What you didn’t know
about the history of yodeling

By Sigurd Neubauer

04/02/2022

The Amsterdam-based radio DJ Bart Plantenga has played yodeling – in all musical genres – on his show since the late-1980s. He has even published two books on it, YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi, which, in the process, has gained him some notoriety: he’s the world’s leading expert on yodeling.

“Depending on your taste in music, it can be found in almost any musical style, including in contemporary music by R Kelley, Tom Waits, Alanis Morissette, “Jewel” (Jewel Kilcher), Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa,” Plantenga says.

In Nashville, Tennessee, the self-proclaimed “Music Capital,” a “weird kind of prejudice against yodeling exists,” Plantenga explains as producers typically advise aspiring country singers against incorporating it into their songs. “Yet, when they yodel at performances, it typically generates the most enthusiastic responses,” he says with a chuckle. Some of country music’s greatest stars, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Slim Whitman were yodelers, he adds.

American Western yodeling originated out of a combination of hillbilly music song structures brought by Scottish and Irish immigrants, which was adopted by African-Americans. This blend in turn became soul music. In the 1920s, the most famous yodelere, Jimmy Rodgers broke the color line and worked with Louis Armstrong, even doing some yodeling, Plantenga says.

Plantenga, who does not claim to be an academic or musicologist, is a fiction writer, “stumbled upon yodeling” through his DJ work when he realized that he unconsciously kept playing it on his shows time and again.

His interest in yodeling took off from there and kept “snowballing,” he says.

YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World

“The history of yodeling is a wide-open subject. While writing my first yodel book that was published in 2003, I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever written a book on the subject before,” he says. A decade later, Plantenga published his second book in 2013 as he realized that he had “missed a lot” in his first book.

“So many people have a preconceived notion about what yodeling is, namely that it started in the Alps and was brought to the United States by the Von Trapp family,” Plantenga says.

“Yodeling probably developed in many places around the world in parallel, but probably originated in central-west Africa some 10,000 years ago,” Plantenga says. The ancient yodeling style of central-west Africa – which is still practiced today – is “stunningly beautiful” and can be found in both lullabies as well as in loud warning signals, he says.

There are some speculations among ethnographers and musicologists that as people began the prehistoric mass migration across the planet, this is how yodeling spread from Africa. Another possibility is that it developed separately in Switzerland and Asia, “but we’ll never know for sure” Plantenga explains, adding that Native Americans also yodeled.

In China and parts of Southeast Asia, an indigenous tradition of female yodeling has developed as well where women would yodel while picking tea leaves. The tradition could easily have lasted into the twentieth century, Plantenga says. 

Yodeling probably  originated in central-west Africa some 10,000 years ago: Bart Plantenga

The Alpine style of yodeling is, of course, what is most commonly known in Europe and the United States. It initially developed from people using it for pragmatic reasons as a means of communication across high-mountain ranges and valleys but over time, as people grew more prosperous, it developed into an art form and became more musical in style.

In the seventeenth century, yodeling was first incorporated into classical music, as composers notated the charming yodels they heard in the Alps and lyrics were eventually added, which is how it became incorporated into song structure for popular music. Today yodeling is considered folk music.

“In parts of Switzerland and Austria, local bars can be found where people gather for yodeling and singalongs. This tradition is very much alive until today,” Plantenga adds. Traditionally, women were banned from the official yodel festivals and yodel clubs in Switzerland. but Christine Lauterburg, a yodeler who received the country’s top music prize last year, played a decisive role in the 1970s in reversing that tradition even if it was hard fought,” Plantenga says.

“The Swiss yodel clubs are conservative and very influential in Switzerland where people still take yodeling very seriously,” he adds but noted that the first yodeler to appear on a Swiss stamp was none other than Lauterburg.

“I am not a yodeler” says Plantenga with a grin but I often bring – at least one yodeler – with me to my yodel lectures. During my lecture at the US Library of Congress in April 2004, I brought two Czech-Tex yodeler Randy Irwin and Rounder Records singer-yodeler Cathy Fink. “The audiences always respond enthusiastically to yodeling. It has that WOW factor,” he says, adding that he’s fond of the art form and has developed a passion for correcting the misconceptions about it along the way.

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