Sweet Georgia PHWEEEEEEET!

Ethel Romelfanger. It’s a name that doesn’t roll off the tongue so much as it stumbles and starts yelling expletives. I’m not trying to poke fun (given that my own surname is a basically inscrutable eastern European consonant cluster), but politeness be damned: that is a name neither pragmatic nor aesthetically pleasing. In a conventional sense, I mean.

All the better, then, that it is the name behind one of my very favorite LPs of all time, one of only a couple dozen that have survived a necessary massive purge brought on by my decision to move cross-country. Said record, in all fairness, is also neither pragmatic nor (conventionally) aesthetically pleasing, but that suits my tastes just fine. Brass Whistles Somers Steam Calliope is a magical record, a piece of sublime postmodern mindmelt masquerading as folk-art souvenir flotsam, a platter which yields endless entertainment and even occasional thought provocation. Mostly the former, though.

Let me explain: the steam calliope is an enormous instrument, invented to be heard for miles around in the days prior to the advent of electrically amplified sound. They were usually used to advertise circuses and carnivals: if you heard a whimsical tune being played by what sounds like a chorus of tuned jug players, you knew something wacky was about to commence, or was already in progress (the record in question, appropriately, was recorded at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI, a shrine to these halcyon times).

While certainly an impressive instrument, the steam calliope is also fraught with potential for mechanical and musical problems. The higher register of the instrument is very difficult to keep in tune, as it is dependent on the consistent behavior of dozens of large metal tubes. Given these tubes’ exposure to the elements and the concomitant shifts in temperature and climate, it should go without saying that consistency is out of the question: unless you have someone retuning it (a very involved and expensive process) weekly or so, the occasional bum note is inevitable. This is important to understand when listening to this record, because if the instrument on this record were perfectly in tune, then Ms. Romelfanger was in the wrong line of work entirely.

Me in 2010 with sweet Ethel. Photo by Patrick Pyne.

Me with Sweet Ethel at Encore Recordings, 2010. Photo by Patrick Pyne.

Imagine, if you will (actually you don’t have to, there’s a link to download the thing below): on every track contained herein, a tune gets going, most often a tune that everyone everywhere ever knows, such as “Sweet Georgia Brown” or “Baby Elephant Walk”. Ethel’s tooting along just fine, but then something happens:


Good lord, what a sour note! Surely an isolated incident…?


Ugly sound, raw as sushi, AND IT KEEPS ON LIKE THAT FOR THE WHOLE RECORD. Every five seconds or so, this majestic piece of human ingenuity (I mean the calliope, not Ethel) hits a note that is so far off the mark, it’s almost avant-garde. Hell, listening with ears bent just so, it’s as challenging and thought-provoking as anything Cage offered to eternity, without even trying for as much.

Poor Ethel, to have this be her bid for eternity! Then again, I can’t recall any of the details of any other steam calliope record on which I’ve dropped the proverbial needle (and yes, there have been several), so maybe there’s something to be said for this ostensible lapse in judgment. Either way, a joy to behold forever.

Enter Ethel’s world by following this linky guy.

Dustin Krcatovich is a cartoonist, writer, designer, founder of FM DUST, and a collector of certain curios and ephemera (with a focus on 20th century "junk culture"). His writing and illustration work appears frequently in The Quietus, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Esquire's Culture Blog. He is also a former editor and contributor to Secret Zen Garden,Saagara's illustrated mindfulness/wellness blog for young people. He currently resides in Portland, OR.