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Vanishing Americana: Is steamboat calliope a musical endangered species?

New Orleans has long been a haven for preservation, but nonetheless time wears away, taking from us the little pieces that make the whole.  One of the most heard but least visible musical assets of the Crescent City rests here in antiquity.  The question is, for how long will it survive in the digital age?

The unlikely union of the flute and flugelhorn, doubtless having forgone the formality of matrimony, produced a lovechild to be known as the steam whistle.  Loud and overbearing, the shrieking device was used at cotton gins and mills to signal work times and fire alarms.  Riverboats employed the whistle to signal their arrival and departure, gathering and discharging passengers and draymen at their call.

In 1855, Joshua C. Stoddard, an American inventor, assembled a grouping of steam whistles in a chromatic arrangement with a keyboard control mechanism.  A baseborn cousin of the pipe organ, the device joined as a choir an array of steam whistles ranging from 25 to 67 musical whistles, each of which, by nature, was tonally imperfect.

Calling upon the Muse of epic poetry, Stoddard named the device “Calliope.”

Quick to seize upon the new entertainment medium, steamboats along the rivers of America were outfitted with calliopes to displace the brass bands that suddenly became drowned out by the louder musical contraption.  Over the next 20years the calliope, or steam piano, became the standard musical accoutrement for passenger-carrying river craft.

It was not long before traveling circuses featured calliopes showcased in grand carriages, pulled by mule teams, and some elaborately mounted on rail cars.  The use of bellows-driven air softened the tone a bit, and facilitated accompanying percussion to augment the festive music of the calliope.  Next came carousels with integrated calliope music, bringing smiles to millions of cherubic faces.

It became the sound of fun and excitement.

Today, according to, there remain only 10 such calliopes in use on riverboats.  Another source counts only four.  In either case, the number is dwindling.

Having the tonal qualities of a gin whistle can be both good and bad.  Easily heard, the calliope is capable of broadcasting its piping sounds over a wide stretch of river basin.  That’s the good part.

The bad is that the tone is imparted by steam or air pressure, the increase of which bends sharp, and the decrease of which bends flat, the musical notes.  Thus, the calliope, alas, has a tin ear.  However, the slightly off-key voice is not one to be mistaken, and certainly not to be disliked.

Unique in every sound, the calliope exudes a musical lightheartedness, washing care away.  It is the musical voice of joy.

Variety of music knows no bounds in New Orleans.  From the rhythmic blues of Washboard Chaz to the traditional ragtime of Preservation Hall, to the modern sounds of Marsalis and Mayfield, and to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, there is never want for diversity in musical enjoyment.

Add now to that gumbo, let’s sprinkle an extra spice.

Daily at 11:00 and 2:00, harkening the departure of the Steamboat Natchez from its mooring at the Toulouse Street Wharf, wails a free concert from the on-board steam calliope that can be heard from Algiers to the Bywater.  Taken for granted, even ignored, by local residents, these events provide a delightful surprise to unwary visitors.  To those unaccustomed to such musical interludes, the sheer joy of the experience emotes a carnival air over the French Quarter.

As you hear those wailing whistles pecking out a playful tune, pause for a moment and rejoice at the sound of the calliope.  Take pleasure in the melody with its genuine, tone-deaf reality, for waiting in the wings is the electronic stand-in, poised for its entry cue.   Then the Natchez will shed a little charm and sail away.


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