Old Yeller: A Brief and Incomplete History of Yodeling


By Eric Alt

Switzerland is founded, and yodeling gets off to a trilling start!

Early Alpine shepherds discover how to yodel by alternating their voices between natural singing tones and falsetto pitches. Shepherds begin using the distinctive calls to round up cattle and communicate with others across the Alps. But these aren't the first people to yodel. Apparently, the Roman Emperor Julian was already complaining about the "wild, shrieking songs" of northern mountain people way back in the 4th century C.E.

Yodeling comes to North America (but not from where you think)

While the Swiss have contributed to America's love for cheese-making and pocket knives, yodeling in the U.S. has nothing to do with the Alps. American warbling traditions trace back to African Pygmy and Bantu tribes, who are known for their pitch-hopping songs. In fact, when people in Nairobi first hear American yodeler Jimmie Rodgers centuries later, they embrace the familiar sound and pen tribute songs in his honor.

Edison records a yodeler

Singer L.W. Lipp shows off his vocal stylings for none other than Thomas Edison in the inventor's New Jersey Phonograph Company. Whether or not the sound inspires Edison to refine his electric chair is debatable.

Tarzan gets into the swing of things

To prepare for the role, actor Johnny Weissmuller reaches back to his Allegheny Mountain roots and incorporates his childhood yodeling skills into what will become Tarzan's iconic wail. The sound quickly finds a home on jungle gyms and rope swings everywhere.

A new world record!

On February 9th, 1992, Thomas Scholl and Peter Hinnen each yodel 22 tones (including 15 in falsetto) in one second.

The Zen of Yodeling

Yodeling classes at the Zurich Conservatory of Music start attracting abnormal amounts of attention when word gets out that the yoga-like breathing exercises double as a stress reliever. The courses offer hope to 9-to-5ers who would prefer to sing rather than bend and twist their way to inner peace.

Yodeling goes pop

The Jimmie Rodgers song "T for Texas" sells more than 1 million copies. Jimmie, known as "The Father of Country Music," helps yodeling evolve into blues, and eventually country. He even does his part to spread yodeling to the world of jazz in 1930, when he records "Blue Yodel #9" with a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong.

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