Perfect Sound Forever


Surveyed by Bart Plantenga
(December 2018)

The strangest, most mysterious and maligned of vocals, the yodel, lies at the root of many weird stories involving healing, spooking the enemy, ventriloquism, saving lives, executions, communicating with spirits and animals, curing asthma ...

Before God needed to be invented, there were people, and before there was language, there was song, and before there was song, there was utterance — vocal chords as first musical instrument as humans attempted to communicate with themselves or others or animals. What's a yodel: While pop and classically trained singers are taught to polish away the rough yodel with glissando techniques, yodelers emphasize this abrupt noise or glottal jolt of air that occurs as the voice passes from bass or chest voice to high head voice or falsetto — and vice versa. It is characterised by extreme notes sung on vowels, often accompanied by the consonant D. But is it a greeting? Warning? Joyous outburst? Flashy pop chorus? A cowherd's hootchie-cootchie come-on to the most udder-endowed among his herd? Or an irritating "variation upon the tones of a jackass," as Sir Walter Scott in 1830 opined. Probably all of the above. Yodeling, in its underwear, is a powerful form of communication where something odd inevitably happens.

1. Johnny Weissmuller: The genuine, surreal power of yodeling is best illustrated by this story. It's Cuba 1959 and Johnny Weissmuller (1904– 1984) is driving a car full of his friends to a celebrity golf tournament in Havana when they're ambushed by Fidel Castro's rebels. Why they're playing golf during a revolution is not clear. Anyway, the anti-Batista rebels, fidgety and suspicious, aim their rifles at the golf contingent, but suddenly, fast-thinking Weissmuller stands up, beats his chest, and belts out his famous Tarzan yodel. The stunned rebels, recognizing the yell as that of their movie hero, hastily apologize and their grimaces crack open into smiles, yelling, "Tarzan! Tarzan! Bienvenido! Welcome to Cuba!" They shake his hand and he signs some autographs on the sleeves of their uniforms, after which they personally escort Weissmuller and friends to the golf tournament. Weissmuller remained convinced to his dying day that this yodel had saved his life. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 132]

2. Leon Thomas tells a very weird story of how he literally fell upon yodeling. Picture a robust, renowned jazz vocalist in his home, posed in a yoga headstand, when suddenly he remembered this guy he'd lent money to some time ago. From his headstand, he rose to a handstand, walked on his hands to the phone to dial this deadbeat's number. Thomas entered the bedroom doorway upside down, when suddenly he "transcended. I was one place and my body was another. I dropped to the floor right on my face and my teeth went into my bottom lip... So I couldn't do my show with Pharoah [Sanders that night]." But he ended up on stage anyway, hardly able to move his mouth, let alone sing. "I got up on stage and when it came time for me to scat, this sound just came out. It shocked me. I didn't know where it was coming from. I realized it was me and I realized that the ancestors had arrived." And the voice of those ancestors was yodeling, that Sanders described as: "a wordless yodel not unlike an American indian call – the moaning of spirits known and unknown." Thomas called it "Soularfone." [Yodel-Ay, p. 251]

3. Thee Mysterious Asthmatic Avenger Claims Yodeling Cured His Asthma: Masked avengers like Batman and Zorro are a strange, lonely breed. Even stranger are one-man bands, the DIY all-in-one street minstrels. Even stranger is a Frenchman one-man band performing garage-punk psychobilly – while yodeling! The Avenger turns strange into psycho, but also claims that "yodeling is good for the health. It saves not only your soul, it cures your asthma! . . . It helps me to control my breath. ... I learned it by myself. It feels good to have free and clear lungs! It's a kind of mystical experience." [Yodel in HiFi, p. 214]

