"Love - the absolute circle of trustfulness - that's the secret of it all. 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."
-Charles Kellogg, 1910
Charles Dennison Kellogg was unlike any performer in the history of the American stage. He developed a few key obsessions - the forest, love, vibration, fire - into an irresistibly charismatic package and then sold that package in the form of himself through an uncanny use of the press, a vigorous appetite for travel, and a need to be the center of attention through a serpentine five-decade career as a pontificator and showman. In the early decades of the twentieth century, he amused and astounded heiresses and industrialists, yogis and artists, scientists and, most of all, the plain folk of most states in the union with demonstrations of his vision of a wholesome and interconnected world of all living things.
His memory has largely faded, but he left behind a memoir, riddled with gaps and touched with hokum, many photographs, hundreds of press notices and reviews in newspapers, over an hour of sound recordings, at least one fragment of film, and a legacy of naturalism and invention that has entered into the lore of his native California.
Kellogg was born October 2, 1868, the fourth of five children to Henry Kellogg (b. 1822 in New London, Connecticut) and Mary E. Carlisle (b. 1845 in Jefferson, New York) in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California’s Plumas County in a settlement called Spanish Ranch “nearly a hundred miles from the nearest railroad,” according to Kellogg. His father’s involvement in a nearby goldmine in the 1850s paid off, and he used his share of the profits to establish a provisions store for the area prospectors. Kellogg wrote that his mother was the only white woman in the area, and that he “lost her in infancy.” In fact, she left the family when he was about 3 years old, and his autobiography gives us an indication of the wound her abandonment left through the pains with which he purposefully wrote her out of his life’s story. (She died in Long Beach, California in 1917.)
In his auto-mythology, Kellogg was as a child close to a Chinese servant named Moon and an unnamed Indian woman, who, he wrote, “taught me to fear no creature [and] taught me, too, the habit of minding my own business, letting the other fellow alone - bird, bear, snake, Indian and other humans. […] My earliest recollection is sitting with the Indians about their campfires or watching the Chinamen boil their rice between stones.” The impressions of the sounds and feelings of the wilderness in early childhood embedded themselves deeply in young Charles. He recalled it as a period of immense freedom, a world with “no doctors, missionaries, telephone, telegraph, schools, saloons, poorhouse, jail or gamblers; no police for there was no disorder. There were birds, grizzly bears, deer, wolves, foxes, skunks, badgers, mountain lions, wild cats, snakes, and all the smaller wood folk.” It was also here that before the age of six, he witnessed a wedding for the first time and learned about death and funeral rites among the Chinese. In this powerful paradise of vivid experiences, he was “lonely, but not unhappy,” spending his days “always preoccupied with birds and insects, listening to them and talking to them in their own languages.”
It was between the ages of four and six that he began to experiment with his ability to imitate birds, forcing air through this nose with his mouth closed. He claimed throughout his adult life that this remarkable ability came down to an anatomical formation in his larynx similar to that of a songbird. This claim, repeated thousands of times, often backed up with the validation of unnamed doctors, was, of course, utter nonsense, but it is not clear whether he believed it, on some level, himself.
It was many years after Kellogg had been sent off to live with his mother’s relatives in Syracuse, New York at the age of six or seven that Charles realized that he was in possession of a remarkable skill. In Syracuse, he learned to work with tools, to build furniture and fireplaces - skills he valued and worked into his persona as a woodsman. He attended Syracuse University and sang in the choir, aware that a relative of his father’s (by marriage) Clara Louise Kellogg, had become a famous soprano. But apart from mentions of his education in the manly, manual crafts, the period from the ages of seven to twenty-two when Kellogg became a civilized, college-educated Yankee were never mentioned in Kellogg’s stories. They didn’t serve what he was selling about himself.
