The Man Who Put Out Fires with Music

My Inquiry Into the Strange Case of Charles Kellogg, Nature Singer

I’ve long been obsessed with the hidden power of song. I’m not talking about how music entertains us, or even its higher artistic potentialities, but something bigger and grander. I look to music as a change agent in human life, even as a transformative force in human history.

It perhaps sounds simplistic, but this is the most important core value in my life’s work, the central tenet underpinning in my vocation. Song is a source of enchantment and a catalyst for change. Any philosophy of music—or even a journalistic approach to the subject—that doesn’t respect this remarkable capacity misses much of the point of human music-making

As a music historian, I’ve learned that we hardly possess words to describe this potentiality of song—although each of us feels it in our heart and soul. At times, this power is so strange and beyond expectations, that it almost seems magical. I have tried to write the history of this musical magic, and celebrate its great practitioners, many of them almost completely unknown, even to musicologists.

One of these hidden masters is a man named Charles Kellogg. And in the course of many years, I haven’t met a single music scholar who recognizes his name. I didn’t learn about him myself until long after my student days had ended, and I was already embarked on a career as a music writer. But he’s become a hero of mine, although it’s taken me many years to piece together the basic details of his life story.

I first learned about Kellogg from an unusual source—a book that has nothing to do with music. At least on the surface, that is. In fact, much of my most productive research has been the result of digging into sources of information that apparently have little to do with music. In this instance, my discovery of Charles Kellogg came from a peculiar footnote in the book Autobiography of a Yogi, first published in 1946 by Paramhansa Yogananda.

Here is the footnote in its entirety.

I took note of this remarkable story—if I was looking for music as a change agent, here was an undeniable example. What could be more impressive than putting out fires with your songs? But several years passed before I could learn more about Charles Kellogg.

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Finally in 2002, I stumbled on more information while doing research for my book Healing Songs at the Geisel Library, an architectural monstrosity (named after Dr. Seuss) located on the campus of UC San Diego—a strange, claustrophobic facility, but the closest major library to the beach home where I was living at the time. There in the stacks I discovered by chance a book written by Charles Kellogg himself, entitled The Nature Singer, and published by a small California press in 1930. I photocopied a few pages, but decided I needed to track down my own copy. That took several years, but I eventually acquired a rare first edition of The Nature Singer signed by the author. My understanding is that only one thousand copies were printed.

In these pages, Kellogg boasted of musical talents few performers could hope to match. For example, he describes his ability to draw bears to him with his songs. And they came not to attack, but as enthusiastic attendees for Kellogg’s outdoor concert:  “All [the bears] sat down on their haunches. For fully ten minutes this curious audience sat listening with evident enjoyment.” If you’re skeptical, he shares photos to prove it.

After a childhood spent largely in small towns and the wilderness of the Far West, a hundred miles from the nearest railroad, Kellogg gained considerable fame for one of his most esoteric skills: his extraordinary talent for imitating bird songs. From his earliest days, Kellogg had conversed with birds and insects, and by the time he was 16 or 17 he realized he could imitate almost any sound they made. This would be the talent that eventually secured a recording contract for Kellogg and launched him on the road as a vaudeville performer. (His recordings are now available online.)

“The public test broadcast live over KGO is one of the most remarkable events in the history of radio. Kellogg sat in the studio, while a team of scientists gathered at Berkeley’s LeComte Hall ten miles away with a two-foot flame in front of their radio set. “

Kellogg’s stage routine must have seemed like a strange novelty act to the urban audiences who heard him perform bird songs in various vaudeville theaters. I suspect that he was often mocked and ridiculed. But Kellogg, who counted famous naturalist John Muir among his close friends, saw his music as embedded in a larger philosophy. To some degree, he helped lay the foundation for New Age and back-to-nature concepts that wouldn’t take on prominence in American society for another half-century. "Love, the absolute circle of trustfulness, that's the secret of it all,” he once explained. “I love the birds, the snakes, the society person, the academic, and the baby—all creatures of the universe are alike, and they will never harm you unless you fear them."

But audiences must have viewed the Nature Singer as a quaint eccentric, or perhaps even a show biz fraud, not a philosopher. Adding to Kellogg’s odd reputation was the vehicle he used on his tours—a kind of homemade car constructed from an enormous redwood trunk. Kellogg had carved the whole thing by hand—which he boasted was the “largest piece of hewn redwood in the world.” He made it from a fallen redwood giant found in a forest in Scotia, almost 250 miles north of San Francisco in Humboldt County. This trunk weighed an enormous 16,000 pounds, and allowed Kellogg to fashion a kind of mobile home from a 22-foot section. The final product was a residence on wheels that included a kitchenette, toilet, guest room, dining table, bookcase and 12 lockers. The whole contraption was combined with a 1917 Nash truck.