4. Jimmie Rodgers, the most famous of yodelers, was known for his blue yodels, which were heavily influenced by the songs and vocals of black railroad workers he heard as a young water boy in the 1920s. But influence can also boomerang back to the source, back to Africa... A strange puberty rite performed by teenage girls of the Kipsigi tribe of Kenya developed around Jimmie Rodgers. In the 1950s, the Kipsigis were introduced to the wonders of the record player and for some reason came in possession of a Jimmie Rodgers blue yodel record. Upon hearing his voice and seeing his picture on the record sleeve they went crazy for Rodgers, eventually transforming him into the Pan-like demigod, Jimmie Rodgers, or, in their native tongue, "Chemirocha." The Kipsigi characterized Rodgers as "a formidable player on their local chepkong lyre, and Kipsigi girls made Rodgers into a kind of centaur – half man, half antelope. In "Chemirocha," a naughty-humorous song honoring Rodgers, the girls urge him to perform a vigorous leaping dance during which he suggestively jumps out of his clothes. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 38]

5. Manuela Horn is a daring, six-foot-two "Austrian Amazon," based in Seattle with a risqué approach to yodeling as her wow-some appearance on America's Got Talent in 2009 proved. Profiling herself as a stay-at-home mom inspired by her kids to fulfill her dream and "show them what Mommy can do besides wash the clothes," she walked on stage in high style, in a black latex dominatrix outfit and with every yodel, there was a swish of the whip – obey or be punished. She earned three bug-eyed "JAs" from judges Piers, Sharon, and Hasselhoff. Horn, a professional singer-comedienne believes the enthusiastic AGT reactions were due to the fact that "Yodeling expresses a feeling in its very own way. It's so powerful like a magic key to the hearts of the people, even when they do not like yodeling. It makes you feel happy and giggly!" Required viewing: her yodeling AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." Also, check out Aussie Drag Queen Yodeler, Laydee KinMee. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 178]

6. Harry Torrani (1902-79) was known as the "Singing Puzzle" because he often commenced yodeling performances from behind a curtain so that his high voice would keep audiences guessing about his gender. So popular was this UK yodeler that he entertained both Hitler and FDR – although not together. But more importantly, he saved the life of his friend, Mercedes Gleitze, who was attempting to become the first British woman to swim the English Channel. It was a dark and foul night, the ship's fog horn had broken down, when Torrani came to the rescue, guiding Gleitze through the thick fog and dark waters with his Klaus-Nomi-of-his-day bravura yodeling. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 195]

7. JC Bishop, "The Yodeling Cowboy Evangelist" used a flamboyant yodel as an evangelical tool to pry his way into the wallets of wayward souls, dutifully preaching-selling dubious elixirs and expensive cure-alls. He boasted that he could cure people with his on-air prayers and yodeling. Bishop was so nicknamed because he often let out a yip and featured yodeling songs by professional country gospel groups like the Chuckwagon Gang and his daughter Lola, who yodeled "Oklahoma Blues" between his hard-sell preachments on 1920-30's Dallas Border radio. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 107]

8. Olivio Santoro, a 14-year-old, Long Island, teen-age, Italian-American, yodeling cowboy, and purported author of the booklet How to Yodel, hosted a very popular NBC pre-war radio show where he'd introduce guests and yodel and sing the virtues of the show's sponsor, Vogt Scrapple, a brand of canned ground meat parts. But when WWII broke out and, as caution turned into paranoia, "The Boy Yodeler" was kicked off the air because American national security officals became concerned that he might be tempted to send secret information to the Nazis via his yodeling. [Yodel in HiFi p. xiv]

9. Princess Ramona of the Cherokee Riders, who claims to be a real Indian princess, daughter of a real Indian chief, recalls how yodel revelation came to her during a fishing trip when she heard a moose in the wild calling her mate. "I was suddenly compelled, just as [a] female moose called out to her mate, to sing out in thanks of the Creator for the beauty of His handiwork. It was then that I put my hand to my mouth and gave a high call; then brought my voice down into a low pitch; then up again. Suddenly the mountains were calling back to me, again and again." Ramona continues to yodel her gospel songs – "Then I Start to Yodel," "God Put a Yodel in My Heart," and "I'm Gonna Yodel My Way to Heaven" – in full Indian costume wherever her country-gospel-Hawaiian-Indian yodels may take her. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 112]

