By The Landlord
“Composers should write tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle.” – Sir Thomas Beecham
“If you want me, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” – Lauren Bacall
What is that eerie but beautiful sound blowing through history? What whistles down the wind? It can alert and alarm, but also be comforting, relaxing. It can seem strangely old-fashioned, gentle, but also shrill. Alongside singing, it’s one of our most ancient instruments, but what does it signify? A handy melodic alternative when you can’t remember the words? A method to attract attention and convey a message across a longer distance than the shouting voice can carry? Whistling is a different wavelength. And among many other associations it can also have sexual, breathy connotations. So first, let’s see Lauren Bacall beguile Humphrey Bogart with her own lips in To Have And Have Not:
Phew-eee. So this week, ladies and gentlemen, we’re all about whistling in songs. That’s essentially the kind made, as Bacall says, by putting your lips together. In a previous topic whistles were very much peripheral in one dominated by flutes, so depending on how this blows along, there’s probably room for the type of whistles that are mechanically produced, that enhance or magnify the human sound want to make to attract attention, such as a train whistle, a steam kettle, a police or fireman’s whistle, or indeed a football or other sports referee’s whistle. All of these have different associations and musical timbres and can also be an effective additional sound in a song, evoking alarm, arrival, danger or alert. And whistling at a gig is also often someone’s way of expressing their approval or enjoyment of an artist. It’s a high sound that waft above other wavelengths and cut through the crowd.
But first let’s go to another functional throwback, showing the longstanding harmony between human and hound, in a sample episode from the old BBC series One Man And His Dog, where here Scottish farmer Johnny Wilson and the stupendous Spot show the sheep how it’s done. Man might whistle, but I reckon the dog knows what he’s doing anyway. Come by!
Fingers in mouth or lips together, whistling can be precise instrument, but it also has carefree connotations, in which the whistler simply peeps out a happy, random tune. Or of course, as a way to jolly up the work routine, as a famous scene in Walt Disney’s Snow White shows. If only things were like that for us these days. When was the last time you whistled while you work? I might try that today and see what happens …
Whistling in songs can therefore come as an instrumental break, or an alternative to take on the main melody. And it can also convey emotional unity in song when done in unison. Football fans often use express disagreement with a refereeing decision, when they want time to be up, or famous tunes. The great Zinedine Zidane, who has had no shortage of great and notorious moments on the pitch, said: “When your own fans whistle and jeer, then you have a big problem.”
Elmer Bernstein’s theme tune from the wartime movie The Great Escape is one example whistled some England football games (and used, rather controversially by Nigel Farage in a Ukip campaign and, I think, rightfully met with disapproval by the composer’s sons as inappropriate use for bigoted views). So when used in xenophobic context, it appropriates what is essentially a wonderful track that does still express a sense of workman-like unity. Listening again to the orchestral original, the whistling sound seems to come from flutes or piccolos, but might be different in the actual film:
But now another whole crowd of whistlers have arrived at the Bar, and as usual, it’s discussion time. Don’t all whistle at once, folks! We’ve already heard from the conductor Thomas Beecham. He was somewhat snobbish dismissive of popular music, and even of jazz, but his point made to classical composers was certainly true – if you can write a melody that anyone can whistle, then you have universal hit.
Merle Haggard bemoans the lack of whistle-able tunes: “The only thing that I miss lately in all music is somebody that will put out a melody that you can whistle.” And here’s Roy “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” Wood on the subject: “I've always been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde. I always feel that you should keep singles as commercial as possible so that the people can walk down the road and whistle a song. But on the other hand on albums I think you can afford to show people what you can do.”
Now a couple of writers have arrived. “If you can whistle the melody, then the song will stick. But if you need a bunch of machines to make it sound good, you're probably not writing anything that's going to last a long time,” says James McBride, the American novelist, sax player and composer.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody meanwhile loves a whistle because it metaphorically reminds here that the working day is over: “I hear that 5 o'clock whistle in my mind like Fred Flintstone and I have to stop. I'm also not much of a morning writer. I have a sweet spot from about 11am to 4pm. But I really work during that time.”
Whistles can also help mark time for us too. Actress Kate Winslet has fond memories of the whistle from her childhood: “Ah, my dad's whistle. On holidays when I was a kid, we would all be off in the rock pools along the beach. When it came time to go, we'd hear the whistle and we'd all come running. Like dogs!” Does this remind anyone of the militaristic father in The Sound of Music, who blows whistle to keep his children in order, that is, of course, until Julie Andrews comes along to mellow everyone out?
Whistles have a controlling connotation, but what about the sexual one? Wolf whistles made at women on the street might seem complimentary by the men who do it, but are generally insulting and intimidating for women who have to put up with that sort of thing every day. However Marilyn Monroe’s career was very much about men’s reaction to her. “The working men, I'll go by and they'll whistle. At first they whistle because they think, 'Oh, it's a girl. She's got blonde hair and she's not out of shape,' and then they say, 'Gosh, it's Marilyn Monroe!’" And Eartha Kitt, not short of confidence, says: “I used to love it when I walked down the street and construction workers would whistle.” So how is a wolf whistle used in songs, and are they ironic, or have another effect?
Whistles might be innocent, carefree, sexual, controlling and many other things, but they can also sinister. Someone who whistles can pretend to be doing nothing, but is really up to something else. And an eerie whistle on a song by a well-known artist is very effectively used to soundtrack the supremely acerbic 2000s satirical animated series Monkey Dust. I won’t name it, as it may well appear in resulting playlists, but it is certainly worth investigating.
But let’s move now into an even stranger world of whistling. Tuvan throat singing, particularly in Mongolia, is a traditional style that mixes deep, throaty singing with piercing harmonics that are very much like whistling. There are various Tuvan types, but Sygyt, or Сыгыт is specially designed to imitate the high-pitched sound of the breeze mixed with the clarity of birdsong, and such harmonics are called Чистый звук – Russian for clear sound. To create it the tongue rises and seals around the gums just behind the teeth, with a small hole just behind the molars to the sound to direct to the front of the mouth, where the lips form a bell-like shape. Magical:
This sound isn’t only eastern. The 1920s cowboy singer Arthur Miles developed a similar technique, as you can hear in the middle of this song:
And mixing whistles with singing, there is a whole other school of overtone singing. Here Wolfgang Saus demonstrates mixing two melodies from Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D:
But whatever humans do, birds can do better. Let’s finish up then with a cheerful number from the extraordinary clever African grey parrot:
So then, please put your hands, and lips together, and make a loud whistle of approval as, with great delight welcome a familiar old friend at the bar, but making their debut behind it, the superb SweetHomeAlabama! So now air your songs that feature whistling in comments below, and in time for last orders called at 11pm UK time on Monday. SWA’s blow-by-blow account of chosen playlists published on Wednesday.
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