The scene is a dancehall where Nell’s villainous husband is giving her a “coming out party”—however, he has some truly nefarious schemes percolating at the same time…. You can learn more about our Bijou Orchestrette incarnation here (including a link to a few more musical excerpts). The picture illustrating the clip is Nell Shipman in 1922, the same year The Grub Stake was filmed. Our soundtrack for Nell Shipman’s The Grub-Stake is available on vol. 3 of the Idaho Film Collection’s complete Shipman dvd set, & you can even purchase it here or here if the spirit so moves you (we did the soundtrack for a flat contractual fee, so I’m not trying to separate you from your hard-earned dollars for my own benefit). In working on her kazoo composition & playing, Eberle was really inspired by Red McKenzie & Dick Slavin; & Eberle’s the one who describes the kazoo as “ineffably cool.”
So what’s the history of this wondrous device? The kazoo comes from what is known as the “mirliton” family of instruments, along with the 16th & 17th century “eunuch flute (AKA “onion flute”). These instruments have an African origin, where they served as ceremonial devices. In essence, the mirlitons are a “voice-activated” drum, since the vibrating membrane is what creates the sound.
The kazoo as we now know it had its origins in the mid-19th century, tho similar instruments were used in North America earlier than this. However, in the 1840s an African-American man with the fantastic name Alabama Vest invented the prototype for the modern kazoo, which he had manufactured by a clockmaker in Macon, GA, one Thaddeus von Clegg. The kazoo was first manufactured under the name “Down South Submarine.” The instrument caught on, & eventually migrated north to western New York state where a traveling salesman named Emanuel Sorg joined forces with tool & die maker Michael McIntyre, & they started mass producing metal kazoos. This was the origin of the Original American Kazoo Company, still a going concern, & also the home of a Kazoo museum in Eden, NY. You can take a look at their website here.
Of course we all know the classic kazoo shape, illustrated by a few from our stash. You may not know it, but kazoos come in various shapes: as you can see, there are trumpet shaped kazoos (Eberle’s main kazoo), as well as kazoos shaped like trombones & French horns. I’ve also seen Sousaphone-shaped kazoos, but these don’t seem to be in production anymore. In addition, there are kazoos shaped like planes & trains & cars & tractors; there are kazoos made out of wood, too. You can see a wide collection of kazoos here.
A couple of final points: kazoos do fit in harmonica holders, so you can play a kazoo while accompanying yourself on guitar, banjo or uke. I’ve actually found that cheaper harmonica holders work best for this). Finally, don’t blow into your kazoo—& really, don’t hum either (that is, with closed lips); kazoos respond to vocalization—singing, talking, etc. & then just relax & swing it, gate, swing it—you’re in fantastic company.
I know I've used that pic of Eberle once before—but I couldn’t resist; the photo was taken by Dani Leone during “The Grub Stake” recording session.