Yodel-Spotting: Lapsed-Mennonites, Yodeling Truck Drivers, Japanese Carnivores in Lederhosen, and Soft-Core Tyrolean Yodel Porn

Dogs go through life following their noses from dog truffle to urine tag. I careen through life from yodel to yodel. Call it research, audio hallucination, or hyper-sensitivity, but I hear everything—anti-terrorism, the olympics, pop music, politics, sirens, “Bee-ah hee-ah” vendors at Yankee Stadium—through the ears of a yodel “expert.” Fixations, phobias, and zealotry give “purpose” to our wanderings.

Admit this outside of therapy or the confessional and people stare at you like you’ve got an open sore where your mouth once sat. The mission of my spring 2005 Midwest yodel tour was to further explode the constricted worldview of yodeling. Who yodels: Swiss, Dutch, French, Italians, Eastern Europeans, African Pygmies, South Americans, Hawaiians, Japanese, cowboys, Iranians, Siberians, Aussies, Brits. Where: country, jazz, blues, avant-garde, pop, rap, rock, techno, dub, reggae, house, ambient, folk, opera.

But what’s a yodel? It’s a vocalization distinguished by its emphasis on that jolt of air as the voice passes from low chest voice to high head voice (falsetto)—and vice-versa. No glottal jolt, no yodel.

Hell, the Seven Dwarfs and the Mennonites yodel. In April 2005, research in Goshen, Indiana, home of the Mennonite Historical Society, led me to old tapes of informal community gatherings involving yodeling, rare Alan Lomax recordings, and songbooks with Swiss and popular “outsider” yodelers like Hank Williams whom they secretly listened to. Here milkmaids yodel and cows give more milk.

During my lecture and yodeling by “Michigan’s Yodeling Sweetheart,” Joyce Leonard at Goshen’s Electric Brew, local Mennonites from the Wickey family, who had never been in a coffeehouse before, performed some impromptu yodeling.

April 27: in Pennsylvania Dutch country I interviewed the fascinating lapsed Mennonite Hank Hart (his stage name). He’s left the fold due to crises of faith more times than you can shake a Bible at. He engaged in awkward indiscretions as a closet homosexual and hitchhiked through the 1940’s South as a teen to pursue his ambitions of becoming a radio yodel star during a time when radio was live and featured hillbilly-style yodelers like Pappy Cheshire and His Hillbilly Champions.

He continues to pursue his muse, with dreams of some day yodeling on David Letterman or Conan O’Brien. So, anyone want to book an eighty-year-old lapsed-Mennonite homosexual hillbilly yodeler with “some Elvis action”?

April 30: In the Mt. Zion Firemen’s Hall, in the heart of Pennsy farm country, I meet legendary yodeler Jumpin’ Kenny Roberts—the link between hillbilly and rockabilly, and the man who taught Bill Haley to yodel. As he reminisces about teaching Gene Wilder to yodel for the film Another You, I want to touch his remarkable canary-yellow three-piece Opry suit. A local chain-smoking, tall-tale-telling punkette has brought her eighty-year-old aunt to this lunch-’n’-yodel event. She periodically details a story of overcoming white-trash woe, cracks the hallway door, and blows out a puff of smoke from the side of her mouth.

Roberts no longer leaps three feet in the air while yodeling and playing guitar, but he can still do his breakneck gallopin’ yodel. After the concert I get a thumbs-up from punkette.

May 2: Lower Manhattan, two motorists yelling at each other in an effort to not resolve a fender-bender. One motorist’s voice displays yodeling’s characteristic glottal leap. Should I stick around to ask him if he’s a yodeler and risk him taking a swing at me? Nah, instead I go to J&R Music World and discover a single I’ve been looking for for three years: Leroy Gibbs’s “Yodel Reggae.”

Later that day, I’m a guest on John Shaefer’s Soundcheck on WNYC, along with avant-garde vocalist and sometime yodeler Shelley Hirsch, who as a Jewish girl in East New York tried to imitate the yodels she heard on old Swiss folk records in her tenement’s echo-chamber hallways.

May 3: I give a reading at KGB about “the connection between yodeling and short-wave espionage.” That Yodeling (not religion, not money) makes the world go round I no longer deny.

May 7: At the Bowery Poetry Club yodel event, Randy Erwin (Home on the Range, True Stories, Brave Combo) performs rope tricks while yodeling. Extended-vocalist Lynn Book yodels with programmed loops of herself. Mike Johnson, a black truck-drivin’ yodeler who used to sell his DIY yodel cassettes at truck stops, performs his “Yeah, I’m a Cowboy.” Johnson had threatened to drive his eighteen-wheeler, emblazoned with “BLACK YODEL #1” on its side, up from Maryland and park it n Joey Ramone Place. Parking realities won out over audacity, and he took a Greyhound instead.