Almost immediately after graduation, we have the first press notice of Charles Kellogg as a performer, August 1891 at Chautauqua, New York, a hotbed of aspirational “edutainment,” where he debuted his unique bird-imitation talent. Realizing that he was on to something, he gave at least a half-dozen concerts of music with bird imitation at YMCAs, churches, and meetings around Pennsylvania and New York at the beginning and end of the year and another half-dozen in California a few months later. There were more shows in California in 1893-94, then back to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in 1896-97. All of February and March of 1898 was spent touring Pennsylvania and Ohio. January through April of 1900 was spent on the road through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, by which time he was claiming to have anywhere from a 9 1/2 to 12 1/2 octave vocal range. After getting married for the first time, he spent November 1900 to April 1901 touring the same states again plus Connecticut and published an article in Success magazine called “The Wickedness and Folly of Killing Birds.” In early 1902, through Horace Traubel, friend and executor of Walt Whitman, Kellogg met the naturalist John Burroughs, thirty years’ Kellogg’s senior, with whom he traveled to Jamaica during January and February. Kellogg held Burroughs (as wells as naturalist John Muir, with whom he also spent several days with at one point) in esteem and treasured the memory of their trip. Burroughs was certainly an influence on and model for Kellogg. Whether Kellogg was aware of Burrough’s fierce 1903 article for the Atlantic denouncing contemporary nature-writers tendencies to anthropomorphize the natural world is unclear, but it was major news among naturalists for years, ultimately drawing comment from President Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1904, Kellogg and his brother bought a 45 acre plot in North Newry, Maine, where they built the Kellogg Nature Camp, a Summer vacation resort for city folk wanting to spend time in with the woods. They built cabins connected by boardwalks, a common-house with a large fireplace (a specialty of Charles’s) and powered it with a waterwheel. It is now part of a nature reserve with many of the structures they built still standing. And each year during each late Fall, Winter, and early Spring, in an ever expanding radius, Kellogg began to cover the country with shows of his knowledge of and ability to replicate bird song - Tennessee and Kentucky by 1903, Nebraska and Kansas by 1907. By that time, shows regularly lasted two hours and received glowing reviews everywhere he went.
His break came at the age of 41 in 1910, by which time he had left his first wife Emily and relocated to San Francisco and had ingratiated himself within a world wealthy socialites, where he was a favorite at parties. On December 4 The Call newspaper ran a, glowing illustrated full-page article on him titled The Man Who Sings With Birds in Their Own Language, which crystalized in print the stage-show that Kellogg had been assiduously developed, year after year, for nearly two decades.
"He has the uttermost faith in the power of love and kindness,” the article asserted. “’It is all love," he says. 'Anybody who goes into the woods with the spirit of love in his heart without the faintest desire for destruction or possession can make friends with the birds if he is merely tactful and patient. Birds can read the heart better than men. They know their friends and are ready to love them.' In Kellogg's mind, there is no place for fear or hatred [...] Fear creates fear. Hatred breeds hatred. Love engenders love. These are the cardinal tenants of Kellogg's creed."
His count of 3,000 performances in 24 years was, like almost everything else he said, likely an exaggeration but not so far from the truth that you could discount the claim out of hand. Twenty years of stories, stage patter, and tricks caught the public imagination. Less than a month after the article appeared in San Francisco, Kellogg went to Camden, New Jersey to cut his first trial disc for Victor Records on January 24, 1911 and then another four performances on the 28th. Victor didn’t release any of them.
When Kellogg went back on the road on the east coast from October to December 1911, he had a new repertoire of claims for his abilities:
-He’d been to Paris and Berlin and received high praise. (His sister-in-law did invite him to perform at a private salon in Paris, where he met August Rodin, but not until 1912.)
-His throat had been examined at Harvard. (He had been claiming that he’d “baffled scientists” there for years, and that they’d measured his vocal range from 64 cycles a second to 49,560 cycles.)
-He speaks 15 animal languages and can communicate with bears, rattlesnakes, worms (who, he said, can sing), lizards, squirrels, etc.
-That a man could (theoretically) be pinned motionless to a tree with the use of sound.
