Yodeling (also yodelling or jodeling) is a form of singing which involves repeated and rapid changes of pitch between the low-pitch chest register (or “chest voice”) and the high-pitch head register or falsetto. The English word yodel is derived from the German (and originally Austro-Bavarian) word jodeln, meaning “to utter the syllable jo” (pronounced “yo” in English). This vocal technique is used in many cultures worldwide.
Alpine yodeling was a longtime rural tradition in Europe, and became popular in the 1830s as an entertainment in theaters and music halls. In Central Africa, yodeling was a form of communication announcing the yodeler’s location and identity. In the United States, traveling minstrels were yodeling in the 1800s, and in 1920 the Victor recording company listed 17 yodels in their catalogue. Music historians credit the first country recording to include yodeling to Riley Puckett in 1924. In 1928, blending Alpine yodeling with traditional work, blues, hobo, and cowboy music, Jimmie Rodgers released his recording “Blue Yodel No. 1”. Rodger’s Blue Yodel created an instant national craze for yodeling in the United States and, according to a black musician who lived near Rodgers in Mississippi, everyone, both black and white alike, began to copy Rodgers. The popularity lasted through the 1940s, but by the 1950s it became rare to hear yodeling in Country or Western music.
SAUERKRAUT by RILEY PUCKETT
Known as the “Texas Drifter,” Goebel Reeves claimed to have taught Jimmie Rodgers to yodel. Reeves came from a middle-class background, but chose the life of a hobo. His most famous song, “Hobo’s Lullaby,” has been covered by numerous singers, notably Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo.
In 1934 yodeler Elton Britt recorded what was to become his signature song, “Chime Bells”. Like so many others of that era, Britt listened to records of Jimmie Rodgers, which inspired him to learn how to yodel. Eventually he became renowned for his ability to sustain his yodel for an unusually long time, a skill he reportedly learned while swimming underwater for several minutes at a time. Swiss-American Country singer Jewel yodels and is known for her version of “Chime Bells” as well. Jewel says that she learned to yodel from her father who also learned to yodel by listening to Jimmie Rodgers.
Blue yodeler Cliff Carlisle was one of the most prolific recording artists of the 1930s, and a pioneer in the use of the Hawaiian steel guitar in country music. He frequently released songs with sexual connotations including barnyard metaphors (which became something of a trademark).
SHANGHAI ROOSTER YODEL by CLIFF CARLISLE
Jack Guthrie, the cousin of Woody Guthrie, performed in the thirties and early forties. Known as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy”, he developed a style of singing and yodeling influenced by his idol, Jimmie Rodgers, and his experiences as a bucking-horse rider and rodeo performer.
Hank Snow was one of the great country legends of the 1950s, but he had actually been singing in Canada for years where he was known as “The Yodeling Ranger”. He admired Jimmie Rodgers as well, and learned to yodel by listening to his records. He even named his son Jimmie Rodgers Snow.
Tommy Duncan, vocalist for “Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys”, was a good yodeler. (See the sound file above with Duncan singing Rodger’s “Blue Yodel No. 1” in 1937) Bob Wills is considered by music authorities to be the co-founder of Western Swing.
The DeZurik Sisters were two of the first women to become stars on both the National Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry, largely a result of their original yodeling style. Carolina Cotton and Patsy Montana were early cowgirl yodeling singers as well. Patsy Montana’s signature song, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” was again popularized in 1946 by Rosalie Allen, a “singing cowgirl” from Pennsylvania, who went on to host her own “western” radio show in New York City. Margo Smith covered it in the 1970s, and singer/yodeler LeAnn Rimes again brought the song back in the 1990s. In 1996 Rimes also recorded “The Cattle Call”, a “singing cowboy” song written by cowboy yodeler Tex Owens, with legendary singer Eddy Arnold. “The Cattle Call” was Arnold’s signature song, but it has been recorded by many artists including Emmylou Harris and even Elvis Presley.
