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. Thus it 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 Creole Jazz Band. 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.
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. The Las Vegas based band Holes and Hearts also used the slide whistle on their song Dancing Monkey.
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 Wild Planet song.
In 2011 the slide whistle has enjoyed somewhat of a revival, with top session players such as Seadna McPhail guesting on a host of top selling pop albums.
The slide whistle is probably thought of today primarily as a kind of "toy" instrument, especially in the West, although it has been and continues to be used in various forms of "serious" music. Its first appearance in notated European classical music may have been when Maurice Ravel called for one in his opera, L'enfant et les sortilèges. More modern uses in classical music include Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1, op. 24 no. 1 (1922), Luciano Berio's Passaggio, which uses five, and the Violin Concerto of György Ligeti, as well as pieces by Cornelius Cardew, Alberto Ginastera, Hans Werner Henze, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Krzysztof Penderecki. The slide whistle is also used in many of the works of P. D. Q. Bach.
To fans of 1970s BBC children's television, the instrument will always be associated with the voices of the Clangers. The instrument also features prominently in the game of "Swanee-Kazoo" in the long-running British radio panel game, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.
In the earliest episodes of The Simpsons, the character of Sideshow Bob only communicates through the use of a slide whistle. He abandons the whistle when he frames Krusty the Clown for armed robbery and takes over as host of Krusty's television show. From this point, Sideshow Bob is voiced by actor Kelsey Grammer.
- Hugh Davies. "Swanee whistle." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/47634 (accessed October 10, 2009).
- Berrett, Joshua (2004). Louis Armstrong & Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz, p. 62. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10384-0.
- Louis Armstrong's discography: Early years - 1901 1925