-And, most crucially for his career from this point forward, that he could extinguish fire with sound.
In February 1912 an article making many of these claims along with his belief that “vibration will ultimately take the place of electricity as a motive force” ran in syndication across the country in advance of his having signed with the Orpheum chain of vaudeville theaters for whom he performed three shows a day (a matinee and two at night) for months across the west coast - Winnipeg, Spokane, Los Angeles, etc - from April 1912 until April of the following year and then, without his standard Summer break, for the rest of 1913 across the east coast plus Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, and Kansas. In New York City, he gave a demonstration of divination for water for another syndicated news article. He spent 1914 touring the west coast and midwest before returning to the Philadelphia area where he remarried to Sarah “Sad’i” Fuller Burchard on January 14, 1915 in Wilmington, Delaware. One month later, he went again to Camden, New Jersey in February 1915, where over two days he recorded the first four performances that were issued on discs. He was almost 47 years old and had spent the past 25 years on the road developing his act in halls, theaters, auditoriums, clubhouses, churches, tents, homes, and high schools.
Kellogg’s assessment of vaudeville does not have the ring of disreputable behavior that has often been handed down through the years:
“Back stage is not such a fry cry from the forest, for on these vaudeville stages I find conditions that are congenial to my own habits of the woods - conditions I do not find elsewhere in the world. In hotels, railroads, and even private homes, tobacco and other noxious odors, and not infrequently even uncleanliness such as cuspidors, are not unusual. System, punctuality and order are seldom the rule. In the forest, in all nature, punctuality, order, and system are the very breath of life. The stars, the tides, the migration of birds, the appearance of herbs, the trees, the flowers are all on time, giving that sense of harmony felt, and rejoiced in by all. Back stage, I find pure air in perfect ventilation, no tobacco, no bad odors, scrupulous cleanliness, system, order, punctuality - in a word, the perfection of organization, bringing quiet and a reposeful atmosphere in which to work.”
Kellogg’s first vaudeville tour was a 1912-13 run at the west coast Orpheum chain, run by Percy Williams who was known as the first vaudeville impresario to pay high fees to the acts he wanted. The west coast Orpheum houses were run locally and, according to Joe Lurie Jr’s Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace (1953), unlike many of the rowdier and down-market vaudeville theaters, “they were all fine, clean, well-appointed theaters, running clean shows, and were a credit to their towns.” Kellogg performed at shows with as many as eight other acts on the bill. The shows in Washington opened just after Bert Williams’ run and included a spoof of the domestic morality play Everywoman titled Everywife, the blackface comedy duo McIntyre and Heath, the Fearless Ce Dora (“one continuous thrill through the seven minutes which she spends revolving at railroad speed inside [a] golden globe”), and Thomas Edison’s early, abortive attempts at talking pictures.
Through 1915 and 1916 Kellogg was headlining in the eastern U.S. for both Orpheum and B.F. Keith’s circuits of vaudeville houses in the eastern U.S. and Quebec as well as Majestic Theaters in the midwest and Texas, where others on the bills included dog acts, monkey acts, the Dennis Brothers’ rotating ladder act, and various acrobats, singers, and comedians. At the end of each show was Kellogg, standing in front of a painted woodland backdrop. Second on the bill for at least one of those shows was the Three Keatons, including 20 year old Buster, who was on the verge of leaving for Hollywood. Kellogg himself appeared second on the bill in late 1916 only under Nora Bayes, arguably the most popular singer in the U.S.
His proclamations to the press at the time ranged from the flatly false (that he did not believe “that wild animals die unless molested by man or that they struggle with each other, because I have never seen them do either,” that he did not know his own age, that hat he spent 9 months of the year in the wilderness and came “into civilized society only when the call of a friend proves too strong to resist”) to the simply peculiar and the nearly-true (that he had “never read a book through - print disturbs me - although I believe in the teaching of the Bible as I have heard of them from others, because I have seen the proved true in my own life,” and “I have never tasted fish, flesh, or fowl, although I am not a vegetarian,” that dogs will die from long durations of discordant sounds) to the charming, bordering on visionary (“Fear - that’s what causes all sin. Fear of money, fear of getting caught, fear of wounded vanity, fear of public opinion, all all the rest,” and “I can take the recorded songs of a thousand birds and they will be harmonious. That’s because they are in tune with nature, while man and his instruments need to be attuned.”)
