Saturday, October 18, 2003

Calliopes blast out that shrill, sweet song

'It's like a piano that you wrestle'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Enquirer reporter Janelle Gelfand gets applause from Mississippi Queen "riverlorian" Travis C. Vasconcelos (left) and Delta Queen Steamboatin' Director Jazzou Jones after playing a tune on the Delta Queen's calliope.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
MADISON, Ind. - "I'm going to wake up the whole town," was my first thought, as I plunged into "Camptown Races" on the calliope of the Mississippi Queen.

Madison awoke early Thursday to the shrieking hoots of the world's biggest - and loudest - calliope, announcing that the Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen had pulled into port. Only 14 working calliopes exist today, and three of them - the third being on the Belle of Louisville - are at Tall Stacks.

After playing all three, I'm now a "certified calliopist."

Calliopes are as much a part of river lore as the paddle wheelers they adorn. In their heyday, calliopists were hardy souls who navigated blistering hot, hard-to-push keys, and were deluged with boiling water, blasts of steam and blazing embers from the smoke stack.

The instruments were deafening. Today's calliopes are streamlined with electric valves and ivory keys, and you don't get showered with soot. But a calliope can still be heard up to 8 miles away.

I put in my earplugs. A small crowd began to form onshore as I barged through "Oh, Susanna."

"It's such a rare instrument, that when people hear it, you see looks of delight on their faces," says Jazzou Jones, calliopist and steamboatin' director on the Delta Queen. (He admits being threatened with a lawsuit in Pittsburgh, which has a noise ordinance.)

Calliopist and "riverlorian" Travis Vasconcelos showed me how to "bleed the pipes" before playing. As he cleared out the condensation in the whistles above our heads, everyone got a shower.

The Mississippi Queen calliope's 44-note keyboard - half the size of a piano - has a generous span compared to most. It's hard to get used to all that hooting over your head, and there's a time delay. The "touch" is tricky.

The Delta Queen's historic calliope, just 32 whistles, seems tiny in comparison, but it has a sweeter sound (if shrill can be sweet). I decided to try Nat "King" Cole's "Unforgettable" - a Delta Queen first. People gathered and applauded. It was intoxicating; what could be more fun than drifting down the river, playing music that could be heard for miles?

Still, one has to master the technique. Earlier in the week, my lurching playing on the Belle of Louisville's calliope made "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" sound like a drunken sailor song.

The Belle's calliope is a jewel box with 32 brass and copper keys. Bill Ray, first mate and calliopist extraordinaire, had warmed it up so that it would be "smooth as a baby's bottom," he said. Well, almost.

"It's like a piano that you wrestle," Ray says, trying to prepare me.

As I played, it was hard to tell which were wrong notes, and which were just wildly out of tune.

"Is this a fair weather instrument?" I asked him as a huge wind gust rocked the boat.

"Today (in the 50s with a 25-mph wind) she's gonna caterwaul a little bit. Sweet and melodious are two terms I wouldn't use to describe her today," Ray says.

But on the way to Cincinnati, as the Belle was coming up through the locks, "We had the whole boat singing along with 'My Old Kentucky Home,' " he says.

Photo gallery
On the Delta Queen, history takes its time
Calliopes blast out that shrill, sweet song
Three boats boast authentic calliopes
Timeline of the early calliope
Tall Stacks hits high note with music performers, fans
Family troupe tells slaves' life
Daily schedule
Riverboat crowd swoons over Elvis
Civil War recruiters at work
Honeymooners revel in romance of river
Lavish ships with luscious edibles
NKU troupe dances below Newport levee
To artists, bridge just far enough
It's no easy ride for busy boat staff

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City's new riverfront becomes visible

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