May 17: Back in Amsterdam, I continue to tell Dutch people that they’ve produced some amazingly anomalous yodeling—below-sea-level Alpine, Dutch cowboy, sub-Queen operatic, and Holland hillbilly!

The Eurovision Song Contest (famous annual scorn-with-popcorn TV extravaganza featuring lame pop and even worse costumes) was profiling contestants who failed to make the finals. Austria’s 2005 losing entry, the Alpine-swing-salsa-yodel-pop song “Y Así” by Global Kryner, goes like this: “The girl from Cuba fell in love / The boy, she’d adore / Could dance and sing—and more / He was the master of the Yodel [yodeling].”

June 17: I receive a CDR of “Chant de Berger,” a 1930s French yodel by Edgard Detrait and Marceau, from Toni Smith, a local post-Brechtian accordionist.

June 18: Me and daughter Paloma wander around a pantyhose–and–fried dough street fair on our street, Zeilstraat. Suddenly Paloma yells, “Papa, I hear yodeling!” A stand selling dubious videos displays a battery-operated bull in a raincoat. Press the button and he opens his raincoat, announcing his “bullishness” with a haughty yodel. I purchased some highly suspicious rereleases of kitschy Tyrol sex films: Tyrol Sex Express, Skirt-Chasers in Tyrol—a sub-genre featuring lederhosen, mountains, bare-breasted and pig-tailed blondes in tight dirndls, naked romps in snowy fields, and yodeling upon orgasm.

July 7: The First Annual Jodel Festival at Buitenland, outdoor camping and performance space along Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Meer lake, features Berlin’s Kutzkelina and the Devil’s Harmonica, a Swiss yodel documentary projected under the stars, and yodel-esque DJ’ing. The Festival’s second night features both Kutzkelina and Jopie Vogelvang, local Amsterdam suburb Tyrol-meets-house yodeler, plus DJ’ing by Wreck Yodel at the Winston Hotel in the heart of the Red Light District, as part of the weekly Vegas Night. Vegas drags out ambisexual nightcrawlers and retro-hip post-transsexual androids. Perfect clueless crowd to yodel at!

August 26: Flipping through late-night TV channels in lieu of forgotten mantra, I stumble across a Discovery Channel program discussing the strange world of competition taxidermy featuring yodeling to accent the pursuit’s eccentricity.

September 22: I go to the dirty-windowed Blues Record Centre in my neighborhood, drink cans of Heineken with Indonesian–Dutch blues aficionado Michel and the proprietor, forty-five years a blues fan. Discover “Canned Heat” by Tommy Johnson, Mississippi Blues yodeler on Document Records, an Austrian label devoted to American roots music. The world is about a hundred square meters big.

October 12: Jack, a classical pianist and father of a schoolmate of Paloma’s, points out that Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock), features yodeling.

October 27: Dutch–Swiss jazz vocalist Kristina Fuchs with Sonic Unit plus jazz-influenced renowned new classical composer Theo Loevendie perform in the glorious Bimhuis, part of the new Muziekgebouw, a concert hall that combines the legendary Bimhuis with the legendary Ijsbreker in a triumph of acoustics and architecture.

During the encore, Fuchs tells the audience how we met during an appearance on the popular late-night variety show Vara-Laat. I’m interviewed about my book, and Fuchs yodels, stranded in a clichéd Swiss yodel backdrop. Loevendie pursues a collaboration with Fuchs. During a phone conversation she mentions her yodel gigs. “So you yodel?!” he asks. “Let me hear one right now over the phone.” Loevendie wrote the encore piece “Cornemuse” in honor of her—and yodeling.

November 5: I discover that Katsura Jakusaburo had a minor Japanese hit with “Yodel Tabehodai” (Yodel All-You-Can-Eat), about the virtues of grilled meat. In 2001, the dance version was chosen as the official song of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team.

The world is indeed a strange small place. The Netherlands is even smaller, Amsterdam tinier still. The world is comprised of fifteen people (half of whom are yodelers!) and six billion doppelgängers. The internet constructs the world as a shrinking island of electronic information, while yodeling renovates the world as a cozy nook in this ever-expanding universe.

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Bart Plantenga

Bart Plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic, and Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge); he also compiled the CD Rough Guide to Yodel. He is currently working on Yodel in HiFi, a documentary on yodeling, and two new yodel compilations.