January 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Instrument Interview: The Kazoo

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we mark National Kazoo Day by talking to the kazoo!

I thought kazoos were just silly party favors, but you’re an actual musical instrument?

Well, I do have a reputation as a birthday party favor, probably to the extreme annoyance of many parents! But I am so much more than that. Kazoos are membranophones, where the tonal qualities of the instrument are produced as the player hums. I am also related to mirlitons, which are vibrating membrane instruments.

A metal kazoo on a display stand within a glass case with an interpretive label in front of it with a brief text about the kazoo.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has a George D. Smith metal kazoo in our instrument gallery. It is on display courtesy of Kazoobie Kazoos, a plastic kazoo manufacturer in Beaufort, South Carolina. © Birthplace of Country Music

Where do you come from?

My ancestors go back to early mirlitons from Africa. They were made from cow horns or gourds, and their membranes were from spider egg silk. It must have been a tricky business to make them! These African horn-mirlitons were used for ceremonial purposes as a way to distort or mask the human voice.

Kazoo-like instruments are also known in ancient Mexico, though these looked more like recorders and the membrane was made from slivers of corn husk.

A lot of people think of the kazoo as an American instrument. How did you come about here in the States?

Different types of kazoo-like instruments, based on the African mirlitons and common in folk music, could be found in North America in the 1800s. But the kazoo as we know it is attributed to an African-American man named Alabama Vest who came up with the idea of this small instrument and then worked with Thaddeus von Glegg, a German clock manufacturer, to make his concept into reality in the 1840s.

How the kazoo went from Alabama Vest to mass production follows a couple of possible routes. The Historical Folk Toys site notes that a traveling salesman named Emil Sorg was charmed by Vest and von Glegg’s instrument, and so took the concept to create his own kazoos in New York, partnering with die-maker Michael McIntyre and starting production in 1912. McIntyre knew that to succeed, mass production was necessary and so he soon went into business with Harry Richardson, a large metal factory owner. By 1914 they were mass producing kazoos as the instrument’s popularity, and sales, skyrocketed. In 1916 their company became known as The Original American Kazoo Company, and McIntyre was awarded a patent on their kazoo in 1923. In 1994 The Original American Kazoo Company was producing 1.5 million kazoos per year! The company stayed in business until 2003, and the factory site now houses a kazoo museum.

However, the Vest-Sorg-McIntyre-Richardson kazoos were not the only ones being developed in America over this period. Another instrument – a “toy trumpet” that worked in a manner similar to the kazoo – was patented by Simon Seller in 1879. And the first instrument patented under the name “kazoo” was one created by Warren Herbert Frost – his patent was issued in 1883. However, the first metal kazoo was patented by George D. Smith in 1902.

What do you look like?

My basic shape is a tube where one end is larger and slightly flattened and the other is in the shape of a circle; both of my ends are open and uncovered. On top, I have another circular hole – known as the membrane hole – and a wax membrane can be found in the small chamber below this hole. I’ve been called “the Down South Submarine” because my shape resembles these underwater vessels.

Over the years, however, I have taken on many other shapes and forms, including being made directly in the shape of a submarine. Another example, a circa 1930 paper kazoo, was shaped like a 1920s-era microphone. Many kazoos have also been made in the shape of saxophones – Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library notes that “a good player could easily imitate a saxophone and create a debate: ‘kazoo or saxophone’”!

A variety of colorful plastic kazoos -- from common kazoo shapes to a pink saxophone shape to submarine/military ship shapes, to a trombone shape.

A collection of differently shaped kazoos. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

How are you played?

To play me, you should hum into the flattened opening. This makes the membrane vibrate, creating a sound that can be changed by the pitch, loudness, and nature of your humming. You can also alter the sound I make by covering the membrane hole, either in part or completely. Check out this video for a tutorial.

Many people make the mistake of blowing into me and then thinking I am broken as no sound comes out, but this will not work for creating kazoo music!

Are there any famous kazoo players or performances?

