Wednesday, 18 February 2015


Towards the end of Auden’s long poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ the four characters play on ‘Mirlitons’. Now as I’d understood it, a mirliton is a toy musical instrument looking like a trumpet, but I checked on Wikipedia. There was a lot on ‘Mirliton’ meaning some kind of fashion accessory, and even more on a vegetable called a ‘Mirliton’. Almost nothing on ‘Mirliton’ as a toy musical instrument, though it said it was also known as the ‘Eunuch Flute’. But when I looked up ‘Eunuch Flute’ on Wiktionary there was no entry, so I wrote one.

I think both ‘Mirliton’ and ‘Eunuch Flute’ can be used to mean what most of us know as the kazoo — you know, those little submarine-shaped tinplate things: you sort of hum down them, and a membrane in the conning-tower of the submarine modifies your hum into a surprisingly rich falsetto (so eunuchoid) sound.

I imagine some readers saying ‘Oh, come on, Simon: aren’t you the chap who wrote a piece on the ‘Tristan’ chord, and at least two pieces on a late Beethoven quartet? And aren’t you currently learning the Bach two-part inventions on the piano? So what is all this shit about kazoos, for God’s sake?'

Anyone who thinks the kazoo cannot be taken seriously should seek out — it’s probably on YouTube — ‘One Hour’; a recording made in 1929 by the Mound City Blue Blowers, which features, among others, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, a young Glenn Miller playing a beautiful trombone solo, and Red McKenzie playing his heart out on kazoo.


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