For most listeners, yodeling is something that causes one of two reactions. Either they make fun of it, or they scratch their heads in puzzlement. Those who laugh will probably always find yodeling silly, but as for the latter – those who just don't understand it – maybe I can help.
Thoughts of yodeling came bubbling to the surface of my mind recently – not unlike a LaBrea tar pit occurrence – when I was listening to a Riders In The Sky album. For those who might not be familiar with the group, it's comprised of several guys who have spent the last couple of decades making their mark in country music, specializing in the kind of songs that cowboys used to warble.
One of their best on this particular album is an updated take on Gene Autry's old classic, "Back In The Saddle Again." The original had a memorable appearance in the movie Sleepless In Seattle, but there's something very different about the Riders' version. About half-way through the song the lead singer begins yodeling, and he goes on and on, picking up speed along the way and turning in a jaw-dropping performance.
Autry himself was no stranger to yodeling, but I think even he would have been amazed if he'd heard this outpouring. I know I was, and it made me start thinking about yodeling as an art — and stirred some memories too. The sound of yodeling seems as familiar a part of my rural childhood as gravel roads and June bugs, but that's not surprising because it's been a component in the music of Americana for generations.
It probably owes its roots to European immigrants, especially those from mountainous areas where the echoes helped add to the effect. In countries such as Bavaria and Switzerland, traditional Alps-style yodeling is still popular.
Of course, Europe doesn't have a monopoly on peculiar, ululating vocalizations. In parts of the Middle East and Asia, it's a common practice to make certain kinds of variable trilling sounds for everything from mourning to celebration, and something similar to yodeling is even practiced by Pygmies in Africa.
So, I would hope that readers might come away from all this with a little more respect for the wide-spread, historic, and honored art of yodeling. As for me, I'm going to go back and listen to more of the Riders Of The Sky.