Want to stand out from the musical crowd? Try playing the "Jingling Johnny." Become a virtuoso of the oliphant. Or tootle on the world's largest ocarina.
These oddities are found in the Smithsonian Institution's collection of more than 3,000 musical instruments, which range alphabetically from accordions to zithers, with a lot of strange stuff in between.Crammed into a storage room at the National Museum of American History are shelves, cabinets and floor crates displaying the glories - and follies - of mankind's quest for musical expression over the past four centuries.
Sharing space with Stradivari's revered 1701 "Servais" cello and Paderewski's Steinway grand is the "Jingling Johnny," a brass contraption of tiny bells, umbrellas and scimitars hung from a pole that was shaken by Turkish marching bands to make a merry tinkling sound.
Dizzy Gillespie's "Silver Flair" trumpet is there, along with a trumpet-like instrument that might have flabbergasted the jazz master. It's the oliphant, a long, curving affair without valves. The Smithsonian's late 19th century specimen is made from an elaborately carved elephant tusk.
There are banjos fashioned from pie plates and sifters covered with groundhog skin. Another was carved from wood by a Southern plantation slave. A U.S. infantryman, idling in France after World War I, made his banjo from a German artillery shell, with machine gun shells for tuning pegs.
The Smithsonian boasts 250 keyboard instruments, including a virginal and a spinet dating from the mid-16th century; 425 stringed instruments; nearly 300 horns and woodwinds; 100 percussion instruments; 316 tuning forks; more than 1,000 player piano rolls; a washtub bass; and one kazoo.
Several items are patent models for instruments that never gained popularity. One is the "Echo violin," which looks like a toy submarine riddled with holes and sounds like a ukulele.
"This was going to set the world on fire," said collection manager Gary Sturm. "People were going to throw their Strads away and play this. But it didn't cut it in the concert world."
Another loser was the "piano gymnasium," a Rube Goldberg device designed for pianists to exercise their fingers, wrists and ankles. Ditto the violin with a tiny megaphone sprouting from the top, supposedly to serve as an amplifier.
Sturm said the rarest instrument in the collection is a lavishly decorated, double-manual Stehlin harpsichord made in pre-Revolutionary France in 1770. It's one of only three by its maker known to exist.
One of the most obscure is a xylophone from Chile that consists of a row of petrified rocks.
Sturm said the biggest gap in the Smithsonian collection, open only to serious musical scholars, are instruments from the rock 'n' roll era.
"We don't have any electric guitars, not even one of Leo Fender's Stratocasters," he said. "The 20th century is nearly over, and we've got to get on it."
Oh, about the world's largest ocarina.
The contrabass wind instrument is dark green and looks like a watermelon. It was custom-made in the 1940s for a dance band musician who was tired of lugging his string base from gig to gig.
"The ocarina arrived one day on a Greyhound bus from Florida, with a letter saying the owner was giving it to the Smithsonian," Sturm said. "We figured it would cost us $20 to send it back, so we kept it."