Yodel by Chris Green
I took up yodelling to fight depression. I had lost my job at the packaging plant and Laura had left me. Everything came tumbling down. Each day seemed blacker than the one before. I felt unable to cope, couldn’t see any point in carrying on. I began to think of how I might end it all. I could keep the engine of the car running and close the garage door. I could take all the pills Dr Bolt had prescribed in one go. I could check out the times of the trains on the main line. There were any number of ways but somehow, I managed to hang on in there. Then, one night at 3 a.m. as I lay awake, it came to me. Perhaps yodelling might be the answer. I could take up yodelling.
I had always liked country music, of course. Who didn’t? But it was still a big leap from listening to Hank Williams and Willie Nelson in the comfort of my garden shed to signing up for a yodelling class. After all, not everyone who liked country music took up yodelling. But I discovered the country music fans that did take it up, like me, were likely to be doing it because they were depressed. My yodelling tutor, Clyde told me this was common. He himself had got into it because he had been depressed. His hard luck story involved unrequited love, gambling debts and the death of his ferret, George. George had been run over by a drunken teenage joyrider in a stolen pick-up truck. Perhaps I was missing something but while I could understand his disquiet about the debts and the rejection, I felt he might be over-reacting to the loss of a rancid polecat. But who I was I to judge? I let the matter go.
‘But to look at me now,’ he continued. ‘Who would have believed this time last year I was an inch away from slitting my throat. The razor was this far away from the vein? And in case that didn’t do the job, I had a loaded revolver in my belt.’
It was difficult to imagine that the grinning figure in his brightly coloured cowboy-check shirt and Ten-Gallon Stetson before me had the Samaritans number on speed dial. I resisted the temptation too to ask whether he still had the revolver. I decided I was not going to go down that route. I was determined to give yodelling a go.
‘I’m living proof of what a pick-me-up yodelling is,’ he said. ‘Anyway, lad, what type of yodelling are you interested in?’
I had not realised there was more than one type. I told him I liked Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow. Slim Whitman and Patsy Kline. And Frank Ifield, obviously.
‘What about Alpine yodelling,’ he asked? ‘The Swiss mountain stuff?’
‘I don’t know much about that,’ I said. ‘It’s probably not what I was thinking of.’
‘That’s good,’ Clyde said. ‘Neither do I. But still worth knowing about. That’s where it all began. The Tyrolese used it to call to their cattle over large distances. The sound echoed around the mountains. But, look! There have been lots of books written about yodelling. My favourite is Yodelling for Dummies. It’s quite short. You could probably read it on the front porch in an hour or so.
This being Gloucester, UK and not the Southern States, I did not have a front porch but I got stuck into the primer. I learned that American yodelling was a mix of Alpine yodelling and African yodelling. Jimmie Rodgers was one of the pioneers. His style became known as blue yodelling and it formed the basis of the cowboy yodelling in Gene Autry and Roy Rogers films.
I learned there had been many famous yodellers over the years. It was not just a handful of country stars and Hollywood cowboys. It was a worldwide phenomenon. Not many people realised it, but Winston Churchill was a dedicated yodeller. He often used to hide away in the war room and release the tension with a good session. Had it not been for these yodelling sessions, he may have submitted to the black dog and we may not have won the war. Alan Turing too was a great believer. In between cracking enemy codes, he liked nothing better than to get out in the open fields around Bletchley and yodel for all he was worth. George Orwell too was a yodeller. If you read it carefully, you will see that the subtext of 1984 concerns yodelling. Both Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton would sit at their desks yodelling while they waited for inspiration to come along. It clearly worked. They both wrote hundreds of books. King George, of course, yodelled before his social engagements and Queen Elizabeth too was known to have given it a go when Phillip wasn’t around. When you began to look into it, there had been dozens of celebrity yodellers. More recent ones included Nikita Kruschev, Stephen Hawking and David Hockney. And Ayatollah Khomenei some of you may remember was famous for bringing yodelling to a wider audience in the Muslim world. Yodelling was big in the East, so much so that it was practised in many countries several times a day.
It was refreshing to see that those who attended classes were always in good spirits. I had heard it said that any kind of singing was good for the soul but it appeared the changes of pitch and the breathing that yodelling entailed had special healing powers. Yodelling involved repeated and rapid changes of pitch between the low-pitch chest register or chest voice and the high-pitch head register or falsetto on the vowel sounds. Consonants were used as levers to launch the dramatic leap from low to high to give it its ear-penetrating and distance-spanning power. This was all I needed to know. The rest was just practising to perfect the technique. I started in earnest. I began to feel the benefit of yodelling almost right away.
When I found I couldn’t sleep, I got up and yodelled in the bathroom, repeating the Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo sound over and over in front of the mirror and found it relaxed me. Unfortunately, the neighbours didn’t see it that way and started banging on the wall. I yodelled all the way to the Job Centre but got some strange looks from people on the street. On my way to class too, I got abuse from passers-by. Despite the take-up by famous people historically, it seemed yodelling was still a long way from being accepted as a casual pastime.
I mentioned the hostility I had encountered at my yodelling class. Some of the students said they too had encountered hostility. Not everyone approved. In fact, there was a growing movement against it they said and powerful people were getting involved. It was perhaps best to be discreet about yodelling practice. I should find ways to do it secretly. At first, I put this down to paranoia. Many of them worked or had worked at the government listening centre and were accustomed to keeping secrets. Never being able to talk about their work when they got home was one of the main sources of their depression. According to Clyde, others who had worked at the base had not been so lucky. Not having taken up yodelling, they had taken their lives.
‘But let’s not dwell on that,’ he said. ‘It’s good to have you aboard and as you’ve found out, we are a happy bunch here.’
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Yodelling has been my saviour.’
This, of course, was several years ago now. As no doubt you will have realised, things have moved on since those heady days. The 2016 worldwide ban all but stamped out yodelling. Recordings featuring yodelling were withdrawn from the shops and streaming services and videos removed from the internet. The severe penalties if you are caught have been a huge deterrent. Apart from a few of us who, at great risk, still indulge in secret, the practice of yodelling has almost disappeared. It’s a pity that youngsters growing up today will miss out on the benefits. How long I wonder before yodelling is written out of the history books altogether? It’s hardly surprising the world is in such a perilous state. If people were still allowed to yodel, I’m sure things would be much more harmonious.
I wonder when my parcel will arrive.
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved