Whistling Past the Graveyard

Can the lost art of whistling make a comeback?

Whistling Tom Bryant
Whistling Tom Bryant, competing at the International Whistlers Convention.

“No great or successful man ever whistles,” said New York University philosophy professor Charles Gray Shaw in 1931. “Whistling is an unmistakable sign of the moron. It’s only the inferior and maladjusted individual who ever seeks emotional relief in such a bird-like act as that of whistling,” he concluded. Shaw’s remarks were made at least partly in jest, but his bold statements created a media firestorm.

Today, Shaw’s words probably wouldn’t elicit a response, but in those days whistling was viewed in a decidedly positive light. In the 1920s and ’30s, whistlers were accepted as professional artists, traveling with Big Bands and becoming household names in their own right. There were even schools—a total of nine, scattered around the U.S.—where one could go to study whistling, including Agnes Woodward’s Los Angeles School of Artistic Whistling.

Perhaps more importantly, ordinary people enjoyed whistling—while walking down the street, doing chores, and of course, while they worked. “Whistling often used to show up in obituaries,” says whistling historian Jim Voltz, noting that sentiments like—‘Aunt Jane used to love to whistle while she pulled weeds in the garden’—were not uncommon.

But it’s been at least a half-century since whistling was prominent in popular culture, and people who whistle in public today are likely to be greeted with looks of disapproval. Even construction workers seem to be eschewing the once-common practice of whistling at passers-by who meet with their approval. However, there are indications that interest in and acceptance of whistling may be on the rise. As Steve ‘The Whistler’ Herbst puts it: “Whistling is an idea whose time has returned.”

The Golden Age of Whistling

If there’s a trait common to today’s most accomplished or prominent whistlers it’s that they feel compelled to identify themselves as whistlers, à la Whistling Tom Bryant, Hylton ‘The Whistler’ Brown, and George ‘Whistler’ Jageman. There’s a good reason for that, offers Herbst—a New Yorker and three-time International Whistling Entertainer of the Year—who says, “We whistlers have an uphill battle to gain recognition for what we do, and to have whistling accepted as a legitimate musical art form. If I billed myself as ‘Steve Herbst’ they may not remember why they should know who I am,” he admits.

That wasn’t a problem in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, when professional whistlers were capable of filling concert halls. Among the famous names from that era: Elmo Tanner, Muzzy Marcellino, Fred Lowery, and Ronnie Ronalde, the latter having detailed his career in his autobiography “Around the World on a Whistle.”

Today, even the most talented whistlers struggle to earn respect. “When I go on a television show, I’m not speaking to the same booker or segment producer that regular musical talent gets to deal with,” begins Herbst. “I’m dealing with the human interest booker—the one who deals with stupid pet tricks and novelty acts. I could be the best whistler in the world, but that doesn’t mean I get to speak to the person who books Eric Clapton,” he concludes.

What happened in the past half-century? “My hypothesis, and I think it’s valid, is that in the 1950s the transistor radio came along,” begins Herbst. “You could put it in your pocket and walk down the street listening to music. So people stopped entertaining themselves [by whistling]. It has only gotten worse over time. We went from transistor radios to boom boxes to Walkmans, and now to iPods, MP3 players, and cell phones.”

On the other hand, some people still do entertain themselves by whistling—badly—which tends to irritate anyone and everyone within earshot. “It’s the most portable instrument you’ve got other than singing,” notes Linda Hamilton, who operates Orawhistle, a Web forum dedicated to whistling-related news, as well as technique and performance. “But in situations where a person would not break out in song they might start to whistle. You don’t want music that you don’t have some way of getting away from, especially if it’s high-pitched, shrill, and off-key,” she says.

It probably doesn’t help that women have long been discouraged from whistling. Phyllis Heil, 62, of Hickory, North Carolina, a four-time Female International Whistling Entertainer of the Year, didn’t begin whistling publicly until she was 55, shortly after her mother’s death. “My mother did not allow me to whistle as long as she was alive. She’d say, ‘A whistling woman and a crowing hen, always come to some bad end,’” offers Heil.

In fact, it wasn’t until someone overhead Heil whistling while she was washing dishes at her church that she was encouraged to perform. “At the next service—a funeral—the choir director asked me to whistle the chorus of a song. The church was packed and the mourners immediately calmed down. It got their attention,” she recalls. Not long afterwards, she heard about the International Whistlers Convention, held annually in her home state [until 2006]—which helped bring her talents to the attention of the whistling community.

