The music of the river
- Blog Post by: Kerri Westenberg
- September 25, 2012 - 5:06 PM
As we left Dubuque, Iowa, at 1:00 p.m. yesterday, calliope music rang out on the river. At each departure and every lock, the Riverlorian, Travis Vasconcelos, cranks up the festive, high-pitched music. Usually, he plays tunes from the early era of steamboat travel, but from time to time, he confessed to me earlier, he throws in "Material Girl" by Madonna or a medley from Phantom of the Opera (which once garnered him tickets to a Phantom show playing two blocks from the boat).
The Calliope -- a set of steam-powered whistles played on a keyboard -- was first introduced in 1855 by an inventor in Worcester, Mass. His idea was to replace church bells with what he called “the American patented steam piano,” a new way to summon worshipers to church. Worshipers preferred the stately bell to the goofy calliope, and so the inventor's instrument eventually wound up in a barn.
But the inventor’s brother, who plied a boat on the Hudson River, decided it would be just the sound to announce his arrival in various ports, and so the unusual musical instrument was dusted off and placed aboard. Other boats raced to find their own calliopes and the instrument's use on boats, particularly on the Hudson, grew.
In 1870, P.T. Barnum of circus fame heard the instrument, and put one on a wagon at the end of his circus parade, welcoming people to the big top. He decided that the patented steam piano wasn't a name befitting the circus, so he christened his a calliope, after a muse of Greek mythology.
By the early 1900s, though, the music was best known on the river, where it became what Vasconcelos called “the calling card of showboats.”
It is a sweet sound -- but loud. To take the photograph of the pipes, I donned ear plugs. But not before I heard a Mississippian ask Vasconcelos in her sweetest Southern drawl, “Will you play ‘Dixie’ for me? You played ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy," so it only seems fair.”
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