Side note: Tim Buckley joined Ramona's Cherokees in the early 60s. Ramona, however, quickly realized that this young banjo-pickin' teen with his Coltrane leanings and 4-octave flights of vocal instability were too weird for her. She suggested he strike out on his own, which, of course, precipitated some of the most eccentric yodeling-wailing ever recorded. "I got to dress in a yellow hummingbird shirt, and a turquoise hat and play lead guitar. I was about fifteen." Buckley eventually signed to Elektra. But by 1970, Zappa's Mothers had introduced Buckley to Cathy Berberian's extended vocals, and his performances inspired the Rolling Stone headline: "Buckley Yodeling Baffles Audience." His later recordings like Starsailor and Lorca are haunted by alien vocal soundings, careening expressively from chest voice, rising rapidly octaves and then plunging down just as rapidly. Their failure sent him into a deep depression. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 133]

10. Sinn Sisamouth, Cambodian pop legend, pulled out all the stops, on "Thep Thida Tan Kandal," pitching his effects and reverb-altered baritone into soprano to produce a Khmer yodel of wow bravura. The song is probably the first and most famous Cambodian yodel. Sisamouth introduced Western pop, psychedelia, rock, and Latin styles to Cambodia, interpreted Elvis, "Hey Jude," "House of the Rising Sun," and "Black Magic Woman," mashing it with traditional Khmer vocals so that it all sounds like ethereal other world music with lunges into trilling, warbling near-yodel pitch alterations. His quavering baritone in the 1950's led him to great fame in Cambodia: Top 40 hits, record releases, gigs for royalty, film soundtracks, even dubbing in vocals for movie star (and future Cambodian prime minister!) Prince Sihanouk. Alas, it was these glorious associations with the entertainment and political elite that no doubt led to his demise. He was imprisoned by the Pol Pot regime – despite regularly performing revolutionary, anti-Sihanouk songs. Legend has it that as he was about to be executed, he asked to sing one last song. His Pol Pot captors sneered and consented. As he finished singing his final song they cold-heartedly executed him with machete blows [or a bullet] to the head. His death in Cambodia was compared to the equivalent of Elvis being executed in America. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 247]

11. Yodeling Presidential Candidate a Threat to JFK: One of the strangest episodes involving a yodeler occurred in February 1960. Elton Britt, America's Top 40 bravura yodelers ["Chime Bells"], made a brief run for the presidency in the Democratic preference poll in New Hampshire's Presidential primary promising to "stump the state with a ten-piece hillbilly band" on a flatbed truck. During a campaign stop in Nashua, JFK was pressing the flesh, when, the Nashua Telegraph reported, "One woman... asked him if he thought his inability to yodel would put him at disadvantage with Democratic candidate, hillbilly yodeler Elton Britt. Kennedy just grinned. ‘I've heard about him,' he said, ducking the question." Britt eventually "filed a petition with 100 signatures of New Hampshire residents," but Kennedy's handlers discovered "‘phony names' including those of a dead man" on Britt's petition, forcing him out of the New Hampshire primary to dash his presidential aspirations. Did the JFK team turn to strong-arming to avoid facing a formidable opponent star yodeler in the primaries? [The New York Times, January 14, 1960, p. 19 and January 15, p. 46; Nashua Telegraph, February 9, 1960, p. 14; Yodel in HiFi, p. 192]

12. Yodel Kills Presidential Hopeful's Chances: In late-January 2004, Howard Dean, was still a leading Democratic Presidential hopeful – but then he lost the Iowa primaries. During his concession speech, in a raspy voice, he vowed to continue his struggle to win the Party nomination and "take back the White House." But suddenly he went a little loony off the page... unpresidential, bellowing, what the Boston Globe described as, a "part growl, part yodel." It became instant fodder for late-night TV comedians and talk show hosts. Jay Leno joked: "Did you see Howard Dean's speech last night? Oh, my God! Now I hear the cows in Iowa are afraid of getting mad-Dean disease." Meanwhile, remixes blossomed on the Internet. One hybrid mixed Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Membrane" with Dean's feral yodel, which eventually turned out to be his swan song. Shortly after his half-yodel fiasco, he conceded defeat and dropped out of the Presidential race. One can only wonder: what if he'd bellowed a "full yodel"? Would it have instantly committed him to an insane asylum – OR would it have made him a formidable contender? [Yodel in HiFi, p. 269]

