Appeared in July, 1997 CUPS
In the 1930s Bob Wills posed the metaphysical question "will there be yodeling in heaven" for several reasons. If yes, then heaven'll be a rollicking joint and maybe he could front the house band; God being the manager and all. Yodeling, after all -- especially the Tyrolean lederhosen version -- is within easy earshot of biergarten oompah music -- jolly, mindless escapism -- hoist another stein.
Or would it be a solemn space? Because there's another side to yodeling -- soulful, incantatory, related to cowherds' prayer calls to their valley gods.
For my last radio show at WFMU I decided to tackle this mysterious vocal technique known as yodeling. Why is it so haunting and yet so debased and overlooked? How did a Swiss thing, get to be a hillbilly thing? And why were there suddenly many yodeling samples in the ambient and post-dub material I was spinning?
Midway into the show things began to click as to why I LIKED yodeling. Like dub, it depended on echo, echo as a rearrangement of our psychoacoustical apparatus, echo as entry point into another realm.
But yodels are just notes situated somewhere between the regular human voice and falsetto, forming chord intervals so that you become, as one ethnomusicologist observed, someone seeking harmony with oneself. In other words, yodeling bouncing off hillsides until there's any number of versions of your voice harmonizing in mid-air -- arguably, the first instant of "recorded" sound.
Oh, I'd collected all the suspects -- Jimmy Rodgers and the like. But also new post-modern appropriations of the yodel, mega-samples within atmospheric musics. Not to mention "new" and sometimes tongue-in-cheek reappreciations of yodeling (Riders on the Storm) or avant-scat-yodelers (Leon Thomas and Shelly Hirsch).
A genuine yodel is one without words, not really 'music,' but acoustical signals, most often associated with cowherds communicating with one another and their herds from mountain to mountain.
Yodels with verses occured more recently when cowherds began hanging out in villages. In choirs and duos (usually with organ accompaniment) one yodeler takes the lead and the others join in, singing a subtle harmony, with the melody mostly improvised at the spur of the moment. In the Appenzell region yodelers are sometimes accompanied by musicians swinging big cow bells.
Most yodels today however, are relegated to the ornamental choruses of pop songs, although there are some songs which are all yodeling. The emergence of semiprofessional musicians in the Alps, singing snazzy mod yodels aimed at tourists has ironically help to preserve this folk tradition.
In any case, most experts agree that mountain cowherds, men and women, communicated with their herds via bells and melodic calls, guiding them through villages and valleys. But the calls may also be endearments shepherds used to express affection to their herds. Witness similarly, dog owners "communicating" with their canines on the street.
Some experts go too far, insisting yodels imitates the sound of the long alpenhorn, another of the cowherd's communication tools. This is far-fetched because yodeling and the domestication of grazing animals predates the invention of the alpenhorn.
Still others believe the origin of the yodel is the human soul; as a psychological reaction to the breathtaking scenery surrounding the cowherd -- yodeling's wide leaps of high and low notes evoking the exalted hills, the awe of the human spirit. Or could it be a prayer call -- an exorcism to chase away evil spirits which Christians appropriated? Priests thereafter insisted that herders address Christian saints instead of their old pagan deities.
Before the Ituri Pygmies go on a hunt they perform an intricate wordless yodel with severed melodies and densely textured multi-part singing. It's built upon continuous repetitions of short patterns which take melodic shape as different voices enter.
Of interest here are the nonhierarchical exchange of lead solos and the improvisations within the yodel's harmonic constraints. An individual may begin leading a song because they are respected in other realms of Pygmy life. But once a performance begins, musical leadership shifts, different voices move in and out of the background. Some scholars see this as a reflection of their democratic and egalitarian society.
The Aka pygmies perform a yodel comprised of two melodies upon which others will perform variations, creating dense overlapping contrapuntal textures of simultaneous melodic lines. These performances often involve communication with spirit worlds which associates divinity with the forest -- forest is good and misfortune implies it is asleep.
As many of them migrated further south, into the Virginia Appalachians and beyond, they met Scandinavians (practictioners of a unique yodeling called kölning). Add to that French, Caribbean, Mexican, and African influences and you have the setting for the birth of hillbilly yodeling. Along the way German ur-memories of yodeling converted hollers into something more musical (see Howard Finster), then blending with Irish narrative ballads.
