Perfect Sound Forever


Left to right: Yodeling hall of fame, Kenny Roberts, Robin & the Batmen, Slim Gaillard, Levon Helm

by bart plantenga
(April 2016)

Will there be yodeling in Heaven? The answer, of course, is yes.
Because if there's no yodeling in heaven, then what's a heaven for?
- Bob Dylan

The yodel has been at the crossroads of many genres: gospel, blues, rock, pop, metal, hiphop, country, bluegrass, opera, punk, Europop, soul, world music, experimental, electronica, jazz, classical, opera, soul, R&B, Afro-pop, funk, folk, new classical, trip-hop, dub, dancehall reggae, garage rock, heavy metal, new wave, techno, punk, disco, doo wop, novelty, rockabilly, mixology, house, ambient. This versatility ensures its continued vitality.

The yodel, featuring rapid movement between head & chest voice, is a unique vocalization both sacred & profane, both roots & outsider; It's as old as mankind & as contemporary as hiphop & techno. It is both unique & universal, deep & shallow, intimate & global.

Where do you find yodeling? In all of the obvious places, but, actually, everywhere except Antarctica: India (Bollywood's Kishore Kumar), Colombia (Alfredo Gutierrez's vallenato yodeling), France (19th-century Folies Bergère cabaret yodeling, Jacques Dutronc), UK (Frank Ifield, Nillson, Eno), Philippines (pop singer Fred Panopio), Canada (Montana Slim) Taiwan (female tea-picking operas & Ho Lan, TV star), Spain (extended vocalist Fatima Miranda who uses irrintzinas & yodeling). But also South Korea, New Guinea, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, West Africa, Italy, Eastern Europe, South Africa, Ireland, Georgia, Iran.

Despite those who insist it's a dying art, it is interesting that yodeling is surviving – even thriving – & that its uniqueness is precisely why many contemporary avant-garde vocalists, from the Dadaists to contemporary vocalists like Jaap Blonk, Meredith Monk, Paul Dutton, Anna Nacher, Erika Stucky, Shelley Hirsch, Christine Lauterburg, Phil Minton, Kutzkelina & many more return to the primitive to astonish & transcend content & ordinary musical thresholds to reinvent a speculative future.

A selected video timeline of yodeling in [mostly] North American pop, blues, rock – from roots to iconic, from obscure & wacked to anomalous & sublime: 1900–1970 part 1.

George "The Booming Yodeler" Watson "Sleep Baby Sleep" [1897 / 1908]
This was the first big yodel hit & everyone at that time covered it including John Churchill & the Golden Leaf Quartette & was Jimmy Rodgers 1st single. Later covered by the likes of Doc Watson & McDonald Craig, the only black yodeler to ever win the Jimmy Rodgers Memorial Fest yodel contest.

Eva Taylor and Sara Martin "Yodeling Blues" [1922]
Bessie Smith worked with pianist-composer Clarence Williams, who wrote "Gulf Coast Blues" & co-wrote "Yodeling Blues." A New Orleans native of Choctaw Indian–Creole stock, Williams wrote 300 songs, many for his wife, blues singer – & better yodeler than Bessie – Eva Taylor.

Emmett Miller "Lovesick Blues" [1925/1928]
A forgotten & resurrected politically incorrect blackface, hillbilly, jazz singer-yodeler. Nick Tosches in his hagiography Where Dead Voices Gather somewhat convinces us that this enigma was an inspiration for Jimmy Rodgers & that his "Lovesick Blues" was copped by Hank Williams 20 years later. Blackface was once so common & accepted that there were even Black blackface performers & yodelers.

Josephine Baker "I Want to Yodel" [1926]
More howling and blues moaning but an "A" for trying & recognizing that it could be an essential part of your provocative, bombastic and sarcastic stage act. Composed by Spencer Williams in Paris, it would become a big hit in her La Revue Nègre.

Jimmie Rodgers "T For Texas" [1927]
With his fragile constitution, this lackluster singer-guitarist-yodeler, died in his prime, revealing how he transformed his debits into something heroic, transcendental, otherworldly. It's at the yodel where we immediately confront the conundrum: he became famous precisely because of his yodel & created the contemporary North American yodel template: black blues + white hillbilly + yodel. Yodeled on most of his 100+ songs in a 6-year, TB-truncated career.

Gladys Bentley "Worried Blues" [1928]
Blew some mean scat trumpet that edged into barrelhouse yodel flourishes. Bentley, a Trinidadian drag king, performed raunchy, racy blues & parodies in formal men's suits, usually with Eddie Lang on guitar and a chorus of drag queens.

Tommy Johnson "Cool Drink of Water Blues" [1928]
Some of the most searing, spine-tingling, deep-cut blues falsetto yodeling EVER by this obscure but influential sterno-drinking Mississippi bluesman. Did the syphoning of alcohol from shoe polish through a slice of white bread shape his falsetto yodels?