As you can imagine, Kellogg got people’s attention the moment he showed up in town behind the wheel of this one-of-a-kind vehicle. It’s now on permanent display at the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, just four miles from where Kellogg began work on the fallen trunk.

This was the first RV in the world.

Kellogg’s skill at imitating bird songs was so accurate that it inspired disbelief. Rumors circulated that his vocal cords were different from other human beings, or that he had some physiological deformity that allowed him to make sounds beyond normal musical capacities. Kellogg was brought to Benjamin Sharp, secretary of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, who in turn enlisted the services of Richard Zeckwer, a scientist and student of the famous physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. A series of tests determined that Kellogg was somehow capable of making bird songs up into a range inaudible to the human ear.

While experimenting with the capacities of these higher frequency sounds, Kellogg learned he could extinguish a small flame merely with the sound of his voice. Inspired by this success, he started testing the potential of tuning forks and other implements as firefighting tools. He gave public demonstrations of this seemingly impossible skill, and even caught the attention of the scientists at General Electric, who invited him to their research center to display his techniques.

On August 19, 1926, he undertook a test with the help of General Electric to see whether he could put out a flame over long distance via radio broadcast. Kellogg was sitting in a studio at the General Electric Broadcasting Studio in Oakland, California, and had instructed a friend forty miles away in San Jose to set up a gas burner in front of a radio receiver. At a signal from Kellogg, the friend ignited the flame and turned it up to its full extent, two feet high, then watched in amazement as the sound of Kellogg’s music-making over the radio extinguished the fire.

This experiment excited such skepticism that Kellogg was enlisted to repeat it for a team of Berkeley scientists. The resulting public test on September 6, broadcast live over KGO, is one of the most remarkable events in the history of radio. Kellogg sat in the studio, while a team of scientists gathered at Berkeley’s LeComte Hall ten miles away with a two-foot flame in front of their radio set. Kellogg proceeded to make the flame dance before finally putting it out.

But even more impressive were the hundreds of letters received by the radio station during the next several weeks. Many listeners, it turned out, had decided to conduct their own test, and held up candles, matches and other flames to their home radios—then watched on in astonishment as Kellogg extinguished them.

The letters told of other marvels. People described how his bird and insect sounds had stirred up all the animals in their neighborhood. Cats prowled in search of birds, so realistic were the songs coming over KGO. Insects approached the radio set attracted by Kellogg’s singing. A pet canary joined in on the song. “Now dear Mr. KGO,” wrote one listener, “please tell Mr. Kellogg the next time he whistles, please notify all concerned so we can all move our animals and other critters to other pastures so they won’t mess up a heap o’ trouble.”

Could this be real? Or was it, perhaps, an elaborate illusion—much like magician David Copperfield’s carefully planned trick of making the Statue of Liberty disappear? But Kellogg was no stage magician, and we can now state with confidence that what happened on the radio that day was absolutely real. In fact, scientists have now validated Kellogg’s claims. As strange as it may seem, the day may come when fire trucks arrive at a conflagration equipped with their own high tech musical instruments.

I could list many other quirks and skills of Charles Kellogg, including his ability to divine for water with a wooden rod, or his claim to have never killed a living creature—even avoiding any meat in his diet. But my favorite stories about Kellogg involve his extraordinary musical sensibilities.

Perhaps the most revealing anecdote tells of him walking down the street during a visit to New York, when Kellogg stopped short at the intersection of Broadway and West 34th Street. He turned to his companion and said: “Listen, I hear a cricket.” His friend responded: “Impossible—with all this racket you couldn’t hear a tiny sound like that.” And it was true: cars, trolleys, passersby, shouting newspaper vendors created such a hustle and bustle that no cricket could possibly be discerned in the hubbub.

But, true to his word, Kellogg scrutinized their busy surroundings, and a moment later crossed the street with his companion following along—and there on a window ledge pointed to a tiny cricket. “What astonishing hearing you have,” his friend marveled. But instead of responding, Kellogg reached into his pocket and pulled out a dime, which he dropped on the sidewalk. The moment the coin hit the pavement it made a small pinging noise, and everybody within 50 feet of the sound stopped and started looking for the coin. People listen for what’s most important for them, he later explained: for New Yorkers it’s the sound of money, for Charles Kellogg it was the chirping of a cricket.

This is the first in a series of articles on visionaries of sound—innovators whose music serves as a catalyst for change and a source of enchantment in human life. I anticipate publishing one of these profiles every month for the rest of the year.