A slide whistle (variously known as a swanee or swannee whistle, piston flute or jazz flute) is a wind instrument consisting of a fipple like a recorder's and a tube with a piston in it. It thus has an air reed like some woodwinds, but varies the pitch with a slide. The construction is rather like a bicycle pump. Because the air column is cylindrical and open at one end and closed at the other, it overblows the third harmonic.
Piston flutes, in folk versions usually made of cane or bamboo, existed in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific as well as Europe before the modern, manufactured version was invented, apparently in England in the nineteenth century. The latter, which may be more precisely referred to as the slide or Swanee whistle, is commonly made of plastic or metal.
The modern slide whistle is perhaps most familiar in its use as a sound effect (as in the sound tracks of animated cartoons, when a glissando can suggest something rapidly ascending or falling, or when a player hits a "Bankrupt" on Wheel of Fortune), but it is also possible to play melodies on the slide whistle.
The swanee whistle dates back at least to the 1840s, when it was manufactured by the Distin family and featured in their concerts in England. Early slide whistles were also made by the English J Stevens & Son and H A Ward. By the 1920s the slide whistle was common in the U.S.A., and was occasionally used in popular music and jazz as a special effect. For example it was used on Paul Whiteman's early hit recording of Whispering (1920). Even Louis Armstrong switched over from his more usual cornet to the slide whistle for a chorus on a couple of recordings with King Oliver's band and his own Hot 5. At that time, slide saxophones, with reeds rather than a fipple, were also built. The whistle was also widely used in Jug band music of the 1920s such as Whistler's Jug Band. The las vegas based band holes and hearts also used the slide whistle on their song dancing monkey.
In the 1930s through the 1950s it was played with great dexterity by Paul 'Hezzie' Trietsch, one of the founding members of the Hoosier Hot Shots. They made many successful recordings and Hezzie's virtuosity was legendary.
A more recent appearance of the slide whistle can be heard in the 1979 song "Get Up" by Vernon Burch. The slide whistle segment of this song was later sampled by Deee-Lite in their 1990 hit Groove Is in the Heart.
Fred Schneider of The B-52s plays a plastic toy slide whistle in live performances of the song "Party Out of Bounds" as a prop for the song's drunken partygoer theme, in place of the trumpet thus used in the studio for the album song.
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