Sites of Formation 1900

Charles Kellogg

Ian Nagoski

On Monday, March 23, 1900, at the Immanuel Baptist Church at the corner of St. Paul Street and North Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland, Charles Kellogg performed bird imitations. The Baltimore Sun reported that “owing to a peculiarity of the throat, lips and tongue Mr. Kellogg is able to reproduce the songs of many variety of birds. His imitations of the cardinal redbird, the thrush, the catbird and other species familiar to the audience were surprisingly real. The tones were produced in the throat. While warbling the lips are tightly closed.”

Kellogg had been touring his exceptional bird-imitations for nearly a decade but was still just embarking on a 50-year career connecting art with science under a veil of Barnum-esque hokum. He sold a vision of an interconnected and loving world to the public through a few key obsessions—the forest, vibration, love, and fire—entertaining industrialists, heiresses, yogis, artists, and the plain people of the United States. And, he got rich and famous doing so. Ultimately, Kellogg’s primary project was the story of himself.

The fourth of five children, Charles Kellogg was born on October 2, 1868, to Henry Kellogg and Mary E. Carlisle in Spanish Ranch, a Sierra Nevada mountain settlement of northern California’s Plumas County. His father ran a provisions store for the area’s gold prospectors. The nearest railroad was a hundred miles away. His mother left the family when Charles was about three years old. She died in Long Beach, California, in 1917, and the wound of her abandonment is clear in the trouble he took to write her out of his 1929 memoir. 

In his auto-mythology, Kellogg was raised initially by a Chinese servant named Moon and an unnamed Native American 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.” He recalled the years at Spanish Ranch as a period of freedom 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 . . .” In this 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.” Here he witnessed a wedding for the first time and learned about death and funeral rites among the Chinese. And here, before the age of six, he began to experiment with imitating birds by forcing air through this nose with his mouth closed. He claimed that this remarkable ability came down to an anatomical formation in his larynx like that of the syrinx of a songbird. This utter nonsense was repeated thousands of times, often backed up with the validations of unnamed doctors. It is not clear whether he believed it himself. 

At the age of six or seven, Kellogg was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in Syracuse, New York. There, he learned to build furniture and fireplaces—skills that he fitted into his woodsman persona. He attended Syracuse University and sang in the choir. But, apart from mentions of his education in the manly, manual crafts, the period from the ages of seven to 22 when Kellogg became a college-educated Yankee didn’t serve the story he was selling of himself. He just left those years blank.

Almost immediately after his graduation, Kellogg gave the first public performance (August 1891) of his animal-imitating abilities in Chautauqua, New York—then a hotbed of aspirational “edutainment.” Realizing that he was on to something, he gave at least a dozen similar concerts within the next six months, mostly at YMCAs, churches, and meetings around Pennsylvania, New York, and California. Throughout his 20s, he spent several months of the year touring in ever-widening circles from his east-coast home base to Massachusetts, Ohio, Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. His claims about his abilities widened as well, becoming so grandiose that, by 1901, he said he had as much as a 12 1/2 octave vocal range—five octaves more than a piano.

Kellogg developed his bona fides as a naturalist. In 1902, he published his first article, “The Wickedness and Folly of Killing Birds” for Success magazine, and met the naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs, the latter with whom he went to Jamaica. In 1904, Kellogg and his brother bought a 45-acre plot in North Newry, Maine, where they built a summer vacation camp for city folk wanting to spend time in the woods. Each year, from fall to early spring, Kellogg traveled the country with shows of his knowledge of, and ability to replicate, bird song. He added Tennessee and Kentucky to his touring radius by 1903; Nebraska and Kansas by 1907. By this time, his shows regularly lasted two hours and received glowing reviews. 

His break came in 1910 at the age of 41. He had left his first wife and relocated to San Francisco, ingratiating himself in a world of wealthy socialites. 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.” It crystalized the stage-show he’d assiduously developed for nearly two decades: 

He has the uttermost faith in the power of love and kindness. “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 tenents of Kellogg’s creed. “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.” 

His count of 3,000 performances in 24 years was, like many of his claims, likely an exaggeration, but not so far from the truth that you could discount it out of hand. Decades of stories, stage patter, and tricks had caught the public’s imagination, and the next few years would prove to be among his busiest. A month after the article appeared in The Call, Kellogg went to Camden, New Jersey, to cut his first trial discs for Victor Records. These were never released but were the start of a long relationship with the label. 

His belief that “vibration will ultimately take the place of electricity as a motive force,” ran in a nationally syndicated newspaper piece in February 1912. He signed with the Orpheum chain of vaudeville theaters to perform three shows a day across the west coast from spring of 1912 to spring 1913. He spent 1914 touring the west coast and mid-west before returning to the Philadelphia area in 1915 where he remarried Sarah “Sad’i” Fuller Burchard in Wilmington, Delaware. He went again to Camden, New Jersey, in February 1915 to record for Victor. This time the discs were released: the first four of his performances to be issued. He was almost 47 years old and had spent the past 25 years on the road developing his act. 

Through 1915 and 1916, Kellogg headlined the eastern U.S. and Canada for both Orpheum and B. F. Keith’s circuits of vaudeville houses. He also played the Majestic Theaters in the mid-west and Texas. The bills included dog acts, monkey acts, various acrobats, singers, and comedians. At the end of each show Kellogg performed in front of a painted woodland backdrop. His proclamations to the press at the time were either flatly false (that he spent nine months of the year in the wilderness) or simply peculiar (that he had “never read a book through” because “print disturbs me.”) Some were 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 the rest,” or “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.”) His conflicting self-representation was summed up later by family members who said that although he was vegetarian, he “loved to pour on the gravy.” 

