Whistling Past the Graveyard

Can the lost art of whistling make a comeback?

Whistling Past the Graveyard

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.

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