We learn our first sounds as our mouth parts and brains learn to coordinate effort in order to produce them. Later, we learn to mimic sounds we hear and they become our language. When we are presented with musical sounds, we are gifted to varying degrees in our ability to sing, hum, or even whistle a tune. As our brains develop, we may even have the talent to sing second or third part harmony. But it all begins with mimicking, imitating what we’ve heard.
As a five or six-year old I was exposed to all kinds of music. The radio and Victrola were sources of classical, popular, foreign, and American country music. I learned to listen with more than my ear and was able to replicate sounds and notes with my vocal chords or on the piano when our family visited someone who owned one.
I was strongly influenced by country and western music in those single-digit aged years and was impressed greatly by the phenomenon I learned was called yodeling. My first “teacher” was Wilf Carter, a Canadian singer known as Montana Slim. I eagerly listened to his radio program which came on as I had to leave for school just to hear him yodel. As my big sister’s record collection grew, I discovered a few of his platters with some of the most beautiful echo yodels ever sung. And I mimicked what I heard. I found it easy to “break” into a falsetto even with my naturally high-pitched little boy’s voice. Other kids marvelled at these sounds but couldn’t imitate me. Not even close. This, of course, was good for my ego and their approval reinforced my practicing to do more with my talent.
Radio and records brought me in contact with Elton Britt, whose yodel style was different from Montana Slims. His falsetto was higher and his forte seemed to be the ability to hold a high note almost endlessly. Later came Kenny Roberts and Yodeling Slim Clarke. A revival of some of the pioneer country music performers introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers, the Blue Yodeler.
During these formative years a few female yodelers came on the scene. The first was Patsy Montana. Then came Carolina Cotton and Rosalie Allen. In time, duet yodels featuring Britt and Allen on RCA Victor records came out.
In my teen years, Slim Whitman’s use of falsetto made him a star and gave me more breadth in my yodel repertoire. His version of “Indian Love Call” became my signature in the 1950s.
One of the big thrills of my life came when the Kountry Kings were playing for a very sparse audience at Mike Sandusky’s in Finderne, NJ and a short, well-dressed matron came in with a spiffy male escort. We watched this out-of-place couple thinking they were asking directions of the bartender when he brought her to the bandstand and introduced her as Rosalie Allen. I was immediately in awe. We naturally invited this icon to join us and she graciously accepted. I don’t remember what she sang. I do remember her asking me to duet with her. You can’t imagine what I felt. If Jesus asked me to heal lepers with him, I might be as thrilled. We sang and yodeled. She in the lead. I yodeling the harmony. It was so sweet. It even topped Kitty Wells’ watching from the balcony at Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook Ballroom in Cedar Grove, NJ when I took over the still open mike after a Grand Ole Opry show and sang “Indian Love Call”.
I had a decent career and lots of fun singing and yodeling. After retiring from music in 1978, I didn’t get much chance to yodel. As a teacher, I could always have fun with my students when I’d bring my guitar to school and entertain a little just to break up a less than exciting lesson or to wake us all up a bit. In more recent years, I’ve tried to amuse my Salvadoran students with my music, but they don’t understand enough English to know if I’m singing a love ballad or “Out Behind the Barn”. But a yodel always seems to get their attention and put smiles on their faces. The favorite is “She Taught Me to Yodel”. It gives them a chance to try to make the strange sounds that are not part of their musical heritage. We laugh a lot as one or two less timid kids will jump in at the appropriate moment and attempt to crack their voices. They sound more like roosters crowing or hens having their throats slit than yodelers. I’d be so happy to have just one person who could do it.
“She Taught Me to Yodel” 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foVAajweI0s