Louisburg, North Carolina: Whistling Mecca

If there’s a world capital of whistling, it’s Louisburg, North Carolina, a town of 3,700 people nestled on the banks of the Tar River, 25 minutes from Raleigh, 40 minutes from Durham, and 50 minutes from Chapel Hill. In 1975, Allen de Hart, director of public affairs at the local college, founded the National Whistlers Museum, having previously organized an annual whistling contest, which became known as the National Whistlers Convention in 1980. The museum features a collection of rare and significant recordings of whistlers—not to mention news articles, photos, and souvenirs—but it’s the multiday competition that attracts whistlers.

Some come to Louisburg by automobile (typically sporting vanity plates like WHISTLR or PUCKER), others by plane (from as far away as Switzerland and Japan). It’s a destination that can be difficult to explain to friends and relatives. In the documentary Pucker Up (2005)—which chronicles the 2004 International Whistlers Convention—Geert Chatrou, from Mierlo, in the south of Holland, admits that his friends and acquaintances couldn’t comprehend why he would go to Louisburg on holiday. “When I told people I was going [there] for the Whistlers Convention, they really thought I was crazy,” he admitted.

Chatrou’s first trip to Louisburg was well worth the effort, however, as he was named Male Grand Champion, earning first place with performances of Vivaldi’s “Recorder Concerto in C-Minor” (classical), “Fingerprints” (popular), and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Observers have come to expect the competitors to perform classical music and other technically demanding pieces—like the national anthem, or Rossini’s William Tell overture, to name yet another example. According to Francesco Bonifazi (aka The Jazz Whistler), who hails from Fort Collins, Colorado, there’s a good explanation. “Most of the top whistlers in the world focus on classical music because they want to be far away from people making fun of them. It’s almost like an overreaction,” he notes.

Yet if whistling is going to make a bona fide resurgence, it will most likely be realized through popular music, along with movies and television commercials. To be sure, there have been a handful of memorable whistled musical themes in major motion pictures, including the hook of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (from the crucifixion scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian), which features the lyric:

When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble give a whistle
This will help things turn out for the best

When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing

And every so often, whistling plays a prominent role in a popular song, with examples including “Can’t Smile Without You” (Barry Manilow), “Patience” (Guns 'N Roses), “You Can Call Me Al” (Paul Simon), “Wind of Change” (Scorpions), and most recently, “Young Folks” (Peter Bjorn and John).

But it’s been more than five decades since a whistled piece of music attracted the kind of buzz generated by the instantly recognizable theme from Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). And though Orawhistle contains a list of more than 350 popular songs that feature whistling, it is still perceived as little more than a musical sideshow, which perhaps explains why some whistlers believe that whistling’s comeback will be more insidious than decisive.

“If you watch TV, you are hearing more and more whistling in the commercials,” says Herbst, echoing an observation made by Heil, who herself has recorded a commercial (for Aladdin Bail Bonds). A burgeoning whistling scene has also developed overseas, especially in India, China, and Japan, the latter having played host to the 2008 Whistlers Convention, which marked the first year the event was held outside Louisburg.

Still, pretty much everyone admits that it remains a challenge for any artist to make whistling the center of attention. “For audiences, whistling is a surprise,” declares Bonifazi, noting that his CD, Air Play, incorporates whistling but isn’t a whistling album per se. “If you put out a ‘whistling CD,’ right there you put the death knell on it,” he says matter-of-factly.

If that weren’t enough, whistling sounds have another negative connotation, having long been associated with war and explosions (think: the whistling sound of bombs and fireworks). One might also recall John Soudas, the Whistling Murderer, who whistled while struggling with his victims. And believe it or not, whistling is actually against the law in a handful of U.S. municipalities, as it has been used as code by gangs.

On a more positive note, it should be acknowledged that the residents of the island of La Gomera (in the Canary archipelago on the northern coast of Africa), whistle to communicate across the ravines and gullies on the island. In fact, the people there have developed an entire whistling language (Silbo Gomera), as whistling sounds carry across long distances better than speech.

For the moment, though, most people still regard whistling as little more than a nuisance. “There are some people who are even irritated by my whistling,” admits Herbst. “I had a woman stop me on the street one time and she said that if she’d had a two-hundred pound man with her she’d have punched me in the nose.”

But a negative reaction to whistling may be preferable to no reaction at all. “Most people are not aware of it. That’s the biggest problem,” concludes Herbst. “When people say to me, ‘What do you do?’ and I say, ‘I’m a professional whistler,’ they said, ‘Yeah, okay, what do you really do?’ They think it’s a joke.”