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Great Moments In Kazoo History

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The kazoo is an under-appreciated instrument. To remedy that fact, fans from across America have united to celebrate National Kazoo Day (today!), a day when the lowly humming instrument can finally receive the credit it deserves. Here are a few fascinating points in the history of the great musical equalizer.

The history of the kazoo is a bit convoluted, as the actual date of its creation is up for debate. African tribes had used similar vibrating, voice-altering instruments for ceremonial purposes for hundreds of years before the instrument was introduced in America. But these animal-hide-covered instruments still don’t quite qualify as a kazoo.

The most popular origin story says that these African instruments served for the inspiration for the kazoo, which was introduced by an African-American named Alabama Vest in 1840. The original prototype was created for him by German clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg. Vest then exhibited the kazoo at the 1852 Georgia State Fair, calling it the “Down-South Submarine.” At the fair, Emil Sorg spotted the kazoo and worked with Vest to put together a mass-production version that wasn’t released for another half a century.

The problem with this story is that there is no actual documentation associating either Vest or Sorg with the invention of the instrument. That doesn’t mean it’s not at least partially true, but if it is, it’s impossible to say which parts are fact or fiction. It certainly seems weird that something so simple would take over fifty years to get in mass production.

The first documented invention of the kazoo occurred when Warren Herbert Frost applied for a patent in 1883. But this version was not the simple boat-shaped creation we all know and love (that's it above). Indeed, it wasn’t until 1902 before this more classic version was patented by Mr. George D. Smith.

Within a few decades of Smith’s patent, a number of new factories were in operation, pumping out metal kazoos for the masses. One of those factories is even still in business today, creating the instruments (almost) the exact same way they did when the factory opened in 1916. Kazoo fans can even visit the factory, now called The Kazoo Factory and Museum.

The kazoo quickly became popular in America, dubbed the “most democratic” instrument in the world as just about anyone can pick one up and play it right away. A number of blues, jazz, vaudeville and bluegrass acts worked the instrument into their repertoire, and a kazoo can be heard on a record for the first time on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recording of “Crazy Blues,” taped in 1921. While it's more low pitch than we're used to hearing the instrument played, you can hear the kazoo solo around the 2:00 mark.

The Mound City Blue Blowers were one of the most famous bands to incorporate kazoo into their music, achieving quite a few hits in the 1920s. Non-kazoo operating members of their band played a wax-paper-covered comb, a banjo, a suitcase played with whiskbrooms and a guitar.

The Mills Brothers, a vocal group who later went on to record over 2000 songs and release three gold records, even started out as a vaudeville act playing kazoo together. They might not have made it big with the kazoo, but they may not have made it anywhere if they didn’t start out playing the instrument together.

After a short time, though, the instrument lost its popularity among professional musicians, who recognized its serious limitations. A few decades after it achieved mainstream success, the instrument was largely restricted to amateurs and comedy acts.

Even so, it has still found its place in the fine arts community here and there. For example, Frank Loesser incorporated the instrument into the orchestra score for his 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The kazoo is played during a scene in an executive washroom, where it's supposed to sound like an electric razor that happens to shave in time to the music. If you don't want to watch the whole clip above, just skip to 3:39 to hear the kazoo.

A decade later, kazoos made their biggest mark thanks to David Bedford’s avant-garde piece With 100 Kazoos. In this 1971 performance, the audience members were provided kazoos, which allowed them to play along with the professional instrumental ensemble.

More famously, The Beatles use kazoos in their song “Lovely Rita” and Jimi Hendrix used the instrument in his song “Crosstown Traffic” to help accentuate the blown-out speaker sound he was looking for. Frank Zappa was also a fan, incorporating the sound whenever he wanted to add a comedic touch to his songs.

Barbara Stewart was one of the most famous kazooists of the last hundred years. She started out as a classically trained singer and then moved on to form a quartet called “Kazoophony.” Ms. Stewart may be the only person on earth to be considered a “kazoo virtuoso,” and appeared at such venues as the Carnegie Hall and The Tonight Show. In fact, if you want to improve your kazooing, you might want to check out Stewart’s books, The Complete How to Kazoo and How to Kazoo.

Ms. Stewart passed away in September of last year, but before she died, she did make one last contribution to the art of kazoo playing. On March 14, 2011, she led the audience of Royal Albert Hall in a performance that broke the Guinness World Record for Largest Kazoo Ensemble, with an amazing 3,910 participants. It's not the most harmonious song you'll ever hear, but for having almost 4,000 musicians, it's still pretty impressive.

While the instrument may never get the recognition of the guitar, the tuba or the violin, the kazoo is still the only instrument just about anyone can learn right off the bat.

One final note, for those who just can’t get enough kazoo history, The Kazoo Museum in Beaufort, South Carolina is a great place to visit as it features one of the largest kazoo collections in the world, along with a variety of information on the instrument’s fascinating history.

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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

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The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

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Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

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Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

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Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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