0

Calliope, Calliope, Wherefore Art Thou?

A few years ago, I realized that I had not seen a calliope in a very long time. In fact, my kids don’t even know what it is. How can it be that hundreds of thousands of Americans don’t know what a calliope is? Next thing I know, someone will say they don’t know what a harpsichord does.

When I was little, my dad worked for a large company that had an annual picnic at a nearby lake. It was a big deal – games, food, beer tent (Dad’s favorite). And a calliope.

I looked up the definition of calliope. It is a musical instrument that produces sound by sending steam or compressed air through large whistles. It also said that calliopes are very loud; some small ones are audible for miles. There is no way to vary tone or loudness. The only variables are the timing and duration of the notes. Don’t see any popularity issues there. Sounds like a lot of the kids who come through the store.

Calliopes must be tuned often to create quality sound (probably an oxymoron). The pitch is affected by the temperature of the steam, so tuning is almost worthless anyway. They decided to just tell people that those off-pitch notes were just a part of the instrument’s charms. It’s a good thing that rationalization has never caught on for singing.

Interesting note: The calliope was patented by Joshua Stoddard on October 9, 1855. (Start planning your anniversary celebrations now!) He planned for it to replace the bells at church. I don’t know what type of church Mr. Stoddard attended, but I can’t imagine waking up to the sound of a calliope playing two miles away. Or listening to it chime every hour. I’m thinking the people would have sent Joshua from his home in Worcester, MA, to somewhere on the open prairie.

Apparently a calliope can either be played by hand or mechanically. I read that calliopes began using music rolls starting in the 1900’s. The ones I saw always had human players. I wonder if the musicians were just pretending to play. How disillusioning.

The real reason for the demise of the calliope seems to have been the replacement of steam power by things that didn’t get into our lungs and try to kill us. No steam, nothing to drive the music. I think it was a conspiracy by the same people who don’t want Harleys driving through their subdivisions at 3a.

The only calliope-maker in the world right now lives in Peru, Indiana. So it appears that the instrument will not be making a comeback any time soon. It’s probably just as well. Who needs another type of loud discordant music floating around?

 

 

4

Please Stop the Music

Disclaimer: I have always been unable to study with music on if it had lyrics; I wanted to listen to the words. I may be genetically incapable of ignoring background music. 

The eighties are alive and well at Ralph’s (the pseudonym for the store where I work). Sometimes the music they play sounds like a Top 40’s list from 1984. (I guess that ages me since I don’t remember the last time I heard the phrase Top 40.) As hard as I have tried, I cannot find any type of research that says a constant stream of Billy Joel and Huey Lewis induces people to buy more lettuce and canned corn.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like some of the music. But I remember a business trip I took to Toledo one time. I only lived a couple of hours away, so I drove. I made the mistake of taking more than one album (age alert!) by the same artist with me. It was months before I could listen to some of the songs.

The first year I was there, I only noticed the Christmas music. There really are a limited number of songs a retail store can play at Christmas without offending someone. When you’re open 24/7 and start playing the music right after Thanksgiving, everyone’s teeth are on edge by December 24. So they decide to extend the “mood” by continuing to play it until January 1.

Then I noticed that we also have patriotic music on Independence Day (July 4th). There is a seriously limited supply of patriotic music. Once you get past the anthems for each branch of the military, the Sousa marches, and America the Beautiful, the pickings get slim. Stars and Stripes Forever and the Washington Post March start to sound an awful lot alike by the fourth or fifth repetition.

It was last fall that I started to realize that some of the songs were on heavy rotation (yes, another phrase from the 80’s). I know that stores pay a service to get a certain package of music, so I wasn’t really surprised by the repetition. I just started started wondering why they would choose what they did. Maybe it’s cheaper to get older music? I guess the 80’s were when music started splintering into so many genres, so maybe they were looking for something generic. I just wonder if they really know what they got.

For example, fairly regularly we get to hear Ballroom Blitz by Sweet (1973). I’ve loved the song since the first time I heard it, but as music to shop by?

What about My Sharona by The Knack (1979)? Has anyone listened to the lyrics? They’re a little suggestive.

Or Rock the Casbah by The Clash (1982)? For one thing, people really don’t hear that first word well. More than one has thought it was F*** the Casbah, which would really be in poor taste. But the rest of the lyrics are pretty iffy too, if you actually listen to them. And the video is worse:

I’m going to end with another song that we hear a lot, although it’s from the 60’s. I really like it, but right now it hits a little close to home.

On the other hand, any of it is better than the Muzak stores played in the 80’s.