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Put a Yodel in Your Soul

Yodel in Hi-Fi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica
(University of Wisconsin Press)

When I was a child and first heard yodeling, all I knew was that it did something to me, and that what it did to me was strange, mysterious, and maybe even (if I were wont to use such terms back then) spiritual and profound. In those days when I first became aware of a world beyond the one in which I lived—a world with hundreds, maybe even thousands of other languages than the two I heard at home, as well as countless styles, beliefs, and traditions—the yodel, as much as any other sound, would have been the perfect music to have playing on the soundtrack to accompany my explorations.

Still, it wasn’t until I heard the yodeling during the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass that I became aware of the power yodeling had to take me places—places far, far away from wherever I was at the moment. But even when I knew it only as a kind of Alpine cattle call (before the voice of Jimmie Rodgers made me aware of the range of emotion the yodel could evoke), yodeling was a sound, a music, a phenomenon that seemed like it could take me anywhere. Hell, for all I knew, it even had the power of transcendence.

Likewise, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that reading Bart Plantenga’s new book, Yodel in Hi-Fi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica (University of Wisconsin Press), is a transcendent experience. At any rate, reading this book definitely takes you places—many places. A follow-up to his 2003 introduction to the topic, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge), this new volume continues Plantenga’s extensive research and study into the subject of the widespread (though not always properly appreciated) vocal technique known as yodeling. The volume provides you, not surprisingly, with more than you thought you ever wanted to know about yodeling. What may surprise you, however, is how enjoyable a ride this is—a ride that will inevitably lead you toward explorations of your own. And the amazing thing about the book is that for something so thorough and comprehensive, it’s also tremendously fascinating and fun.

With Yodel in Hi-Fi, Plantenga presents the yodel in all its glory, demonstrating how it’s a global phenomenon. Among the yodelers one meets in the course of the book are “a thirtysomething troubadour-yodeler” from Canada who calls himself Petunia; an extraordinary black yodeler from Washington, D.C., with the very ordinary name of Mike Johnson; the yodeling TV star in Taiwan, Ho Lan; Bollywood’s “oddball yodeler” Kishore Kumar; the Italian cabaret singer with multi-colored hair, Roberta Carrieri; Filipino cowboy yodeler Fred Panopio; classical Persian vocalist Parisa; and Canadian resident of Amsterdam and rising opera star Barbara Hannigan. All of these singers, if not out-and-out yodelers, make regular use of yodeling in their music.

Also of interest here are folks who straddle the fence, as it were, between poetry and song. Folks like Phil Minton, who sometimes takes literary texts and turns them into song, and sometimes performs what might be described as sound poetry, for which one of the techniques he employs is the yodel; and wordsmith-vocalist Paul Dutton, who first made use of yodeling in his work in the 1990s, and found that it gave him a “sense of liberation within a context of surrender, a freedom of vocal movement achieved through giving up control.” There’s even an appearance by Marlon Brando’s B.F.F and sometime Hollywood Square, Wally Cox, whose 1953 recording of “There’s a Tavern in the Town” made use of yodeling to comically convey a state of inebriation.

The characters one meets in Yodel in Hi-Fi are certainly colorful, eccentric, and entertaining. But what really keeps the book moving is Plantenga’s writing. Although he has the utmost respect for his subject, Plantenga’s attitude here is about as far as you can get from solemn, humorless, academic discussion without being annoyingly self-conscious or needlessly flip. Time and again, his writing hits just the right note, as in this declaration in the chapter titled “An Introduction to the Insane Logic of Yodeling”: “Yodeling is not just about damp-lederhosen-wearing, hip-flaskful-of-Jägermeister-carrying, robust-bosomed-pig-tailed-Bavarian-mädchens, or huge-steins-of-beer-craving, cow loving herders yodeling about edelweiss and relationships they may or may not have had with their cows, sheep, or goats.”

It is, indeed, about much more than that. And what Plantenga’s writing in Yodel in Hi-Fi best conveys is the utter joy he feels in discussing the subject of yodeling. It’s a joy any reader of his new book will likely feel as well.


Jose Padua

JOSE PADUA's poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in many publications.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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