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  • From the Mountains to the Prairies and Beyond the Pale: American Yodeling on Early Recordings
  • Timothy Wise

This sound review surveys yodeling in North American popular music, beginning with some of the earliest recordings on which it is featured. In order to better contextualize the recordings, I will also mention a few examples of sheet music with yodeling—items which are generally overlooked. My intention is to question why yodeling became attached to particular genres and how it functions in the construction of those genres. Indeed, two popular music genres—so-called hillbilly music and cowboy or Western music—made yodeling an important, if not identifying, component. The focus here is on yodeling’s connotations and associations and how these established expressive relationships between the moods, personae, and images of the songs.

Yodeling denotes a break in vocal register from natural phonation to falsetto or vice versa. Some oscillation around this breaking point often occurs, but not always; and while yodeling is often performed on vocables (i.e., syllables without semantic content), it is not limited to that: one of the first things noticed when listening to recordings by performers specializing in yodeling is how frequently they will yodel the syllables of words, producing a single falsetto tone (for example in “Roll on, Silver Moon,” discussed later). This is also yodeling, although this technique differs from the florid interchange of normal and falsetto voice in a series of vocables typically heard in Alpine styles. In order to conveniently denote this difference, I will refer to yodeling on vocables as first species yodeling and yodeling the syllables of words as second species yodeling.1

Yodeling on record often maintains a link between commercial popular music and folk traditions (or imagined ones). For example, the kind of yodeling that appeared first in popular song was borrowed from folk practices, and its earliest uses in the nineteenth century by professional musicians who were themselves unconnected with the pastoral society that had nurtured it were intended to evoke Alpine or more generalized landscapes and the shepherds or peasants who lived there. In its earliest manifestations in European and later American music, yodeling frequently served, therefore, as a metonym of a simpler, pre-industrialized society, and occurrences of yodeling generally functioned to connote mountain settings and attendant pastoral ideas and associations. Yodeling, which has long served as an important [End Page 358] expressive device in North American popular music, usually preserves that connection.

Yodeling was wedded to popular music in the so-called Jodellieder, which began to appear in Switzerland around the turn of the nineteenth century (Baumann 2001:790). Many songs appeared in folksong styles, such as Ländler, with yodels added. So great was the fascination with this folk music import that composers such as Beethoven, Hummel, and Rossini in one way or another incorporated yodeling into their own work. Beethoven, for example, made a number of arrangements of Swiss songs: his “I bin a Tyroler Bua” has vocal passages that clearly afford opportunities for yodeling. From its earliest entry into music of whatever type, the yodel tended to be used as an evocation of nature, instinct, wilderness, pre-industrial and pastoral civilization, or similar ideas. It continues to be associated with rural and folk musics and typically to connote those in other contexts.

It is well known that the Swiss Rainer Family, who toured the United States from 1839 until 1843, stimulated a great interest in folk-inspired singing families and yodeling in the United States (Nathan 1945). Published versions of songs incorporating yodeling such as “The Mountain Echo” by the Hutchinson Family (1853) are evidence of this impact. Themes in that song—mountains, solitude, bravery—continue to find expression in many later yodel songs. Because of this original folk connection, yodeling remained associated with the outdoors, with rustic rather than sophisticated personae, and with particular emotional or psychological states or semantic fields. Swiss-influenced English-language pastoral songs of the early nineteenth century, with their stock hunters and shepherds, gave way over the nineteenth century to far more generalized images and locations.2 This tendency can be seen in “To My Bright Alps Again,” published in 1861 (Guernsey). While the Alps...


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