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Drive-By Yodel

I don’t know how it happens, but things evolve of their own accord in life, shoved along by one’s own preoccupations and interests. Example: I’m at Disneyland Paris with daughter Paloma during our autumn adventure. I enter one of the bathrooms and I’m peeing in a urinal when suddenly I hear…yodeling! A yodeling restroom! I yodel along but suddenly think better of it. It’s a post-9/11 world, after all.

"The ear hears only what the soul is ready to accept." -Henri Bergson (slightly altered)

Example two: I’m picking Paloma up from her friend Lena’s house, when suddenly we hear…yodeling—specifically, Julie Andrews yodeling “The Lonely Goatherd.” In the living room, we see Lena’s younger brother watching this Sound of Music segment over and over. “It’s his favorite part,” his mom explains. We commence to yodel while putting on our shoes and coats, and yodel all the way home, as Paloma’s friend Aster and her mom bicycle past yodeling their way home.

Perspective is what we struggle with. As a media-declared “yodel expert” I find most of life’s experiences are siphoned through the search criterion “yodel: yes or no”: a binary filter that colors all experience. The mere fact that I (a grumpy, black-humored meta-fictionist) have written a book about yodeling is manifestation enough that life takes some mystifying turns—chance becomes happenstance becomes synchronicity, and there you have it: a way of life. Serendipity plus synchronicity—that’s as close as I get to religion.

The yodel incursions occur daily, and these phenomena begin to flicker and echo, veering into aural hallucination so that a yell in a train station suddenly sounds like a Swiss maiden yodeling to her goats—and one goat is me. This is how everyday, forgettable occurrences get tagged, recognized, classified, and then written about. This method looks like madness and, this madness comes disguised as (ethnomusicological) method.

My yodel book and CD have led to countless interviews, and have meant being yodeled at and interviewed on the London BBC rooftop by a Ghanaian–Swiss musician-journalist, her precariously lilting yodel floating over the heads of London passersby. But none of this has prepared me for Paloma’s earnest vigilance of yodeling on TV. She beckons from the couch: “Daddy, there’s yodeling!” And I run—it’s a running joke!—to hear the last vocal leap of a yodel as a reindeer skates across a frozen lake during an interlude between Nickelodeon cartoons. Paloma has spotted yodeling on Spongebob Squarepants, My Life as a Teenage Robot, and a textless McDonald’s commercial, comprised entirely of pumped-up speed-yodeling.

Days after the McDonald’s spotting, some boys walking home from school, horsing around along Amsterdam’s Apollolaan, suddenly burst out yodeling in precise imitation of the commercial. Did I actually flip them a raised fist in solidarity as I biked past?

Things go quiet for a while, and I don’t feel like The Man Who Fell to Earth for a few days. Then one night at eleven I get a frantic call: “Can you give us contact info for a yodeler in the north of England?” It’s like I’m manning a crisis hotline.

Shortly afterward, I receive an email from American exile writer Bill Levy: “Do you know Edith Sitwell reciting her poem ‘Jodelling Song’? It’s from Façade. And I have a copy of her declaiming it together with William Walton conducting an unnamed orchestra (1929) on a CD. Very British.” I have now listened to the prim eccentric’s poem a hundred times; I finally realize the sound is more impressionistic nonsense than ethnographic sense and, through word use, somehow evokes the feeling of yodeling in the Alps.

I find myself in a University of Wisconsin parking lot, outside the Lakeside Inn with Arno, the first filmmaker of a yodel doc we are producing. Folklore professor and Polkabilly author Jim Leary has dragged us out here to hear something on his car’s cassette deck. As he fumbles for a tape I marvel at the strange world we live in, where the mundane and ordinary go otherworldly, eerie. As I gaze at the walls, warmed by the autumn sun, I note: “This inn used to be a dormitory. My old dorm twenty-five years ago! They booked me in my old dorm room!” And we laugh. Talk about creepy synchronicity…

We must be quite the sight, standing by the open car door, listening to a cassette of a very high-pitched yodel by a 1940s Wisconsin yodeler, John Giezendanner, who apparently gave up the ghost while yodeling on a Rice Lake stage. Wild, man, wild! Then Jim punches in a cassette of a local Hmong refugee. And she yodels. (She will later yodel for us from inside her SUV in her backyard, posed as if stuck in traffic. But that’s another surrealistic chapter.) I look around, and what do I see beyond the sea of SUVs? A nostalgic moment frozen in time, like an outtake from Dazed and Confused, listening to loud music on a car stereo, but instead of the Doors, we’re listening to yodeling!

