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.
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.
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