During each of his tours in the mid-to-late 1910s, he stopped in Camden, New Jersey, to record a few performances where he cut a total of 20 issued performances for Victor. 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 own language. Alma Gluck, a star of the Metro­politan Opera and one of the most popular sopranos in the U.S. was recording at the same time, and he joined her on February 18 of that year. Those discs, “Listen to the Mockingbird” and “Nightingale Song,” became two of the best-selling records of the decade. 

Kellogg’s recordings are divided between bird-imitation novelties with musical accompaniment (a genre that grew in popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, but did not endure) and segments of his stage act in which he would talk about the wilderness and demonstrate bird voices. The last of them, titled “Bird Chorus,” was recorded without commentary on January 14, 1919, an unheralded moment in the history of sound recording. 

From January 1915 through the end of 1916, Kellogg added a section to 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-imitations, with which he proceeded to perform, 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 and his own 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, three decades before Les Paul. 

Coincident with these years of popular success were expressions of ideas about vibrations. By early 1912 one of Kellogg’s most popular and enduring routines was “the blade of flame” in which he introduced a gas burner on stage that produced a four-foot blue flame in a glass tube. Kellogg announced that—because all of nature is connected through vibration and by using his vocal range—he could cause the “blade of flame” to dance and, ultimately, extinguish it using only his voice. These performances often concerned local fire departments, so Kellogg made pre-concert public relations stops to fire houses in each town to demonstrate his control of the flame, wowing them along with the local press. 

In the mid-1920s he arranged a series of radio broadcasts intended to demonstrate his hypothesis that vibrations broadcast at sufficient amplitude could extinguish house fires. He proposed that, in the future, each house could be scientifically tuned so that fire departments would need only broadcast the appropriate frequencies to put out the fires. The seed for the idea apparently originated with Kellogg’s exposure to Hermann von Helmholtz’s On the Sensation of Tone, which proved that the air around us is a medium through which vibration is transmitted in waves. Enamored with the idea, Kellogg added a bit to his stage shows in May and June 1913 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 frequency compatible with one’s mate was central to harmonious love. Audiences and reviewers were baffled, and it was quickly dropped from the act. 

Kellogg’s most enduring “hit” as a showman was a vehicle made from a four wheel–drive truck, a Nash Quad, and a section of a fallen redwood log measuring 22 feet long and 11 feet in diameter. He obtained the former in early summer 1917 from the Nash Motor Company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where they were being produced for use in WWI. The company’s president was convinced of Kellogg’s vision of the beauty of California’s redwood forests (and of the publicity benefits of Kellogg’s scheme). Kellogg took the Quad to Bull Creek Flat in Humboldt County, where with the help of several axe men from the Pacific Lumber Company, he spent months sawing off a section of a fallen tree, stripping its bark, and carving its interior into living quarters with beds, cabinets, kitchenette, and bathroom. Mounting it on the chassis of the Quad, he polished and varnished it and installed electric lights. By November of that year, he drove the wooden cabin-on-wheels—dubbed the Travel-Log—cross-country to give talks on the beauty of the great redwoods and the dire need for their preservation. He was taking a piece of the forest to the people. In the process, he introduced America to the idea of a mobile home. The Travel Log is in the Humboldt State Park’s visitor center, only yards from where the tree from which it was made grew for centuries. 

Kellogg was an avid photographer. While he never took a gun into the woods, from 1900 onward he had a camera. It may have been this love of photography that led to his long-lasting friendship with Gertrude Achilles Strong (1860–1955), the daughter of Henry A. Strong, co-founder and first president of the Kodak company. It’s unclear if they met around 1902 when Kellogg first played in Rochester, New York, or in the late 1910s in Hawaii. Regardless, their relationship was pivotal for Kellogg. While his first disc for Victor 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) performing in the 1910s, he was not nearly as wealthy as Gertrude Achilles Strong. Hardly anyone was. When she died in 1955, she left behind over nine million dollars, making her, at the time, the single richest person in the history of the state of California and well into the top half of the richest one percent nationally. In 1920, Strong bought 88 acres of land owned by Kellogg in Morgan Hill, an area south of San Francisco. She then added more than 500 additional acres to what he had called “Ever Ever Land,” and had a mansion built for herself and made Kellogg her property manager. 

After he bought the land in 1913, Kellogg had built in an inventive and “environmentally responsive” open plan cabin called “The Mushroom.” During the 1920s while continuing to perform, he shifted his attention to Strong’s property. He built a water system on the property and patented a riding fruit and nut picker, while living on the land comfortably with his second wife Sad’i, two young live-in maids, and, later, an adopted daughter.

In the 1920s Kellogg released only four more sides, re-recordings of material he’d cut the previous decade before the introduction of microphones. He pushed onward with his obsessions into his 60s. Fascinated with the idea of wooden lali slit-drums of Fiji, and their use in communication over distances, Kellogg traveled there in 1925, where he witnessed fire-walking, which he took as further evidence of his central theme of the need for personal and global vibratory attunement. In 1929, just after surviving a car crash, Kellogg self-published The Nature Singer: His Book, a profusely photo-illustrated collection of impressions drawn from his life and career, as well as a document of his own self-inventions. That year, he also patented an automobile ignition that started just by the vibration of whistling. 

He continued to crisscross 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 1946 Paramahansa Yogananda mentioned Kellogg in a footnote to his Autobiography of a Yogi, having seen him do the “blade of flame” bit in Boston in the ’20s. To the end, Kellogg was what he had been his entire life—a remarkable and unlikely showman, a conservationist, and spiritualist. He died of a heart attack on September 3, 1949, at the age of 80.