Note the mountain settings and that cowboys are herders, too -- lonesome and dangerous work like the shepherds'. In 1905, Emma B. Miles wrote in The Spirit of the Mountains : " [He] conquers his chosen bit of wilderness...fighting and praying. His are the adventures of which future ballads will be sung...His first songs are the yodel. Then he learns...songs of fighting and drinking."
Hillbilly ballads were often adorned with showoffy choruses of plaintive yodeling. Enter Jimmy Rodgers, 1920s, "Father of Country Music." He's important as the graft where the yodel meets blues. Rodgers' blues yodels introduced black blues to many whites. He influenced people like Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Gene Autry, Merle Haggard, and many others known to yodel now and again.
Dolly & Milly Good, two farm gals from Illinois, sang close-harmony duets. In the 1930s they reinvented themselves as "The Girls of the Golden West, born in Muleshoe, Texas," cunningly claiming their yodeling was influenced by coyotes they heard howling on the dusty plains.
Around this time Patsy Montana became country's first solo female star (still touring into the 90s!). She had a big hit with "I Wanna Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart," evoking a breezy joyous yodeling style. And suddenly every singer seemed to be a yodeling cowboy.
Jimmy Rodgers was pivotal again in yodeling's American chapters when he teamed with Louis Armstrong on "Blue Yodel #9" in 1930, which channeled yodeling into jazz.
Meanwhile bebop jazz, with its signature scat singing sometimes breaks out into yodeling. Frank Rosolino on "That Old Black Magic," and "Pennies From Heaven" most exemplifies this hybrid. Musicologists have also noted James Brown's indebtedness to Pygmy yodeling.
We must also mention the Dutch jazz-rock group, Focus who had a major pop hit in March 1973 with "Hocus Pocus," a strange amalgam of metal, jazz, and yodeling -- the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida of yodeling.
Closer to the forest bed is Cameroonian Francis Bebey, author, cultural ambassador, and "The tallest pygmy in this life." He sings in French, English and his native Douala. He combines classic guitar, Makossa and yodels to produce his eccentric, mellifluous pop-yodel stylings which often deal with domestic pygmy life.
Zap Mama, a 4th world acapella group sings a very lilting Afro-Cuban Mouth jazz scat-yodelli; effectively linking tradition with invention.
Deep Forest, a new age schmaltzy fabricator of ambient dioramas makes generous use of pygmy yodels. As do the soulful dubsters, Up, Bustle & Out who retool the pygmy's yodeling and waterdrumming. Lee "Scratch" Perry, omnipresent mad genius of post-Jamaican dub uses a welter of mega-sampling. His bawdy, extemporaneous vocals sometimes veer into yodeling. But the most beautiful use of yodel samples is "No Dog Barks" by Dub Syndicate. This only begins to prove that yodeling's ability to aurally evoke space makes it a very contemporary part of the ambient soundscape: yodel as organic precursor of ambient.
Yodels trapped in valleys, bounced off hillsides, creating echo. Sound waves rippled outward at 331 meters per second into the surrounding air. Yodelers heard these amplified altered soundwaves that had been squeezed from constricted throats. Like Narcissus saw, they heard themselves in the reflected sound waves.
When sound defines a space, that is ambience. When a voice reverberates beyond expectation into the way out, you have awe -- "the hills are alive" as Julie Andrews exclaimed, alive with one's own voice floating in air like a magnetically-recorded voice earmarked on recording tape.
Mountain valley as recording studio prototype -- umpteen ages ago -- airy memory becoming cassette only deep into the 20th century. Right at the mental point where sound as mechanical energy is converted into bioelectrical nerve impulse, we bridge the gaps between ethnomusicology and psychoacoustics, between body and spirit.
Echo stretches time; present becomes a future in a reprocessed past, working the way psychotropic substances do. Time goes fluid, spatial, a non-calendrical "intimate immensity." Is THIS the major key to its magic. Perhaps. But like Jimmy Rodgers, "I'm yodeling all the way home." And home for him was a mansion called "Blue Yodelers Paradise."