There are! Unsurpisingly you can hear the kazoo’s comic effect on Frank Zappa’s first album, Freak Out! Comb-and-paper kazoos appeared on the Beatles’ song “Lovely Rita” from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and Sir Paul McCartney played the kazoo on the 1975 Ringo Starr single “Sweet 16.” World Wrestling Federation duo Edge and Christian often brought their kazoos into the ring, driving their foes to distraction with their playing and often winning the bout as a result. Jimi Hendrix used a comb-and-paper kazoo on his 1968 recording of “Crosstown Traffic.” Kazoos – to imitate the sound of electric razors in an executive washroom – were also used in the song “I Believe in You” in the Broadway comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Some performers made a career of their kazoo playing, such as Barbara Stewart who even performed at Carnegie Hall! And some composers have written their own kazoo music – for example, Mark Bucci composed his “Kazoo Concerto,” which premiered at a Leonard Bernstein Young Peoples’ Concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1960.

I’ve named just a few, but if you look for them you can find all sorts of famous kazoo performers or performances!

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I sure was! Kazoos were commonly used in jug bands and comedy songs, and that is where you will find me on the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings. Ernest Stoneman joined together with different configurations of friends and family to record several songs for Ralph Peer in 1927. One of those configurations was made up of Stoneman, Bolen Frost, George Stoneman, Iver Edwards, Kahle Brewer, and Uncle Eck Dunford to form the Blue Ridge Cornshuckers singing “Old Time Corn Shuckin,’ Parts 1 and 2.” As the song progresses, Stoneman invites each musician to introduce himself, play a little bit, and then take a sip from the passing jug!

Even though you are a light-hearted – and fun to play – instrument, do you get used for serious purposes too?

Yes, indeed, I am sometime used in speech therapy to help strengthen oral and speech skills – for instance, kazoos can help children in the production and awareness of speech. We can also be used to help speech recovery for people who have suffered a brain injury, and to help in speech production and awareness for the deaf or hard of hearing. Kazoo use can even play a role in increasing respiration and oxygenation.

Left: Three popsicle kazoos decorated with stickers and colored markers. Right: Four toilet paper roll kazoos, painted to look like different fruits.
Fun and colorful make-at-home kazoos.

How do I make my own kazoo?

There are a few ways to make your own kazoo. You can make one using popsicle sticks, a straw, and rubber bands as seen here; using a toilet paper tube and wax paper as seen here; or the classic comb-and-paper version as seen here. Get crafting!

Anything else you want to share with us?

Special thanks to Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library for his help with kazoo facts and photos! The Library has hosted special events around National Kazoo Day for the past few years. Starting off from a challenge to use “serious library tools to investigate a light, playful topic,” the Library’s “kazoo salute” has included exhibits, live kazoo performances, and the commissioning of original kazoo music.

Finally, the kazoo is known as “the most democratic of all instruments” because ANYONE who can hum can play it! So give me a try!

Left: A man wearing a dark suit and glasses stands behind a tabletop glass case filled with kazoos. Right: A piece of kazoo music with two kazoos superimposed on top.

Scott Paulson with a UC San Diego Library kazoo display; “Fanfare for as Many Kazoos as Possible,” an original composition by Linda Kernohan. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

Walk the Line in Bristol, TN-VA

Exploring the Birthplace of Country Music & Beyond

Navigating travel during a pandemic can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. So if you’re itching to get out on the open road for an overnight or weekend, why not visit Bristol and learn why we are world-renowned as the birthplace of country music? While you’re here, there are some must-sees in the region that you may not want to miss – including good spots around Bristol’s Historic Downtown where photo opportunities are just too good to be missed!

First Things First: Travel Safely!

One thing I learned early on was that state-run Welcome Centers are the cleanest and safest places to make a pit stop on the way to your destination. Most of them have automatic doors, sinks, toilets, soap and paper towel dispensers so you don’t have to touch common surfaces, and cleaning crews work around the clock to keep them sanitary.

Always remember to wear your mask, carry hand sanitizer, and distance from others in public spaces, and all our favorite restaurants in Downtown Bristol offer carry-out!

Where to stay?

A view of the bar at The Sessions Hotel in Historic Downtown Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee depicting bar stools at a bar with a phonograph, guitar, and amplifier.
The music-themed Sessions Hotel bar.
Photo credit The Sessions Hotel.