Cliff Carlisle "Mouse's Ear Blues" [1933]
More intriguing & sinister as this song about deflowering a girl attest. Dark, grimy, soulful, world-weary yodel blues. Began on the low end as a Kentucky circus-vaudeville act, was a regular on Midwestern radio & even recorded with Rodgers. Just as deep Rodgers, which makes his obscurity an enduring mystery.

The Dandridge Sisters with the Cats And The Fiddle "The Harlem Yodel" [1938]
This short features some of the most insane cultural mashings as the performers yodel & jam on an indoor department store ski slope. The ever-alluring & talents Dorothy Dandridge can also be heard voice-breaking on Bennie Carter's black cowboy song "Cow Cow Boogie."

Five Soul Stirrers "Walk Around" [1939]
The Five Soul Stirrers, before Same Cooke, were fronted by Rebert Harris who heard yodeling in his Texas youth. "Walk Around" features his gospel yodeling with soulful bent notes, quavering voice breaks & stretched falsetto. Harris taught Sam Cooke an epiglottal thing or two.

C.B. Cook "Whoa Buck" [1947]
As recorded by Alan Lomax in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, this particularly moanful vocal performance serves for me as a key link between African yodels, North American field hollers & blue yodels as it keens from practical animal management to reflections of the slave/prisoner soul. Think of the holler as the ugly cousin of the yodel- but not in this case.

Hank Williams "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" [1950]
Williams is the Mozart of country & his unique mid-word voice break created an inimitable yodel style that could be called hillbilly soul. His "Lovesick Blues" tore the house down & fans would faint when he yodeled – with audiences sometimes demanding 14 encores. Also "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Also, see Hank-Fan George Jones yodeling "Lonesome Whistle."

Kenny Roberts "Crybaby Blues" [1950]
Roberts, who died in 2012, was a yodeling source obscured by the amnesia of time. He became famous for combining leaping, yodeling & strumming guitar simultaneously & his galloping yodel, a frenetically high-BPM vocalization. This upbeat veteran who remained loyal to the yodel, stood at the crossroads of hillbilly & rock & even taught Bill Haley how to yodel.

Patsy Montana with Waylon Jennings "Yodeling Ghost" [1950]
Montana (Rubye Blevins) is the most famous genuine-fake cowgal of all-time, & the first female country singer to have a million-seller with 1935's "I Wanna Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart." She has inspired thousands of would-be girl yodelers over the years with her flashy cowboy gear, her vivacious yodeling & her proto-­-feminist pioneering spirit.

Slim Gaillard "The Hip Cowboy" [1951]
Detroit jazz singer & inventor of hipster vocalese called "vout" that influenced the Beats. Gaillard here fuses the hip, cowboy, country swing & jazz traditions, perhaps unaware that 25% of all cowboys in the Old West were black. Many black musicians were fascinated by yodeling, revealing a big blind spot in American Musicology along the way.

Bing Crosby & The Andrew Sisters "Yodeling Ghost" [1951]
These two acts recorded some 50 singles together. Crosby is a very chill yodeler indeed. They also recorded "Yodelin' Jive," "Yodel in Swing" & Bing Crosby as a traveling salesman also yodels in Billy Wilder's Alpine satire, The Emperor Waltz.

The Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke "End Of My Journey" [1953]
Replaced Rebert Harris at age 19 & nicked his praised, high tenor, yodel style that "conquered churches" & pop and gospel charts with his accentuated falsetto trill-­-yodels, higher in pitch than standard blues & sha@ered straighter gospel high soaring glissando vocals.

Howlin' Wolf "My Life" [1954]
Chester Burnett's spleen-&-soul-scraping yodel sounded like a tin throat full of moulinexed meat & phlegm with his primal howling yodel adding knife-twisting pain. Wolf claimed he got both nickname from Jimmy Rodgers and developed his yodel from listening to Rodgers on the radio as well as by Tommy Johnson & the Mississippi Sheiks.

Big Chief Redbird & His Cherokees Braves "Big Chief Yodel" [1955]
This is just one of many lo-fi, obscure, raw, odd rockabilly yodels. Info is scant although some say Big Chief was a Native American performer. He & others like Claude Brownell, Ray Kannon, the Champs, & Al Sherron prove that rockabilly & yodeling are a matched set.

Bo Diddley "The Great Grandfather" [1959]
The late Great Bo created not only one of the most influential guitar sounds, he was also a bit of a yodeler with a booming, raw, moaning holler with decided emotional voice breaks that waver between howl and falsetto. Also heard on "Say Bossman."

The Tokens "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" [1961]
There's many [yodeled] versions including the original title "Mbube," which became the popular "Wimoweh" as yodeled by the likes of Miriam Makeba & Karl Denver. This was a #1 hit that, despite slick production, holds up well, especially the studio-treated soaring vocals. The Tokens likely influenced the Vogues' "Five O'Clock World" post-doo-wop pop yodeling as well.

