By Sigurd Neubauer
Yodeling is largely synonymous with Europe’s Alpine region, but the art form is celebrated around the world, including in South Korea, Japan and the United States.
It is even becoming popular in China and parts of Southeast Asia, says Peter Lim, a South Korean yodel enthusiast who has devoted much of his professional career to promote it internationally.
In South Korea, there are approximately 20 yodeling clubs spread across the country with some 2,000 enthusiasts practicing the art form, according to Lim who founded International Yodel Day in 2013, which is on August 8.
Lim’s Yodel Day YouTube Channel has performers from around the world yodeling in 19 different languages. His goal, Lim says, is to record yodeling songs in every language.
“I know how to yodel,” says Lim with a laugh, “but I am not good at it.” He’s self-taught but began learning it in Middle School but developed his passion for yodeling as early as in kindergarten.
Throughout the decades, Lim has used his vacation time to travel around the world to meet fellow yodelers as well as to promote it internationally, which earned him the unofficial title as “International Yodel Ambassador” from his peers.
In South Korea, Lim is also a frequent media commentator on everything yodeling related and teaches it to the next generation of enthusiasts.
He has also added Korean lyrics to popular German yodeling songs as “no one in Korea speaks German,” says Lim. “Korea has twice as many yodelers as Japan, but the art form is quickly catching on in China,” the enthusiast proclaims.
While most Korean yodeling enthusiasts can be divided between children and senior citizens, the majority are amateurs who practice it as a hobby, Lim says. He adds that many of the children are also learning to play the accordion to accompany the yodeling.
Yodeling as an art form was first established in South Korea in 1968 by Kim-hong Chul, the country’s first professional yodeler, who learned it during a six-month stint in Switzerland. Upon his return, he established 10 yodeling clubs around the country.
In the 1970s, “Korea was a very poor country that had survived Japanese colonial rule and a brutal a civil war, the Korean War,” says Lim. “When Korea was still poor, and most of Western culture was predominantly American, yodeling had the peculiarity of being European.”
He adds that in the 1970s Korea, yodeling was “considered part of a very luxurious European culture. Paradoxically, as Korea became more prosperous, yodeling became less popular,” Lim says.
“Lim has brough yodeling into the mainstream,” says Kerry Christensen, America’s only professional yodeler who traveled to South Korea in 2018 to participate in a festival dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Korean yodeling and the celebration of Kim-hong Chul’s legacy. At the festival, Christensen not only performed but also served as a judge for a children’s yodeling competition.
“When Korea was still poor, and most of Western culture was predominantly American, yodeling had the peculiarity of being European,” says Peter Lim.
Yodeling in the United States
Country legend Roy Rogers (1911-1998) helped popularize Western yodeling by integrating it into American popular culture. Although Alpine yodeling was popular – perhaps not surprisingly – among first generation Germans who settled in the US in the late 19th century, its popularity in American popular has “ebbed and flowed,” says self-proclaimed “Yodelologist” Norm Gwaltney.
Gwaltyney, who has taught yodeling online since 1994, including South Korea’s Lim, adds that “America Got Talent,” along with other television shows, have contributed to renewed interest in it as an art form.
In the United States, Kerry Christensen stands out as one of only a few professional yodelers worldwide to have dedicated a 40-year long career to the art form.
Christensen, who spent two years living and traveling in Austria from 1974-76, returned to the family potato farm in Idaho with several cassettes of yodeling music he’d picked up at the Vienna airport of all places.
“My father had bought a new John Deer tractor with a cassette deck right before I came home,” says Christensen. “Listening endlessly to those yodeling cassettes purchased last minute, I spent 16 hours a day on the tractor working the land and six to seven hours ‘abusing’ my voice,” Christensen adds about how he learned to yodel.
Shortly thereafter, he landed his first part-time yodeling gig at a local German restaurant, but little did he know that one of its patrons “who knew someone who knew someone,” says Christensen with a laugh, would recommend him to for a position at Disney World’s Epcot pavilion where he remained from 1983-1990.
At Disney, Christensen taught himself the accordion, the Alphorn, Cowbells and even one of the most difficult instruments to musically master, the alpine Zither, during breaks between performances at the pavilion.
Upon leaving Disney and relocating back to Idaho with his family, Christensen and daughter Emilie, who had learned how to yodel at age two, established a yodeling duo during her high school years as the two traveled around the United States and internationally performing.
“This is when my yodeling career began,” says Christensen who would spend the next three decades as a performer at various German-heritage festivals around the United States, averaging 120 engagements per year. “I have performed for everything between 2-3 people in a living room up to 20,000 people in a concert hall,” he says, adding that he’s also sold many copies over the years of his 14 musical albums.
Christensen, along with his daughter, have also collaborated with Disney. In 2013 the two played the yodeling voices of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in an animated cartoon short called “Yodelberg.” Christensen along with another American yodeler, Randy Irwin, also played the voice of the yodeling character Alameda Slim in Disney’s “Home on the Range,” along with several yodeling commercials for other companies.
“I am a jack of many trades who can sing lyrics in German, English, Spanish and a few other languages,” says Christensen who in the process has created several yodeling styles.
“One of the best places to yodel is in the shower”: Norm Gwaltyney
Responding to what was his career highlight, Christensen said he thought it was “incredible” that he was able to make a living from it, even a very comfortable one. “So far I have been a professional full-time yodeler and entertainer for the past 40 years. If you told me that I would make my living doing that when I was in high school playing football, I would have laughed heartily at the thought,” he says but adds on a more serious note:
“The most amazing part was that I got to do it, I met a lot of amazing people, including by traveling around the world.” In the US, Christensen has performed in all 50 states, except for three, which are: Alabama; Delaware and Connecticut. “I am not trying to get the remaining the three states, says Christiansen with a laugh.
Well into his 60s, Christensen is only performing around 30 times per year but has no immediate plans to retire, citing his passion for yodeling.
Christensen is also committed to a healthy and active lifestyle, which includes daily 40-minute bike rides up a mountain canyon near his home during the summer months – as he needs cardio exercises for his lungs to keep his yodeling craft sharp – and downhill snow skiing in the winter.
Who are the best yodelers in the world?
The answer, of course, depends on who you ask and the exact style of yodeling.
According to Gwaltyney, who teachers engineering at a middle school in Indianapolis, Indiana, “Christensen is the most versatile yodeler in the world today, arguable even the best. He knows the Bavarian, Swiss, Austrian, and country-Western style of yodeling,” says Gwaltyney.
Gwaltyney adds that Melanie Oechs is the best Swiss style yodeler today while Die Pagger Buam is the best Austrian style.
Christiansen and Galtyney both agree that Germany’s Frantz Lang (1930-2015) was the best yodeler in the modern era.
For Gwaltyney, who continues to yodel on the weekends, including at various festivals across the Midwest where he often wears lederhosen and a Tyrolian hat, says that “one of the best places to yodel is in the shower.”