The Sessions Hotel

Themed with Bristol’s music history in mind, The Sessions Hotel transformed and connected several old buildings Downtown (including the former Bristol Grocery and Jobbers Candy Factory) to create a warm and restful place to lay your head while you explore. The rooms have a modern, industrial feel and come equipped with a Victrola Bluetooth radio. Once restrictions are lifted, you can bet there will be live music in each of the hotel’s spacious venues. There’s also an on-premises spa, a rooftop bar, and the award-winning Southern Craft BBQ restaurant. The hotel is also within walking distance to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and everything Downtown!

What to see?

Birthplace of Country Music Museum
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Historic Downtown Bristol.
Photo credit Birthplace of Country Music.

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, tells the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, explores how evolving sound technology shaped their success, and highlights how this rich musical heritage lives on in today’s music. Through text and artifacts, multiple theater experiences, and interactive displays – along with a variety of educational programs, music performances, and community events – the exciting story of these recording sessions and their far-reaching influence comes alive. Rotating exhibitions from guest curators and other institutions, including the Smithsonian, are featured throughout the year in the Special Exhibits Gallery. The museum also houses a collection of related objects, photographs and paper ephemera, and digital items. The Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) has achieved Healthy Business Certification from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry, certifying that both its business office and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum has a disease prevention plan in place that meets guidelines set forth by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) for workplace health and pandemic response. Click here to view our health and safety guidelines.

Where to Eat?

Classic cars appropriately on display in front of The Burger Bar, established in 1942.
Photo credit The Burger Bar.

The Burger Bar

There are a number of great restaurants in Historic Downtown Bristol, all within walking distance of the museum, but The Burger Bar is required eating – not just for the amazing food, but for its country music history. Legend has it, The Burger Bar was the place Hank Williams had his last meal. This Bristol staple has a retro diner feel and a few items on the menu named for Hank’s songs, including the Hey Good Looking with savory mushrooms and grilled onions, the Your Cheatin’ Heart with green chiles, and the Move it on Over with BBQ sauce. My personal favorite, however, is the Burger Bar Famous Reuben on marble rye with corned beef so fresh it melts in your mouth! And don’t forget a side of parmesan fries…delish!

A collage of three photos, the first of a young girl posing by the Bristol sign, the second is a group of folks pretending to sing at the Take the Stage statue, and the third photo is of a man's feet straddled over the Tennessee-Virginia marker found in the middle of the road on State Street.
(L to R) Photo taken from selfie spot marked on the sidewalk near the Bristol sign,
a group “jam” at the Take the Stage statue, and walking the line in two states on State Street.
Photo credit Birthplace of Country Music.

Photo Ops
There are a number of selfie spots around Bristol that make for the perfect IG post:

  • The Bristol Sign – We recommend the magic hour around sunset when the lights first come on!
  • State Street’s Tennessee/Virginia markers – Located in the middle of State Street between the 400 and 800 blocks of State Street, visitors like to take pics of their feet “walking the line” between two states! Safety first recommended, but locals are used to seeing visitors pose and will often stop traffic for you!
  • Take the Stage Statue – Located on the edge of Cumberland Square Park across from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, make like an old-time crooner and sing into the microphone between a guitarist and fiddler immortalized in bronze.
  • Country Music Mural – located in the Downtown Center on the 800 block of State Street, artist Tim White’s depiction of the major players behind the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions just got a facelift and is ready for your close-up!

We highly recommend checking out Discover Bristol’s website for a Downtown walking tour, in addition to instructions for the self-guided Caterpillar Crawl scavenger hunt for kids! Kids can also make a little music of their own at Jerry Goodpasture Plaza.

Believe in Bristol is the best source Downtown Bristol events, attractions, restaurants, shops, and galleries. Be sure and visit their website before you visit!

