Perfect Sound Forever

Wreck the Whistle

by bart plantenga
(February 2021)

"I am a musical moron ... but decided to dub the whistling myself. It was off key & turned out to be just right since the murderer himself is off-balance mentally." - Fritz Lang, on the whistling in M

The most ominous whistling ever heard is found on movie soundtracks. When you hear the whistling (mixed with yodeled wails) on Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks you feel it stretching across an endless moment where time sounds mockingly boundless, and meets the desert wind at the horizon.

Morricone sound-sculpted not only the dread-clinging daily to our bones, but also an emotional landscape coaxed from sound, infused with melancholy whistling that mythologizes, almost ennobles, our survival in the process. You can almost hear Sartre narrating: "there's two kinds of people... those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig," as Clint Eastwood's cynical squint focuses on the gunsight's cross-hairs. In any case, existentialism never sounded better.

Upon completion of my second yodel book, Yodel in HiFi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica, I almost took up a friend's half-joking-flattering suggestion that, since I was done with yodeling, I should now move on to whistling. NOT! Unless, of course, I get a hankering to spend seven more years writing a book for a pauper's "salary" of under $500.

There are definite similarities between yodeling and whistling - they're both a human oddity, under-regarded manipulations of the voice, not mastered by everyone, enabling whistlers to enchant, impress and even somewhat pleasantly kill the mundane workday.

Whistling has fascinated me since my childhood, when my father regularly whistled an unknown melody and I watched him purse his lips as he fixed anything and everything that broke around our house. It offered him focus, calm, and - upon completion - an upbeat spring-bird whistle of personal fix-it triumph. I finally got the hang of it, but only dared to do it wandering alone in a field. This curiosity remained dormant until quite recently.

My Wreck The Whistle 1238 radio show launched the anthropomusicological excursion into the puckered lip vocalization starring Morricone, the Whistling Gypsy, the Blind Whistler, an evangelical whistler, a kept-woman whistler, Finnish & Swedish whistlers, Otis Redding whistling outtakes, Tom Waits, Aphex Twin, Carla Bley, Toots Thielemans, Roger Miller, Elvis, Monty Python and Whistling Jack Smith. I found oft-unlikely whistling in electronica, rap, hip hop, techno, jazz, blues, ambient, Latin, rockabilly, dub, soul, country, cowboys, steamboats, locomotives, soundscape - pretty much anywhere people pucker their mouth muscles.

There are even multi-endowed entertainers who sing, yodel AND whistle. In particular, two yodelers who reached impressive pop fame in 1950's Europe: the Brit Ronnie Ronalde and the Belgian cowboy Bobbejaan Schoepen, who, in Dutch, sings "when he yodels / he doesn't whistle," trading off virtuosic yodeling with whistling in an almost hocketing style, revealing a robust command of breath, voice - and humor.

Morricone's piercing, lonesome-train whistle-wail has been branded onto our psyches as it measures and plagues the almost insurmountable distances we must travel to mean something almost heroic to oneself or someone else. These plaintive whistles strike a chord most famously in Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western Dollars trilogy.

Alessandro Alessandroni was Morricone's whistler of choice, whistling on many Morricone soundtracks and those of others: this included Pervirella, Macchi Solari, La Trappola Scatta a Beirut, Un Uomo da Rispettare, Il Giocattolo, Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini, The Sheriff & the Satellite Kid, The Mercenary and Once Upon a Time in the West, on which the presence of Morricone's pre-composed soundtrack pretty much "directed" the film. According to Sergio Leone collaborator Sergio Donati: "Everyone acted with the music, followed its rhythm," so that soundtrack served as choreography. The whistling on "Cheyenne's Theme" is eerily not piercingly chilling, but soothing, as if we're being lulled into a false sense of security.

Morricone has been sampled or covered over 700 times, and it's often the whistling that they turn to. Clever examples appear on several tracks of the cataclysmic dub work of Prince Fatty Meets The Mutant Hifi (Nick Coplowe/Mike Pelanconi) on Return of Gringo!, which mixes ska, dub, surf, Spaghetti Western, maxed-out samplodelix, and Alessandroni's sampled whistling, especially on "Black Powder."

Morricone's whistling themes are pretty much the earworm template for other directors of Westerns who simply cannot escape his sonic trademarks. For example, the opening theme of the interesting Spaghetti Western Il Pistolero Della Ave Maria (The Forgotten Pistolero) includes Morriconesque whistling on this dark, brooding score by Franco Micalizzi/Roberto Pregadio. Meanwhile, Bandolero, starring Dean Martin and Raquel Welch with a soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, incorporates all of the Morricone jangly spurs, whip-crack, mouth harp plus whistling earmarks that instantly situates you in some forlorn cowboy Southwest.

Bernard Hermann's soundtrack to Twisted Nerve, a British slasher-psychopath thriller, includes unforgettable spine-chilling, eerie-cheery whistling by stalker Georgie (Hywel Bennett), who kills everyone who gets between him and Susan (Hayley Mills), the darling oblivious object of his desire. The actual whistling is by Gareth Williams and serves as a suspenseful leitmotif of impending harm that rivets us to its narrative.

This sinister whistle is effectively reused by one-eyed, thrill-kill villain Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill 1 and serves as an ode to a favorite thriller of his. Hannah actually whistles her own sinister Twisted Nerve version as she strides down a hospital hallway on her way to poisoning "The Bride" (Uma Thurman).

Rob Stone's brilliant single "Chill Bill," from the Kill Bill 1 soundtrack, depends on the clever sampled-recycling of Twisted's whistling for its disquieting earworm melody. All of this allusive cinematic interest boosted reappreciation for Twisted Nerve, especially the whistling sequences. Tarantino's Twisted Nerve echo-redux was also wink-wink-deja-vued in his Death Proof, when the whistle blips up briefly on Abernathy Ross's (Rosario Dawson) mobile phone in a convenience store, hearkening back to both Kill Bill and Twisted Nerve.

