Thursday, February 19, 2009




QCA 346
Cincinnati, Ohio

She woofs. She toots. She tweets. She shimmers. She shines. She serenades you. She thrills you. She sets your hands to clapping. She's the cally-ope, the steam pie-anna, the good time music machine of the steamboat Delta Queen.

So crank up your old victrola and come to the calliope concert. You're on the Sun Deck of the venerable sternwheeler. Her steam-beaded gold whistle glistens in the sun. Funnels of steam jig like dancers above the Hurricane Deck.

Tap your feet and clap your hands. Sing along to "Cruisin' Down the River," "Baby Face," and "You Are My Sunshine." Strut about the deck to "Eli Green's Cakewalk." Swing your partner in time with "Turkey in the Straw."

At the keyboard are America's three foremost calliopists--

Vic Tooker: the Delta Queen's Steamboat Interlocutor, a fourth generation riverboat entertainer and master not only of the calliope but of 17 other musical instruments including the Tazmanian Garachiphone.

Professor Dan Foreman: pianist for the Delta Queen's Riverboat Ramblers, graduate of the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, and coach of the Cincinnati Summer Opera.

Pete Eveland: organist for both the Riverboat Ramblers and Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum.

The DELTA QUEEN's Calliope

The Delta Queen received her calliope in 1960 from Commander E. J. "Jay" Quinby, then the boat's chairman. Built by Thomas J. Nichol of Cincinnati before the turn of the century, it had been salvaged from the sunken showboat Water Queen in the Kanawha River in West Virginia in 1937.

The rescued calliope had passed from "Crazy Ray" Choisier, who played it in carnivals until his death, to the King Bros. Circus, to the collection of Ellsworth W. "Slim" Somers of Waterbury, Connecticut, and finally to Commander Quinby.

Quinby, an inventor in his own right, installed it on the Delta Queen as the first calliope with a remote keyboard located a safe distance from the whistles. He placed the keyboard at the stern of the Sun Deck and the whistles one level above at the stern of the Hurrican Deck. Earlier riverboat "steam-pianna" maestros suffered scalding from the steam and dousings from condensation, as well as blistered fingers from pressing old-fashioned, hot brass keys.

Commander Quinby, once the calliopist of of the showboat Lulubelle, had the honor of playing the first tune aboard the Delta Queen--"My Old Kentucky Home."

History of the Calliope

The calliope was invented in 1855 by one Joshua Stoddard of Vermont. His "American Steam Piano" was a spoked cylinder which, when cranked, closed and opened its valves much like a music box plucks its strings.

The Yankee inventor intended the calliope to be a church instrument replacing the bells which sumoned worshippers to church. But the notion never caught on, possibly because clergyman found the Steam Piano's sound less than heavenly.

Stoddard then coupled the steam calliope with the steamboat in 1856 by installing one on a New York tug and sailing it around Manhattan Island. This water-borne serenade established the instrument's popularity.

Soon a calliope was placed on the steamer Union, then on the side-wheeler Glen Cove, which doubled its passenger trade thanks to the raucous attraction.

The Armenia, which serenaded the Hudson River until about 1870, carried a 34 whistle calliope, an improvement over Stoddard's original eight-chime invention. But the instrument had to be modified because it sapped the boat's power and prevented it from sailing under full steam.

The first western riverboat to have a calliope was the Excelsior, sailing the upper Mississippi between St. Louis and St. Paul.

In the Sacramento River trade between Sacramento and San Francisco, calliopes became a craze, later a supernatural legend.

Professor Abe Harcourt, maestro aboard the steamer Amador, died of a heart attack at his keyboard mid-concert. Tales soon spread about a ghostly calliope serenading the fog-shrouded shores of the river.

On the lower Mississippi, the showboat Floating Palace, sailed by the Spaulding & Rogers North American Circus, was the first to use the calliope to summon crowds to the riverbank. The instrument was doubly valuable--it drowned out the bands of competing boats.

The Civil War silenced the calliopes of the Mississippi during the fighting and for more than a decade after Appomattox. Not until 1877 did one reappear on the showboat New Sensation.

But the "steam-pianna" had captured America's imagination and, simultaneously, raised the ire of musical purists.

While newly arrived slaves thought the steam song was the trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel, detractors labeled it an unholy crossbreed between an organ and a fire engine.

And there always has been disagreement over what to call the phenomenon -- Calliope(Mother of Orpheus and Chief of the Muses) or cally-ope.

A nineteenth century magazine, Reedy's mirror, settled the dispute, at least for river people, with this rhyme:

Proud folk stare after me,
Calling me Calliope;
Tooting joy, tooting hope,
I am the cally-ope.

511 Main St., Cincinatti, Ohio 45202

Produced by Edward R. Bosken
Recorded by: QCA Recording Studio (Mobile Unit)
Distrib. by: QCA Records, Inc. 2832 Spring Grove Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45225
1976 QCA Records, Inc.

Recorded and Manufactured in the Queen City


Beautiful Ohio
Goodbye, My Lover, Goodbye
Down By The O-HI-O
Billboard March
Eli Green's Cakewalk
Bravura March
Black and White Rag
Goodbye Little Girl, Goodbye
God Bless America



Baby Face
Funiculi, Funicula
I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles
In The Good Old Summertime
Down On The Farm
Red Wing

You Are My Sunshine
Man On The Flying Trapeze
Turkey In The Straw
Blow The Man Down
Light Calvary Overture


Editor's note: what can I's circus music! At least to our minds it is. I would say that it's fascinating to learn that the calliope started as a church and steamboat pianna but I didn't even know that a calliope was a cally-ope. I mean, I just thought it was a freaky little organ that sounded like an accordion. Shows you what I know.

1 comment:

Dirk Bill said...

Another set of missing links. Oh well.

I lived in the Queen City for a while, and the jazz station WNOP used to broadcast from this same boat I believe, or perhaps another like it. It's probably still there. Then again, maybe the Ohio River ate it.

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