The Beatles "I Remember You" [1962]
Opening up for big star yodeler Frank Ifield was always a nerve-wracking affair because, as Paul pointed out, "it went amazingly well ... but if the group on before us did 'I Remember You' that was our big number up the spout." So they'd change their set list and people wouldn't hear his earnest imitation of Ifield's soaring falsetto style.

Bob Dylan "All I Really Wanna Do" [1964]
Dylan's always been tentative & shy about his yodeling & does it with some awkward panache when he does go there. His stretched DOOOOooooOO is a delicious send-up. He also yodels on bootleg LPS of early 1960s home tapes "Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues," "Montreal Blues Yodel No. 8," & others. He produced the tribute album The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers in 1997.

Wanda Jackson "Blue Yodel No. 6" [1966]
Dubbed "the female Elvis" & more appropriately "The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll," she produced many scintillating, rockin' hits. But she also did her share of yodeling. "Blue Yodel No. 6" was the first one she learned & recorded. Others include "Jesus Put A Yodel In My Soul," "Cowboy Yodel," "Then I Start To Yodel."

Robin & the Batmen "Batskinner" [1966]
It is said that members of this novelty band used to romp around central Wisconsin in Batman & Robin costumes in their own Batmobile – a modified black Cadillac. Also from Wisconsin: the pop-rockabilly band, the Fendermen had a #5 Hot 100 hit with their send-up version of Rodgers's "Muleskinner Blues."

Dolly Parton "Mule Skinner Blues" [1967]
Porter Wagoner suggested this as a one-off novelty & she took it it to #3 on the country charts. This perky version is marred by slick production but is saved by her elegant yodels. Parton claimed to be the first woman to record it, ignoring Odetta's elegant 1956 version, punctuated with plenty of held-moaning-notes that edge into holler-like yodels.

Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention "Call Any Vegetable" [1967]
From Absolutely Free, with Ray Collins who sang falsetto in 1950s doo wop groups, handling the vegetarian propaganda yodeling of "ruta bay-eee-ga ruta bay-eee-ga ruta bay-eee-ga," later yodeled by Flo & Eddie on a live version on 1972's Just Another Band from L.A.

Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash "Blue Yodel #1" [1968]
They performed some endearing outtake yodel-croaks during their Nashville Skyline period. Cash also yodels on Billy Joe Shaver's " Georgia On A Fast Train" [1982] and a real delight is the history lesson duet with Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash on " Blue Yodel No. 9".

The Fugs "Yodeling Yippie" [1969]
Ed Sanders' first name for the Fugs was The Yodeling Socialists. rejected by Tuli Kupferburg. Certainly the only political song ever to contain the word "porcomorph" and yodeling. "Mayor Daley that porcomorph / He chopped down his yodeling friends /Hodelaydie-odelaydie Hodelaydie." Also see Sander's "Yodeling Robot" where a robot falls in love with Dolly Parton.

The Band "Up on Cripple Creek" [1969]
Drummer Levon Helm's yodeling on two refrains no doubt made this the only song by the band to ever chart, reaching #25. The rousing, more convincing & soulful version can be seen in the Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz [1978]. At the end of the song he yells out "I sure wish I could yodel."

Parliament "Little Ole Country Boy" [1970]
George Clinton's doo-wop group, the Parliaments evolved into the most bizarre of sci-fi funk bands. Funky-twangy country send up with pedal steel, Jew's harp, & Fuzzy Haskin's yodeling is a manic woe-is-me-I-been-done-wrong-by-my-woman song with crazed cowboy yodeling.

bart plantenga is the author of 2 internationally acclaimed yodel books: Yodel In HiFi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret Histoy of Yodeling Around the World, the producer of the Rough Guide to Yodel CD & YODEL IN HIFI Top 50+ Youtube. He has produced Insane Logic of the Yodel video-lectures in Amsterdam, Brussels, Rotterdam & London.

His nonfiction has appeared in Guardian, Nation-KGB Reader, American Music Center Journal, American Book Review, Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music From Ska to Dub Waiting for a Train: Jimmie Rodgers's America, Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, Sonic Geography Imagined and Remembered; Department of Public Sound #4.

He also writes fiction: BEER MYSTIC, Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man & Wiggling Wishbone (Autonomedia); & creative memoirs – Paris Scratch, NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor (Barncott, London). He's currently working on the Amsterdam-Brooklyn novel Radio Activity Kills with his daughter. He has been a DJ since 1986, producing Wreck This Mess in NY (WFMU), Paris (Radio Libertaire), Amsterdam (100 & Patapoe) & currently online. His radio work has appeared on BBC, Resonance FM, WNYU, NPR, Aligre FM & on French, Canadian, Swiss, Belgian & Dutch radio.

Also see bart p's 1st yodeling article at PSF and Yodeling in Heaven's Garage2 [1970–2016]

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