Local fills ears, street with sounds of the calliope

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 22, 2010

NATCHEZ — Some people unwind from their day by sitting at home and reading a book or watching television in a quiet place.

Burnley Cook does so by flipping on an air compressor, taking a seat and playing some music.

And when The Dart landed on Winchester Street in Natchez, Cook was getting ready to play an instrument so loud, you can hear it more than a quarter mile away.

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Cook plays the calliope, an instrument that produces sound by sending a gas through large whistles. The callope is played on a keyboard similar to that of a piano.

“It’s a little different than a piano because there are fewer keys to play on it,” he said. “You have to kind of rearrange what you know.”

Cook, who has been playing piano for 41 years, said the calliope, while not very prevalent today, has a long history in Natchez.

“They use to have them on steamboats and they would play them when boats were coming in or leaving the port,” he said.

It was hearing these boats play the happy, upbeat tunes of a calliope that have had Cook wanting to play the instrument since he was a child.

“To me it is just very nostalgic. I remember growing up and always hearing the calliopes playing,” he said. “I always wanted a job on a steamboat playing the calliope.”

While he may not be able to get a job playing on a boat, Cook said he has had plenty of audiences hear him play since he started in 2003.

“The neighbors seem to like it. They come over and invite friends to hear me play,” he said. “Sometimes cars will even stop and come listen when I am outside playing.”

Cook said he plays almost every day in the late afternoons, and has even played at a few parades in Natchez.

“I played in the Christmas parade last year,” he said. “I was even invited to play in the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans last year.”

With the ability to play an instrument as rare as the calliope, Cook said he has even been asked to record his playing.

“People hand playing calliopes are very hard to come by,” he said. “I have made recordings for riverboat calliopes and made music rolls for player calliopes.”

Cook said he enjoys playing Christmas music the most.

“It is hard to play anything sad on the calliope because it is a very happy sounding instrument,” he said. “Christmas music just fits because it is all cheery and upbeat.”

While he does like to crank out Christmas tunes, Cook said he plays all types of music, from “The Brady Bunch” theme song to “Amazing Grace.”

“I just modulate through the keys,” he said. “Whatever hits me, I play.”

With a unique talent for a unique instrument, Cook said he hopes to continue playing his calliope to relax and unwind for a long time.

“I just keep praying the police don’t come out and tell me I am violating a noise ordinance,” he said.