Photo collage of three photos, the first of the exterior of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center, an interior shot of the Carter Fold with Rita Forrester and Marty Stuart on stage facing a large crowd, and an exterior shot of the Ralph Stanley Museum
(L to R) The Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace, Rita Forrester (owner of The Carter Fold) and Marty Stuart at The Carter Family Fold, and the Ralph Stanley Museum.
Photo credits Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace, Carter Family Fold, Ralph Stanley Museum

Beyond Bristol
To make the most of your music-themed experience, we highly recommend taking time to visit a few other sites along The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail near Bristol:

  • The Carter Family Fold
    Temporarily closed due to the pandemic, The Carter Family Fold is 45 minute drive from Bristol to Hiltons, Virginia and a must-see for music lovers. Janette Carter, one of three children of A. P. and Sara Carter, established the Carter Family Fold to honor the memory of her parents and Maybelle Carter who played a historic role in helping give birth to the age of country music beginning in 1927. The Fold is known for its Saturday night performances where children of all ages dance to old-time, bluegrass, and early country music. There is a small museum on the property that was once a store ran by A. P. Carter, and A. P.’s family cabin was moved there from its remote site for visitation as well. Considered hallowed ground by country music artists and enthusiasts, Johnny Cash performed his final show there in 2003.
  • Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace (formerly Heartwood)
    A 20-minute drive from Historic Downtown Bristol to Abingdon, Virginia, Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace provides a welcome mat for travelers to Southwest Virginia and serves as a visitor center, retail center for local crafts, music venue and community space. You’ll find exhibits that highlight local artisans and sample the sights and sounds of the region through film in the facility’s experiential theater. Musicians can also pluck tunes in the center’s porch stage, and taste locally sourced foods in the cafe. Regular Thursday night performances are also held, visit their website for schedules.
  • Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center
    Located in Clintwood, Virginia (a scenic one-hour and thirty-five minute drive from Bristol), travelers are encouraged to take an interactive musical journey through the career of Dr. Ralph Stanley at the museum named for the legendary performer. The Ralph Stanley Museum continuously preserves and promotes bluegrass music through workshops, seminars, and conventions. For workshop information and event schedules, check their events calendar often for updates. (Please note, this museum is closed until Spring 2021.)

    Want to know more about exploring Bristol and Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee? Visit our travel partner websites:

    Discover Bristol
    Believe in Bristol
    Visit Southwest Virginia
    Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association






Radio Bristol Book Club – I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams

Welcome to another year of Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month, readers from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the Bristol Public Library come together to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

Our book for January is I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams by Colin Escott with George Merritt and William MacEwen. This book is the perfect accompaniment to our current special exhibit Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972—1981, featuring the photography of Henry Horenstein and a variety of related artifacts, including a Hank Williams guitar. In his tragically short time on Earth, Hank Williams created one of the defining bodies of American music – including “Your Cheating Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “Jambalaya.” He sold millions of records and was hugely influential on country music and beyond. However, while he made a success of his career in so many ways, his life was also characterized by personal demons and sadly an early death at the age of 29. Estcott’s definitive biography vividly details the singer’s life and career – from its highs to its lows – while unveiling much that was previously unknown or hidden about this iconic country star.

Left: Book cover of I Saw the Light showing Hank Williams, wearing a dark suit and white cowboy hat, coming down some house steps and holding a guitar case. Right: Movie poster for I Saw the Light showing Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, wearing a blue suit and white cowboy hat and standing in front of the Grand Ole Opry mic with his guitar.

The cover for Colin Escott’s I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams. The book was later made into a film with Tom Hiddleston playing the title role.

Born in England, Colin Escott has written numerous music-related books, including Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lost Highway: The True Story of Country Music, and The Grand Ole Opry: The Making of an American Icon (some of which we might be reading as future Radio Bristol Book Club picks!). His CD box set, The Complete Hank Williams, won two Grammy Awards in 1999 for “Best Historical Album” and “Best Recording Package—Boxed.” In 2010, Escott received a Tony nomination for Million Dollar Quartet, a Broadway musical about the one-night jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis in December 1956.

Black-and-white photograph of Colin Escott, an older white man wearing a dark shirt/jacket and in front of what appears to be a neon sign.
Portrait of author Colin Escott.

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, January 28 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. And be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this wonderful biography of a troubled and iconic musician.

Looking ahead: We have picked all of the books for 2021 – and are looking forward to a wide range of titles and topics from Dolly Parton’s songwriting and Affrilachian folktales to a Carter Family graphic novel and an illustrated fiction book about Appalachian economic and social challenges. You can find the full list of our 2021 reads here – so be sure to check it out, read along with us, and then tune in to our discussion on-air! And if you have any questions about the books you’d like us to address on-air, email us at info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org with the subject line “Radio Bristol Book Club.” Happy reading!