The ghostly psychopath in American Horror Story, Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), whistles (merely lip syncs) the original Twisted Nerve theme as he prepares to massacre 15 of his schoolmates at school. It's also sampled on Brianna Perry's upbeat "Good" (2013), managing a cheerier twist to the sinister sound. In 2004, Colombian-Italian EDM performer Carolina Marqueza produced a massive electro-Italo-dance hit with "The Killer's Song," which leans heavily on the whistle for its deathly refrain.

Fritz Lang's film M was one of the first "talkies" and maybe the first to orchestrate sound (and silence) as a psychological technique. This noir-crime thriller tells the tale of a nondescript and increasingly shadowy child-murderer (Peter Lorre) as he terrorizes Berlin, managing to evade a desperate police force. The stark brooding, echoing silences of the nightscape are interrupted sparingly, eerily by the whistle, which we discover is that of the perpetrator.

As it turns out, Lorre couldn't get the whistle right, nor could Lang's assistants. So Lang tried it himself and to his surprise, he produced a perfect off-key whistle that conveyed the demented nature of the main character, who whistles the foreboding leitmotif from Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," which is recognized by a blind man as it becomes clear that the perp whistles it whenever he's lurking in the shadows. It clings to your soul long after the film has ended.

The contentious side of whistling goes beyond passive viewing pleasure into the realm of real-life harassment where one part of society is menaced by another.

The Dog whistle emits a high frequency whistle that humans cannot hear. It's used to train dogs, but the term means so much more on social media, where it serves as a rhetorical device, whereby an innocuous sounding phrase covertly signals insidious views to a welcoming fringe group of the target audience.

The Wolf Whistle is maybe the most readily identifiable whistle in the world, but this innocuous-sounding 3-note ditty has an even more insidious cultural history. It is perhaps best illustrated when Lauren Bacall challenges Humphrey Bogart with her classic line, "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." And then, he waits until she depart before he lets a meek little wolf whistle slip out.

The most famous wolf whistle appears in animator Tex Avery's cartoons where males (wolves) are portrayed going gaga over voluptuous females, slavishly expressing totally lost-cool, eye-bonkers, lecherous insanity. At least Tex Avery was taking the piss out of men with this whistle, making their boy-sterous enthrallment look totally ridiculous.

Women certainly whistle but not as often as men. At least not publicly. There are probably many reasons why, including that it was considered unladylike... Moreover, women often end up as victims of the wolf whistle, which possibly evolved from sailors communicating with one another and was eventually passed down to sailors aboard ships docked in a port, signaling their approval of certain women walking by. Some say it was used by gangsters as a way to bully the wusses in the gang.

However, it was long considered harmless, goofy or even flattering, but is now commonly abused by men, taking on the aggressiveness of frustrated guys trying to capture the attention of women in an abusive manner and now commonly constitutes sexual harassment itself.

But it's also associated with a notoriously tragic event: the murder of 15-year-old Emmett Till, visiting relatives in rural Mississippi in 1955. Carolyn Bryant, a woman shopkeeper, an evil racist one as it turns out, accused Till of flirting with, harassing, and wolf whistling at her. Carolyn's husband and his half-brother kidnapped, tortured, mutilated and lynched Till in a fit of racist rage, all because of her lie about a whistle- and, of course, because he was Black. Tragic follow-up: 62 years later, she recanted the entire story.

So, whistling can heighten psycho-social tensions, but it can also console - the old "whistling past the graveyard" scenario. But we'll end on a happy note. Plenty of whistling expresses happiness, satisfaction, got a raise, enjoying a sunny day off, happily working: "Whistle While You Work," "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" or De La Soul's hippie-hop song "Eye Know," which brilliantly samples Redding's "Dock of the Bay" whistling.

But nothing evokes this sunny mood more than the theme to the delightfully carefree Andy Griffith Show. This famous earworm of down-home feel-good tunesmithery reruns filmstrips of endless, eventless summer vacations filled with crickets, warm breezes pushing Orb-like "fluffy" clouds across an immense blue sky, while keeping half an eye on the idle red-&-white bobber for any sign of a fish on the end of your line. A happy ditty with no strings attached.

Many associate Andy Griffith with the amiable, laidback sheriff of idyllic, "Whether it's hot, whether it's cool, oh what a spot for whistlin' like a fool" Mayberry, North Carolina, where we weekly enjoyed Griffith whistling that irresistible opening theme.

But, alas, Griffith did not write it, originally sing it, or even WHISTLE it. "I Ain't Just Whistlin' Fishin Hole" was written in 15 minutes by Earle Hagen (veteran of big band orchestras and soundtrack arranging) and Herbert Spencer, with lyrics later added by Everett Sloane.

Meanwhile, professional entertainer Jerry Duane, who'd whistled Pepsi and Old Spice ads, went around claiming he was the whistler, ultimately becoming more famous for spreading his false rumors of self-deluded braggadocio. Fred Lowrey, the most successful whistler of the 1940's-50's, who whistled hundreds of popular standards including "Indian Love Call," was also mentioned as well as Toots Thielemans, the Belgian jazz harmonicist. In the end, it was Hagen, despite rumors to the contrary, who whistled the tune. Griffith eventually recorded his own version of the tune - sans whistle because whistling, like yodeling, is not for everybody.

BTW, it cannot be a coincidence that The National Whistlers Museum, Louisburg; The Annual Hollerin' Contest, Spiveys Corner (hollerin' is yodeling's rougher cousin); and Mt. Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith and fictional Mayberry tourist spot, are all located in North Carolina.

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