Kellogg was an avid photographer, claiming never to take a gun (or a compass, claiming an inborn sense of direction) into the woods, but producing photographs prolifically from 1902 onward. We know that he had performed in Rochester, New York, home of the Eastman-Kodak company, by December, 1900, around the time of the introduction of the “brownie” camera - the first cheap, popular device for making photos. It is unclear whether he might at that point met Gertrude Achilles Strong (b. May 4, 1860; d. May, 1955), a recent divorcee and the daughter of Henry A. Strong, co-founder and first president of the Kodak company, or whether they met much later in the late 1910s in Hawai’i. Regardless, their meeting and relationship was pivotal for Kellogg.
His first disc for Victor certainly sold very well, likely in the tens of thousands, and he claimed that he could earn $4,000 a week (a staggering $100,000 in today’s money - and more than half of the $7,000 a week that the Orpheum paid Sarah Bernhardt, their highest-paid entertainer) performing in the 1910s, and his family was relatively wealthy. But they weren’t Gertrude Achilles Strong wealthy. Almost no one was. When she died in 1955, she left behind a fortune of over nine million dollars, making her the single richest person in the history of the state of California at the time, well into the top half of the richest 1% nationally.
In 1913, Kellogg bought over 88 acres in Morgan Hill, south of San Francisco, an area he dubbed “Ever Ever Land,” where he built an inventive and “environmentally responsive” open plan cabin that he called “The Mushroom.” Around 1920, Gertrude Achilles Strong bought his land and more than 500 additional surrounding acres. She built a mansion for herself there at a cost of $276,000 (four million today) as well as a house for Kellogg and his wife and put him on her permanent payroll as property manager. He built water systems for her property and built and patented a riding fruit and nut picker for the property, while he lived comfortably with his wife Sad’i and two young live-in maids for the rest of his life.
Each winter from 1915 through 1919, Kellogg toured from coast to coast, stopping in Camden, New Jersey to record a few performances for Victor Records, where he cut a total of 26 performances, six of which the company the company destroyed without having issued them. On February 15 and 16, 1916, he recorded four light classical pieces, imitating birds and following along the well-known melodies, as if a bird were singing the tunes in its down language. On the 15th, Alma Gluck, a star of the Metropolitan Opera and one of the most popular sopranos in the U.S. also recorded three of her best-selling performances. Although she did not record on the 16th, and Kellogg possibly traveled more than 100 miles north to Dalton, Pennsylvania near Scranton to visit friends on the 17th when Gluck recorded “The Bird of the Wilderness,” with words by Rabindranath Tagore, he joined her again in Victor’s studio on the 18th for two bird-themed performances on which Kellogg provided bird imitations. When the single-sided 12” disc of “Listen to the Mockingbird” was released in the Spring along with a significant marketing push by Victor, its sales exceeded expectations. When “Nightingale Song” from a mid-19th century operetta called Der Vogelhandler (The Bird Seller) by the Austrian composer Carl Zeller, was released a month or two later as a less-expensive 10,” it became one of the best-selling records of the decade.