Cultural anomalies, the spiritual segues between the expected and the impossible, are found anywhere—like Madison’s Troy Gardens, where urban dwellers till their little patches of land. Among them are the Hmong—Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to Paris, California, and Wisconsin because they had supported the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Their English is halting, their silence perceived as suspicion or arrogance by the locals.

We’re filming Bee Xiong, a young woman leaning against her hoe, face half-hidden in the shadow of her straw hat, insisting she does not sing or yodel—and then does just that for ten minutes in lilting mellifluous Vietnamese. The Hmong yodel during holidays like New Year’s, she explains. She demonstrates with her finger going up and down—WWWW—just like a yodel. These yodels serve as autobiographical courting songs, improvised bios, personal ads for the opposite sex. When she’s done, she smiles and goes back to her hoeing.

The yodel documentary took us from America’s Midwest to—of course—Switzerland. Here tradition is reassembled to create a sense of not-quite-satisfactory identity as product, so that yodelers and the like perform for tourists and themselves, becoming tourists in their own dioramas.

Muotathal is a typically picturesque Swiss valley that, until thirty years ago, was still surprisingly untouched by the modern world. We met two young guys, Bernard and Christian, who have since childhood helped lead the cows up into the higher pastures in spring and back down in fall. These are grueling but festive occasions, celebrated with various rituals including juutzing—pure, a capella, nature yodels—that express a primal communion with the breathtaking and sometimes life-taking mountainous surroundings.

Bernard and Christian yodeled for us in a smoky, schnapps-soaked bar in the middle of wherever. With elbows on tables, they ululated their best duet juutzes while the rest of the bar’s denizens accompanied them with rumbling bass yodels. We reckoned that we’d truly captured some pristine Alpine blues or Swiss soul music until several days later, when we interviewed the two in Bernard’s spotless apartment in the village of Muotathal. Here we witnessed how all culture is negotiable, and how we are all foreigners and natives everywhere. Bernard and Christian weren’t lederhosen-clad bumpkins—they had cell phones, had been to California and Africa, and were well-read. Although a childhood veteran of a family yodel group, Bernard was also inspired by sixties rock groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival. He plays guitar in a local band (no yodeling, he reassures us).

Meanwhile, I hear from Armand Leroi of the Centre for Bioinformatics, London. He and Jonathan Swire are attempting to apply Alan Lomax’s controversial Cantometrics classification system to show that song (and yodeling) migrated out of Africa with the first modern humans, leaving diasporic traces of similar song styles all over the world.

I receive a phone call from Barbara Hannigan, an opera diva who ventures to the outer edges of human vocals. She’s read my book and noticed that I too live in Amsterdam. She has commissioned a yodel mini-opera by English composer Richard Ayres, so won’t I come hear her perform the aria from Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw? (Ligeti was himself inspired by Pygmy yodeling.)

In between, I receive a message from Stephanie of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in New York: “Bart, you’re being given a shout-out on Doug Schulkind’s radio show (WFMU) right now, talkin’ bout some yodelling!”

I wander up to my seat in the first balcony of the splendid Concertgebouw. I notice it is row 1, seat 63. I sit down. Magnificent view. Then a woman sits down next to me and says, “Excuse me, do you know who’s seat you’re sitting in? You’re sitting in the seat that’s usually reserved for the queen.” So yodeling has indeed arrived, and I’m allowed to be there to witness it.


Bart Plantenga

Bart Plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic, and Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge); he also compiled the CD Rough Guide to Yodel. He is currently working on Yodel in HiFi, a documentary on yodeling, and two new yodel compilations.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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