Thirty years after the making of his film series on Swiss yodeling, Hugo Zemp returned to his investigation of the particular yodel style—called jüüz—of Muotatal, a small valley in the Swiss Prealps.
Shot in the early 1980s, the earlier films presented the traditional jüüz sung at work or while socializing, in contrast to stage presentations of yodel choirs, which are federated in a national association under the direction of choral conductors.
Wondering how the situation had evolved in the second decade of the 21th century, Zemp went back and found a 37-year-old man whom he had filmed singing with his parents and sisters 30 years earlier. During his adolescence, like many teenagers, Bernhard was enthusiastic about American rock and country music (which he still performs), but when he watched the old films he felt the urge to return to the tradition that he had learned during his childhood. With five friends from his village he founded a traditional group, Natur Pur, to revive casual singing.
Zemp’s new film, Swiss yodelling: 30 years later (Kanopy Streaming, 2015) shows performances in various situations, including singing with women and teaching at a workshop. Informal conversations between the singers, where humor is not absent, treat serious topics around tradition and change.
On New Year’s Eve men and boys in Urnäsch, Switzerland, disguise themselves in various costumes and, bearing harnesses with heavy bells, walk in groups from house to house; at each house they sing wordless yodels. The custom is called Silvesterklausen, and the men and boys are known as Silvesterchläus.
At the crack of dawn they march off in single file. Arriving at a house, they shake their bells rhythmically to announce their presence. The inhabitants are expecting them, and the husband and wife step out to greet them; the wife bears a tray with a bottle and glasses.
The Silvesterchläusen then form a circle and sing polyphonic yodels, which are received with great favor by the household. Each visitor is offered a drink; the yodelers accept their drinks, shake hands with their hosts, and march off to the next house.
During the first half of the 20th century a mania for yodeling seized America, catapulting its greatest practitioners to national celebrity. Though yodelers once numbered among America’s best-known vocalists, their names have faded from public memory with the exception of Jimmie Rodgers and a few movie cowboys.
While the Arkansas native Elton Britt was billed as “The World’s Highest Yodeler”—his stardom was such that he performed at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt, and then ran for president himself in 1960—neither he nor any other vocalist of the period approached the range of sounds coaxed from the human voice by two girls from a farm just outside Royalton, Minnesota.
Among the first female country singers to appear on stage without husbands or fathers, The DeZurik Sisters (Mary Jane and Caroline, with Lorraine later replacing Mary Jane) always appeared as a duet, amazing audiences with their rapid, high-pitched yodels that often spiraled into animal sounds. In fact, so convincing were their chicken yodels that the act was renamed The Cackle Sisters when they joined the Ralston Purina Company’s Checkerboard time radio program as regulars from 1937 to 1941.
This according to “The DeZurik Sisters: Two farm girls who yodeled their way to the Grand Ole Opry” by John Biguenet (Oxford American, summer 2005; reprinted in Da Capo best music writing 2006, pp. 92–99) Below, a rare video of Caroline and Lorraine.
Jimmie Rodgers’s recordings present nearly all of the yodel types used by hillbilly singers, including nonsense-syllable strands, breaking voice registers while singing words, and brief falsetto grace-note descents into his natural voice. His yodels contain influences from both African American (falsetto upward leap at the end of words) and European (word-breaking) traditions.
Home tropes evoke themes of home, family, regret, return, or nostalgia; subdominant tropes represent carefree cheerfulness; blues tropes conjure masculine braggadocio themes.
Rodgers applies grace notes according to the pathos of the lyrics, and his hummed or moaned yodels are toned down for mainstream appeal. He was a carrier of tradition—his yodels connect to ragtime and blues, as well as to nineteenth-century European yodels, song types, and decorative devices.
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