Apart from the two sides recorded with Gluck, Kellogg’s recordings are evenly divided between the bird-imitation novelties with musical accompaniment (an unenduring genre that grew in popularity both on stage and on records in the early decades of the 20th century) and segments of his stage act in which he would lecture on his relationship with the wilderness with demonstrations of bird-calls interspersed. Seven of those sides remain a fascinating glimpse of Kellogg’s performing persona. The last of them, titled “Bird Chorus,” recorded without commentary on January 14, 1919 is an extraordinary and unheralded moment in the history of sound recording. Starting in January 1915 and through all of 1916, Kellogg added a section of his stage act in which he turned on “an orchestra” of six Victrolas borrowed from local dealers in each town, and played discs of his bird-imitation and then proceeded to perform with them, simulating, as one reviewer put it, “a voice from the deep forest.” For the “Bird Chorus” disc Kellogg simplified the process to a single disc of his own performing along with a live performance, ingeniously weaving two continuous sequences of songs together to give the impression of multitudes of birds singing together. It is the first instance of overdubbing.
Notably lacking from Kellogg’s discography are examples of his most spectacular and longest-lasting piece from his stage act - the “Blade of Flame.” By the beginning of 1912, Kellogg introduced a gas burner on stage which produced a four-foot blue flame inside a glass tube. Kellogg told his audience that because all of nature is connected through vibration and because of the gift he possessed of a vocal range many times that of highly trained singers and larger than that of a grand piano, he could cause the “blade of flame” to dance and ultimately to extinguish it using only his voice. It was, next to his bird-imitating, his best-known and best-loved routine. He augmented it with a demonstration of the technique of building fire by wood friction (a skill he imparted to the then-nascent Boy Scouts). Naturally, his fire performances in enclosed theaters were of some concern to local fire departments, and he made it a regular public relations stop to visit fire houses in each town during the afternoons to demonstrate the act, reassuring them of his control of fire and wowing them along with the local press. The only footage apparently extant of Kellogg is one silent minute of a newsreel outtake Kellogg giving this demonstration for a group of Boston firemen on November 5, 1926. (The film, including ten precious seconds at the end of Kellogg demonstrating his bird-imitation technique facing the camera is available online at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections site.) He continued to elaborate the routine, using bowed tuning forks. In the mid-20s he arranged a series of radio broadcasts intended to demonstrate his hypothesis that vibrations broadcast at sufficient amplitude could extinguish house fires. His proposal was that in the future each house could be scientifically tuned such that fire departments would need only to broadcast the appropriate frequencies to put out the fires.
The seed for the idea seems to have originated with Kellogg’s exposure to Herman Helmholtz’s book On the Sensation of Tone which had already been published in two editions in America before Kellogg began making theatrical use of its central concept, that the air around us is a medium through which vibration is transmitted in waves. Kellogg was so enamored with the idea that in May and June of 1913, Kellogg added a bit to his stage act in which he explained to the audience that mental vibrations are crucial in love and marriage and that “tuning” of a silent “mental wireless” to a compatible frequency with one’s mate was central to harmonious love. Newsprint reviews of his attempts to demonstrate this with his wife were decidedly snarky. The audience didn’t get it, and it was quickly dropped from the act.
Kellogg’s greatest and most enduring “hit” as a showman was neither a stage-act nor a recording. It was a vehicle made from two large pieces. The first was a Nash Quad, a four-wheel drive truck capable of hauling four tons. The second was a 22-foot section of a fallen redwood log eleven feet in diameter. He obtained the former in early Summer 1917 from the Nash Motor Company in Kenosha, Wisconsin while they were being produced for use in the First World War. Kellogg convinced the company’s namesake president of a vision of the beauty of California’s enormous redwood forests (and, very likely, the publicity benefits of Kellogg’s scheme) and took the Quad to Bull Creek Flat in Humbolt County, where with the help of several axemen from the Pacific Lumber Company they spent months sawing off a section of a fallen tree, stripping its bark, and carving out its interior into a living quarters with beds, cabinets, kitchenette, and bathroom. Mounting it on the chassis of the Quad, he polished and varnished the whole thing a copper color and installed electric lights. By November of that year, he drove the wooden cabin-on-wheels that he dubbed the Travel-Log cross-country, stopping in Kenosha for work on the radiator and “finishing touches” (including their brand name, it seems). Using his celebrity and press-savvy, he toured the machine, giving talks on the beauty of the great redwoods and the dire need for their preservation, taking a piece of the forest to the people. In the process, he introduced America to the idea of a mobile home. It now resides in the Humbolt State Park’s visitor center, reportedly only yards from where the tree from which it was hewn grew for centuries.
