When pop star Gwen Stefani took the stage at last December's Billboard Awards event to perform her new hit single, "Wind It Up," clad in a snazzy alpine-inspired outfit, it was done in tribute to that classic scene in the film The Sound of Music, in which the von Trapp children, led by Maria, perform a puppet show to "The Lonely Goatherd." C'mon, you all know the lyrics: "High on a hill lived a lonely goatherd…" Maybe it's the distinctive yodeling refrain, but I loved that tune as a kid, and found it impossible not to sing along, to the annoyance of anyone else who happened to be in the room at the time. (Jen-Luc Piquant does the same thing to West Side Story's "America," not that she'd ever admit to it.)
Apparently Stefani has a similar fondness for old musicals. Not only did she do a catchy hip-hop version of "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, she samples "Lonely Goatherd" in "Wind It Up" — that's right, the Hollaback Girl turns into the Yodelback Girl, at least for the duration of the song. Another person who loves the goatherd song is Kerry Christensen, "one of the world's most versatile yodelers" — and who am I to argue with Wikipedia? He performed for over an hour at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in Salt Lake City, demonstrating an impressive array of yodeling styles and techniques, interspersed with amusing anecdotes and fascinating historical trivia about yodeling.
Frankly, nobody sets out to become a professional yodeler, but Christensen took a shine to it as a hobby, and it turned into a career. He spent seven years performing at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center in Florida, which is also where he learned to play the chromatic accordion, alp horn and zither. But the Disney life became tedious: he did several shows a day, always the same tunes, with little chance to flex his creativity and explore what I was surprised to learn is a vast repertoire of yodeling music. And so he went solo.
Christensen actually lives in nearby Provo, but takes his yodeling act to folk festivals, state fairs, and similar events all over the world, "wherever it's appreciated." Utahans are not very appreciative, it seems: he only performs locally a couple of times a year. It reminds me of an old joke my cabaret singer/songwriter friend Peri used to make: "Q: What's the unlikeliest phrase in the English language? A: 'Is that the banjo player's Porsche?'" Like banjo players and Rodney Dangerfield, yodelers don't get no respect.
Who knows why that is? Because yodeling is a very old tradition that spans several different cultures. True, the word "yodeling" derives from the German jodeln, meaning "to utter the syllable jo." The type of yodeling most familiar to us can indeed be traced back to the German, Swiss and Austrian regions, where it was used as a communication system between alpine peaks, before finding international success in those old Swiss Miss instant cocoa commercials. Nonetheless, while "the Swiss think they invented yodeling," according to Christensen, he has traced its roots back to Africa.
Apparently Tibetan monks first used a form of yodeling to communicate. Marco Polo brought that knowledge back with him to Western Europe, where it quickly became part of the alpine tradition, eventually producing classic tunes like the first one Christensen performed, about a Swiss dairyman who swears if he yodels fast enough, he doesn't even have to milk the cows; they just spontaneously empty their udders. The American cowboy yodeling tradition — yippee-kay-yay, y'all! — came about because European immigrants brought the vocal style with them to the range. The cowboy yodeling patterns aren't as varied as the European traditions. They tend to be slower and simpler, since they were primarily lullabies to calm the cows at night, and also to soothe the animals during milking.
There's one thing you can say for yodeling: acoustically, it's pretty darned distinctive. Human voices have two distinct vocal registers: the head and the chest. Yodeling essentially involves singing an extended note that rapidly, and repeatedly, shifts in pitch between those two registers — a skillful technique similar to those employed by professional opera singers, albeit for a very different final sound. Yodeling requires the singer to rapidly switch registers within a few seconds at high volume. Essentially, the voice momentarily breaks. Less practiced yodelers often lapse into falsetto, but skilled singers, like Christensen, can smoothly make the transition between registers without doing so.
Listening to Christensen's description and performance, I was reminded a little of Tuval throat-singing, sometimes referred to as overtone singing. They're not entirely un-related, although throat-singing focuses on reinforced harmonics rather than the rapid shifting vocal registers that characterize yodeling. In fact, a famed Texan singer of traditional cowboy songs in the 1920s called Arthur Miles was known for substituting overtone singing for the more customary yodeling in his recordings.
Anyway, "The Lonely Goatherd" is included in Christensen's extensive repertoire of some 1500 tunes, a list of which was distributed to the audience in advance so they could make specific requests. I admit, despite being drawn by the quirkiness of the event, I deliberately sat in the back of the room for Christensen's performance, convinced that 30 minutes of yodeling was about all I could stand and I'd need to beat a hasty retreat. But Christensen was so entertaining and likeable, I stayed for almost the entire thing. Jen-Luc, being a faux-French snob, shuddered in horreur at the very thought and skipped the event altogether. Her loss: she missed out on Christensen's rousing yodel rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which he claims originated in Africa, long before the Tokens made it famous.
Yeah, you heard me: I enjoyed the yodeling. Wanna make something of it? Do ya, punk? It's not like I plan to rush right out and learn how to yodel myself, although this handy online site promises to teach me in 10 easy lessons.
For a yodeler, Christensen's pretty darned inventive, and has an excellent grasp of the basic science behind his song stylings. That's why he can play around with it and come with a few new twists. Take the time he forgot the words mid-song and resorted to playing the "mouth trumpet": he developed that into a "Louis Armstrong Medley," and he sounds eerily like a trumpet when he performs it. A woman came up to him afterwards and congratulated him on his impressive mouth trumpet, then challenged, "But can you do that and yodel at the same time?" Christensen's initial reaction was no, he couldn't. The two styles require very different techniques. Yodeling must be loose and totally relaxed to get those smooth transitions between registers, while the mouth trumpet needs to be more pinched off, especially at the lips, which mimic the reed/mouthpiece of the actual instrument. Still, he went back home and practiced for over five hours, and finally managed to come up with a hybrid style he terms the "yodelumpet." He believes he is the only yodeler to sing this way, which is probably a mercy — it's fascinating as a novelty trick, but one wouldn't exactly call it mellifluous.
Audience members seem to challenge Christensen a lot. A jazz musician once bet he wouldn't be able to perform a jazz version of yodeling, but Christensen promptly launched into a series of rapid, chromatic runs up and down the scale, yodeling the entire time, and the musician admitted defeat in less than a minute. He's come up with a cajun zydeco yodeling song, too.
The performance wasn't all about the yodeling. Christensen rested his voice a bit by playing a couple of tunes on the alp horn — an impressive feat all its own, considering the acoustical properties of the instrument. The standard size is 13-1/2 feet long, the same length a French horn would be if you uncoiled it. (Interesting tidbit: For some reason, the Swiss insist on alp horns that play in F-sharp; it's handy for group performances, because if the horns aren't precisely tuned, you've got an acoustical mess.) Unlike conventional horns, which are made of brass, the alp horn is made of wood. This means there is much more air resistance to overcome, so playing the alp horn takes roughly three times as much air as a full-sized tuba. And Christensen was playing at the relatively high altitude (with associated thin air) of the Greater Salt lake region.
All in all, Christensen's performance supplied the perfect end to a long day of fascinating technical sessions. I can't wait for all the assembled acousticians in the audience to buy his CDs en masse and start analyzing the spectra in detail. Next year's spring ASA meeting could have more papers on the acoustics of yodeling than in the society's entire history. I might pick up a CD myself, if only to torture the cat.