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National Kazoo Day

History's Garden

Jan. 28 is National Kazoo Day. Yup, for real. The coolest thing about a kazoo is that if you can hum, you can play one. The second coolest thing is that it fits in your pocket or purse so, like a harmonica, you can make music anytime, anyplace. The third coolest thing is that the kazoo was invented in America.

The invention of the kazoo is generally attributed to Alabama Vest, who collaborated with a German clockmaker named Von Clegg, to create an instrument they called the Clegghorn. They introduced it the Georgia State Fair in 1852, and at some point afterward traveling salesman Emil Sorg discovered it. He joined forces with Michael McIntyre to launch The Original American Kazoo Company in New York and their first mass-produced metal kazoo came off the line in 1916.

The kazoo is basically a tube with a membrane inside which vibrates when air goes across it. This makes the classic buzzing sound of the instrument. The only trick to playing a kazoo is that you don't blow into it, but rather speak or sing or hum. It's that kind of air movement that makes the membrane vibrate.

Kazoos can be made of plastic or metal and can come in a variety of shapes, as well. What kid wouldn't want one that looks like a race car or an airplane? I suppose it's this whimsical design aspect along with the delightful buzzing duck-like sound that has prevented the kazoo from being considered a "respectable" instrument.

However, a lot of "respectable" musicians have used the kazoo in their music. Check out Eric Clapton's "San Francisco Bay Blues" and Ringo Starr's "You're Sixteen," both of which feature the kazoo. In 2010, 7,000 baseball fans kazooed "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during a special seventh-inning stretch celebration to honor Jerry Garcia. And in 2011, 5,190 kazooists in the BBC's Royal Albert Hall audience performed Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" and the "Dambusters March." Another fun kazoo instrumental, put together by Sandra Boynton of cow cartoon fame, is a performance of "Bolero" by 300 kazoo performers. One of my favorite performances is a Star Wars medley by the Mos Eisley Kazoo Orchestra – I think John Williams would be proud, or at least chuckling.

Another cool thing about kazoos is that you can buy one on Amazon for less than 20 bucks each, which makes it a really cheap investment in your kid's musical education. Also available is an electric kazoo that you can plug into an effects box, computer or amp. This seems like overkill to me, but there you have it.

While I admire that the kazoo is an American musical invention, it's not the only one. In 1761, Benjamin Franklin invented an instrument called the glass armonica after seeing someone play water-filled wine glasses. Franklin worked with a glassblower to create a series of 37 graduated glass bowls, each made to a specific size and thickness which gave the desired pitch when played. The bowls were mounted, from large to small, on a spindle that was turned by a foot treadle and sound was produced when you touched water moistened fingers to the rotating bowls.

The armonica produces a clear, ethereal, almost bell-like sound that is very well suited to Christmas, Renaissance and New Age music. Some of my favorite compositions are by Dean Shostak, who has produced both Christmas and Celtic music. William Zeitler composed a beautiful piece called "Our Last Transit of Venus" in honor of planet Venus crossing the face of the sun on June 5, 2012. Zeitler's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is classic armonica music not to be missed. And, for Star Trek fans, James Horner used the glass armonica for Spock's Theme in the 1982 movie "Wrath of Kahn," which can be listened to on YouTube.

Finally, there's the banjo, which according to the Smithsonian, "Few musical instruments are more deeply connected to the American experience." While not exactly an American invented instrument, it was created by African slaves in Colonial America based on instruments from their native countries. In America, banjo music was a way for African American people to hang on to their heritage and have a sense of community while enduring slavery. In the early to mid 1800s, the banjo was used by white minstrels wearing blackface to mimic and make fun of black slaves. Joel Sweeny was perhaps the most famous of the minstrels, and although his portrayal of African Americans was appalling, he did inspire other musicians to take up the instrument. After the Civil War, banjo music became wildly popular thanks in part to musicians such as William Huntley who may have been the first white performer to successfully make the transition from performing in blackface to being himself on stage. By the late 1880s, white Appalachia musicians began to adapt European folk songs and fiddle tunes to the banjo, and it was quickly adopted for ragtime jazz because it could compete volume-wise with horns and woodwinds. Today the banjo continues to be popular in bluegrass, jazz, folk and even rock music genres.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable banjo songs is "Dueling Banjos" written by Arthur Smith in 1954, which was made famous in the 1972 movie "Deliverance." Earl Scruggs does some fantastic fingering in his "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which was made popular in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde." A rather untraditional use of the banjo is by Neil Young in his song "Old Man" from 1972.

And here's something you probably would have never guessed: actor/comedienne Steve Martin (The Jerk, Father of the Bride, The Pink Panther and much more) is a world-class banjoist! You can listen to him playing "Foggy Morning Breaking" in 2022 on his Twitter channel. In 2010, Martin created the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass award, now known as the Steve Martin Banjo Prize. The most recent recipient is Bill Evans, musician, teacher and banjo historian. He did a nice 14-minute history of the banjo on the Fretboard Journal YouTube channel.

While the kazoo, armonica and banjo are uniquely American, there are others to check out, as well, including the abel axe, dulcitar, diddley bow, sousaphone, ukelele and vibraslap.

Have a musical month!

Article sources:

Bolero Completely Unraveled: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U14IBek-wNU

"The Last Transit of Venus" for Glass Armonica by William Zeitler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LP8QFR9Qvc

Kazoo: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazoo

The Kazoo: http://www.kazoos.com/pages/the-kazoo-its-physics-history-and-importance-for-modern-music

Giants to honor Jerry Garcia with kazoo ensemble: http://www.abc7news.com/archive/7600308/

A 'Star Wars' Medley By The Mos Eisley Kazoo Orchestra: http://www.digg.com/video/star-wars-music-kazoo-orchestra

Benjamin Franklin's Glass Armonica: https://www.fi.edu/en/science-and-education/collection/benjamin-franklins-glass-armonica

A Brief History of the Banjo: http://www.reverb.com/news/a-brief-history-of-the-banjo-americas-oldest-instrument

Banjos: http://www.si.edu/spotlight/banjos-smithsonian

Construction of the Banjo: http://www.banjo.com/anatomy-and-design-understanding-the-construction-of-the-banjo/

Top 10 most popular banjo songs: http://www.higherhz.com/best-most-popular-banjo-songs/

Black History of the Banjo: http://www.frontporchcville.org/black-history-of-the-banjo/

The Steve Martin Banjo Prize http://www.freshgrassfoundation.org/steve-martin-banjo-prize/