Kellogg recorded 11 more performances for Victor during the period 1924-26. Seven of them were discarded by the company without having been released. The remaining four were re-recordings of his first two records using the new invention of microphones. While he continued to perform, his schedule gradually slowed as he shifted his first to attention to Gertrude Achilles Strong’s property and then to a fascination with Fiji, where he first traveled in the Spring of 1925 from Hawai’i. Fixated on the idea of wooden lali slit-drums and their use in communication over distances, Kellogg arrived alone and presented himself as a naturalist to the Chief of the Native Department on the island of Suva, who showed him a the instrument and arranged for him to visit to the island of Baqa to witness fire-walking (after Kellogg had given a demonstration of the “blade of flame” routine, having thoughtfully packed the gear needed for it, and gave a performance of “Narcissus” as a bird-imitator) in the company of a British medical doctor. Kellogg was suitably impressed and incorporated discussion of both lali drumming and fire-walking as further evidence of his central theme of the need for vibratory attunement in his subsequent performances through the 1920s and 30s.
In 1929, Kellogg survived a near-fatal car crash immediately before he self-published The Nature Singer: His Book, a profusely photo-illustrated collection of impressions drawn from his life and career and a document of his own self-invention, which went through at least two printings (all of them signed; the first 1000 are numbered), wrapped in the attractive but exceedingly brittle birch parchment that he used as stationary and for press notices. That year, he also patented an automobile ignition that started with whistling. He continued to criss-cross the country, giving talks based on his experiences in nature combined with pleas for conservation. There was talk of a movie that never manifested. In 1940, he and Sad’i adopted a 9 year old girl named Shannon who had been born in Honolulu. (She subsequently married a Charles Newton, nine years her senior, in 1961, divorcing him in 1967, and died in 2007.) When in 1946 Paramahansa Yogananda published his Autobiography of a Yogi, describing his encounters with spiritual teachers and his travel in India and U.S., he briefly recounted in a footnote having seen Charles Kellogg do the “blade of flame” bit in Boston in the ‘20s.
And that’s who Kellogg has been for the past century - a remarkable and unlikely figure at the intersection of science and art and showmanship and the spiritual.
Charles Kellogg’s health declined through the 1940s before died of a heart attack on September 3, 1949 at the age of 80.
released May 17, 2020
All recordings made in Camden, New Jersey.
Recording dates via Discography of American Historical Recordings, University of California Santa Barbara. Take numbers indicated in parentheses:
1. Feb. 15, 1915 (1)
2. Feb. 16, 1915 (2)
3. Feb. 18, 1915 (1)
4. Feb. 19, 1915 (2)
5 & 6. Feb. 15, 1916 (1, 2)
7 & 8. Feb. 16, 1916 (2, 2)
9 & 10. Feb. 18, 1916 (2,1)
11 & 12. Dec. 15, 1916 (2, 2)
13 & 14. Dec. 16, 1916 (3, 2)
15 & 16. Jan. 4, 1917 (2, 2)
17 & 18. Dec. 26, 1917 (2,2)
19 & 20. Jan. 14, 1919 (1,1)
21 & 22. Feb. 17, 1926 (3, 3)
Transfers restoration and notes by Ian Nagoski except tracks 3, 4, 10, 12, 13, 14 & 15 restored and speed corrected from transfers made by George Blood L.P., made available at archive.org
supported by 26 fans who also own “The Nature Singer: His Complete Issued Recordings, February 1915 to January 1919”
You don't even need to read the info to know they are singing of peace and love energy. this is such pure music -- not in a fetishization of ethnic music kinda way. it's so clear that this all resonates from a heart center. the recordings are raw and encapsulate sitting literally anywhere except a recording studio making music. love this to pieces. sumptuous