Keeping America Humming

Barbara Stewart has made it her mission to make the kazoo, America's national instrument

The kazoo. It's uniquely American - cheap and easy - the most democratic of instruments ... anyone can play it.

"It is said that pigs might be able to learn how, if they could be persuaded to kazoo before they eat it."

So says Barbara Stewart, who is - believe it or not - a kazoo virtuoso. She spoke to CBS Sunday Morning's Bill Geist about her beloved instrument.

"No, the thing about the kazoo is there's really no wrong way to play it. There are wrong times to play it."

When asked by Geist if this was a concession on her part that the kazoo can be annoying, she answered, "Oh, absolutely!"

Nevertheless, Stewart is the kazoo's staunchest supporter, calling it a misunderstood instrument.

"Oh, it's clearly been the object of derision and scorn," Stewart says, "Mostly out of ignorance."

She's a kazoo activist, really trying to make the kazoo America's official national instrument.

"We have been turned down by everybody, or at least ignored. President Nixon and Carter ... So there's bipartisan ignorance."

Barbara may be the perfect spokesperson for this offbeat instrument: She is a classically trained musician.

She wrote the book on kazoos and has one of her kazoos in the Smithsonian Institution. She's played classical kazoo in Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. And she trains new kazooist recruits wherever she goes.

As kazoodom's ambassador, Barbara shows up wherever kazooists congregate.

Recently in Harlem, where they were trying to set a new record for the world's largest kazoo band, 2,147 kazooists showed up! But that didn't beat the record of 2,600 set in Rochester, New York, Barbara's hometown.

But according to Barbara, that was okay.

"It's all part of a mission to make the kazoo the national instrument and keep America humming."

Barbara was there, too, when the Original Kazoo Company of Eden, New York recently celebrated its 100th anniversary -151; a veritable kazoo Woodstock.

Here they still make metal kazoos the old fashioned way, except for those little membranes that go in the top.

"The animal membranes went out of fashion. They were made out of sheep gut," Stewart told Sunday Morning. "And the condom companies put them out of business and raised the price so high, so now we make them out of paper, the same kind used in candy boxes so the saliva doesn't disintegrate it."

Karen Smith runs the Kazoo Shop, and she's curator of the Kazoo Museum's historically significant kazoo collection. She showed Geist one of the very first kazoos as well as a 24-karat gold plated kazoo that must have been designed for formal kazooing occasions.

"We have families that will come and generations that are passing down the tradition," Smith told Geist. "And schools that will bring entire classes so that, you know, boys and girls who have never seen a kazoo before are being exposed to kazoos. And thereby I hope that's gonna perpetuate kazooing."

Barbara Stewart pushes on, trying to gain respect for the kazoo and maybe even give it a touch of class.

It remains unclear, however, from audience comments after a classical kazoo concert at the Eastman School of Music, just how well she is succeeding. One listener called the music "so exciting, it thrills you from the bottom of your feet and never moves above the ankle," while another said that the highlight of the concert ... was its ending.

But another, perhaps more receptive audience member said that, "Tt brought the kazoo to a new level. A very classical level, if that can happen."

Barbara Stewart, for one, believes it can.