ARIZONA YODELER by DEZURIK SISTERS
Singing cowboy Roy Rogers yodeled, as did his box office competitor Gene Autry. (See the sound file above in which Autry sings the Jimmie Rodgers song “Blue Yodel No. 5”) Zeke Clements, known as “The Dixie Yodeler” acted in “singing cowboy” Westerns and also provided the voice of Bashful, the yodeling dwarf, in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937 film).
Yodeler Hannès Schroll was the voice for the Goofy holler, a stock sound effect that is used frequently in Walt Disney cartoons and films. It is the cry Goofy makes when falling or being launched into the air, which could be transcribed as “yaaaaaaa-hoo-hoo-hooey!”
“Yodelin’ Slim Clark”, hailed from Maine and performed for 70 years. (See the sound file above “The Old Chisholm Trail” recorded by Clark in 1956.) Yodeler Don Walser was from Texas. Though widely known in Texas, his singing career didn’t really take off until he was 60 years old in 1994. In 2000 he received a lifetime “Heritage” award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he and his band played at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Jimmie Davis, who served two terms as the Governor of Louisiana, was also a successful country singer who yodeled.
Perhaps yodeler Bill Haley of Bill Haley and the Comets has one of the strangest histories of all. Bill Haley zoomed to fame as the “King of Rock and Roll” when his song “Rock Around the Clock” was featured in the popular film Blackboard Jungle. But it is little-known that Haley and his band had been around for years doing Western swing music with Haley featured as a yodeler. Haley was born in 1925 and “Rock Around the Clock” made the scene in 1955 and at that time he and his band were using the name the Comets. However, prior to that time they had gone under the names the Down Homers, the Texas Range Riders, the Four Aces of Western Swing and finally, The Saddlemen. At one point in the 1940s, Bill Haley was even awarded Indiana State Yodeling Champion for his skill, perhaps something that his skillful manager Colonel Tom Parker felt not important to mention to his screaming teenage rock ‘n’ roll fans.
OUT WHERE THE WESTWIND BLOWS + WHO ‘ GONNA KISS YOU WHEN I’M GONE by THE DOWN HOMERS with KENNY ROBERTS
Yodler Kenny Roberts was another member of the Down Homers; he taught Bill Haley to yodel before he did a stint in the Navy when Haley took his place in the band. In later years Roberts was popular on children’s TV shows where he used to leap over two feet in the air while playing guitar and yodeling.
Jazz singer Leon Thomas, best known for his work with Pharoah Sanders, particularly the 1969 song “The Creator Has a Master Plan” from Sanders’ Karma album, was known to break out into yodeling in the middle of a vocal. Thomas said he learned to yodel from listening to African Pygmy singers. This style has influenced singers James Moody, Tim Buckley and Bobby McFerrin, among others.
Slim Whitman performed for over 60 years. Whitman avoided the “down on yer luck” songs, preferring instead to sing laid-back romantic melodies about simple life and love. Critics dubbed his musical style “countrypolitan,” due to its fusion of country music and a more sophisticated crooner vocal style. Pop singer Michael Jackson cited Whitman as one of his ten favorite vocalists. Beatles George Harrison and Paul McCartney cite Whitman as an early influence. In the film Mars Attacks!, a Kansas teenager discovers that the Martians are vulnerable to Whitman’s song “Indian Love Call”, whereupon he and his grandmother use it to destroy the Martians.
Canadian Wilf Carter (Montana Slim) was known as the “Father of Canadian Country Music”. He began singing in the 1920s after seeing a traveling Swiss performer named “The Yodeling Fool” in a nearby town. Carter sang in the “singing cowboy” style and developed a yodel with a Swiss-sound sometimes called an “echo yodel” or a “three-in-one.”
MY YODELING DAYS ARE THROUGH by MONTANA SLIM
Canadian country singer and yodeler Donn Reynolds set a world record yodelling non-stop for 7 hours and 29 minutes in 1976. Reynolds later established a world record for the fastest 5 tone yodel (3 falsetto) in 1.9 seconds in 1984. His release of the yodelling song “She Taught Me How To Yodel” reached #2 on the Canadian country music charts in 1965.
Stompin’ Tom Connors of Canada is also noted for yodeling in some of his songs. Yeah, Stompin’ Fuck’n Tom.