13. During the Spanish Civil War, Basque women in the coastal town of Bermeo and elsewhere spooked Mussolini's Fascist troops by banging on pots and pans and screaming their high-pitched irrintzinas, effectively sending the troops into retreat. The same rapid ululation served as an aggressive battle cry for warriors defending Roncevaux when the Basques routed Charlemagne's army in the 8th century AD. The cry has come to symbolize the invincible spirit of the Basques. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 221]

14. Hank Williams recorded his hit "Lovesick Blues" in 1949. Now the Grand Ole Opry could no longer ignore him. On June 11, he yodeled his word-break vocals, prompting "capacity crowds at the Hayride [to] nearly tear the house down for encores of ‘Lovesick Blues,'" ultimately demanding nine encores of "Lovesick." Country star Merle Kilgore remembers when Williams "hit that yodel, they came out of those chairs, they threw babies in the air." Ex-bandmate Clent Holmes recalls how Williams aroused such emotions that fans fainted at his feet whenever he sang and gyrated suggestively, or "wobbled his knees during the yodel." They tore at his hair and clothes "and them girls would come from the back of that auditorium, run up there at the stage, fall down on the floor and pass out and scream." [Yodel in HiFi, p. 139]

15. Yodeling Robot: Does a robot need to yodel? Probably not. But Sabor IV no doubt yodeled because Auguste Huber who created this 500-pound robot in 1938, in his native Appenzell, home to serious Swiss yodeling, decided it would be handy if Sabor could yodel. Sabor's inner workings were comprised of switches, relays, and 20 "little electrical appliances." Questions put to the robot were picked up by a microphone (Sabor's ears) and relayed via the transmitter (brain) and lateral antennae to the control centre. The first wave directs Sabor's words and actions simultaneously, synchronizing the words coming out of the loudspeaker with Sabor's lip movements. Yes, "It can walk, talk, sing, or yodel at the will of its master." Sabor was exhibited in London's Albert Hall in 1938. Meanwhile, there is poet-author-editor-agitator-Fugs-member Ed Sanders' wonderfully satirical "Yodeling Robot" about "a yodeling robot in love with Dolly Parton," using heavy studio echo effects to enhance Sanders's pining yodel. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 119]

16 Two!! Ventriloquist Yodels: In The Great Gabbo (1929), pioneering actor-director Erich Von Stroheim plays a ruthless stage star who gradually loses his way and discovers the only way he can communicate with others is as a yodeling ventriloquist through his dummy Otto. He is slowly driven insane by sharp-tongued Otto and loses Mary, his one and only beloved. In an on-stage sequence, Stroheim himself actually yodels with a shawl stuffed into his mouth, making this one of the most unusual yodels ever. UNTIL in 2017 when yodeling ventriloquist Miss Louisiana, Laryssa Bonacquisti, took the Miss America Pageant stage with her puppet sidekicks to perform a ventriloquist yodel that wowed the audience!! [Yodel in HiFi, p. 121]

17 Ronnie Ronalde, "The Yodelling Whistler," was a veritable one-man orchestra of ornitho-epiglo5al sounds that make him not only "The Pavaro| of Whistling," but also one of the UK's best yodelers ever. Ronalde's clarion yodel is nuanced, entertaining, and simply refuses to behave like ordinary yodels. His whistle-yodeling made Marilyn Monroe shiver, made Roy Rogers's horse Trigger pee uncontrollably, which encouraged hundreds of fans to demand autographed photos of Ronalde for their pets. [Yodel in HiFi, p. 199]

REFERENCES- books by Bart Plantenga:
Rough Guide to Yodel
Yodel in HiFi
Insane Logic of the Yodel

Bart Plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic, the short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & the novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man and the wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world's foremost yodel experts. He recently finished the Amsterdam-Brooklyn novel Radio Activity Kills. He is also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess, in NYC, Paris & now Amsterdam since 1986. He lives in Amsterdam.

Also see our other Yodel articles:
Extending Yodeling's Footprint
Yodeling in Heaven's Garage

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER