Julie Andrews had it all wrong.
In the 1965 film musical The Sound of Music, her character Maria sings how The Lonely Goatherd yodeled and how it sounded “lusty and clear from the goatherd’s throat.”
Clearly neither she nor Oscar Hammerstein II knew anything about actual yodeling.
“With yodeling your voice jumps from deep in your chest up to a high-pitched falsetto in your head,” explained Swiss yodeler Amadé Perrig. “If you try to sing it in your throat, it won’t work.”
Amadé is not a professional yodeler per se, but he is Swiss and grew up as a cowherd in the Alps near the mountain town of Zermatt and he’s been yodeling longer than The Sound of Music has been in existence.
He calls it “singing” but he normally means yodeling.
“As a boy, I sang all the time. We didn’t have TV. On Sunday afternoons, all of us in the family would gather round the kitchen table and just sing and sing.”
Amadé also grew up milking cows every morning. He yodeled in the hills with his cows, as it’s been done in Switzerland for at least a thousand years (even the Romans remarked on Swiss yodeling).
Cow- and goatherds used yodeling as a way to call across from one mountain to another. It was a rudimentary (albeit beautiful) way to communicate. Certain sounds and notes actually meant words, so in a way, yodeling began as a kind of melodic language of the mountains.
Although you couldn’t see a fellow cowherd across the valley, you could hear him, and you would yodel back. Like bird calls, sending out feelers to see who’s out there and listening to the responding calls that come back.
I like to think how long before two teenagers picked up their phones and started texting one another, one would stand tall on a rock on some mountainside and yodel some little phrase across the valley to the other, who would yodel back.
Good yodeling carries far, just as Julie Andrews sang, “Folks in a town that was quite remote heard . . . ”
The mountain village of Zermatt is extremely remote. So remote that prior to the Internet and telephones and the Glacier Express railroad that now takes you there, yodeling would have been the only way to “talk” to someone from the outside world.
Today, yodeling has survived through music, in Alpine choirs and even American country songs.
“Real yodeling is being lost,” says Amadé, discouraged. “The young people are not as interested.”
But he also tells me that I will probably never be able to yodel myself.
“It’s not really something that you can learn. You’re just born with it–you either have it or you don’t. My dad had it, and I have it, too.”
The news is a small punch of personal devastation for me. Maybe I have never dreamed of becoming a great yodeler, but walking the Alps makes me want to yodel. After an hour of morning hiking in the mountains above Zermatt, I watch as Amadé stands on a rock and belts out a yodel, just because he feels like it.
“What song is that?” I ask.
“No song,” he says. “I just made it up.” Original yodeling was all improvisation. The short vowels are sung in the chest, and the long notes are in the falsetto. Like any improvised art form (e.g. jazz), humans have found a way to organize and compete, so that now, there are yodeling contests all over the world.
There are yodeling teams and festivals all around Switzerland. Should you want to catch some yodeling while visiting Switzerland, you can always check in with the Swiss Yodeling Association.
The next official National “Jodlerfest” will take place in Davos in 2014 and in my honest opinion, it will be much more fascinating than any of the World Economic Fora (add it to my list of travel dreams: Yodel Fest, 2014)
Still, I’m happy that the first yodeling I heard in Switzerland was 100% authentic. This was not some choir greeting me on cue as I pulled into a railroad station, nor was it some “Swiss Folklore Show” played out in front a group of Japanese tourists as they fondled their fondue.
No, my first yodeling was improvised in the Alps of Zermatt by a true-blue Swiss cowherd. Nowadays he spends his winters in Arizona on the golf course, but even in the American Southwest, he says he lets out a very special yodel every time he hits a birdie.
The other golfers may think him a little odd, but when they hear that certain yodel, they know exactly what it means: “That crazy Swiss guy just hit a birdie!” Sending non-verbal messages across the green with a bit of vocal flourish, just like it’s been done in the Alps for centuries.
Perhaps not lusty and clear, like in The Sound of Music, but quite chesty . . . and very Swiss.
P.S. If you want to hear Amadé yodel the first bars of the Star-Spangled Banner, listen here!