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For some, yodeling is no laughing matter

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WMOT)  --   Yodeling was wildly popular in the U.S. a century ago, but in recent years yodeling is more likely to be the fodder for bad jokes on late night TV.

For die-hard fans of yodeling, however, the unusual singing style is no laughing matter, as a recent class at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum made clear.

Canadian country music artist Eli Barsi taught the class. Barsi explained that yodeling is far more complex than you might imagine. For instance, it turns out that alpine goatherds in knee pants don’t have a monopoly on yodeling. Barsi noted that cultures all over the world have their own version of the yodel.

“Yodeling can be heard in alpine yodeling,” Barsi said. “In American (not clear) yodeling, Eastern European, British, Dutch, Scandinavian, Bollywood, Asian, and West African pygmy yodeling.”

Yodeling is defined as singing a single note that begins in the chest, then abruptly jumps to a falsetto sung from the head. Barsi calls the jump from the chest to the head, “breaking.” She says it took her years to master the technique.

“A little bit of flat or sharp singing…you can get away with it, it’s not that noticeable. It doesn’t stand out like a flat or sharp yodel. You know, it’s damaging to the ears! So when it’s done really well, people seem to really love it,” she said.

You might expect that yodeling would be performed spontaneously, like scat singing in jazz, for example. But Barsi explained that most artists write unique yodels for each song and sing them the same way every time.

Country music artists like Barsi have the American cultural stew to thank for the yodels they perform today. German immigrants brought the traditional yodel with them when they immigrated to the North American plains.

African slaves brought their own broken voice field calls to the Americas. Country Music Hall of Fame historian John Rumble said the two traditions merged in country music in what he called the Blue Yodel.

“Jimmie Rodgers, who became known as America’s ‘Blue Yodeler’ really ignited the yodeling craze and embedded yodeling into country music,” Rumble said.

Rumble noted that Rodgers was a fan of the traditional European yodel, but also had daily exposure to black construction workers repairing track on the railroad line he worked for as a young man. The result was a yodel with a bluesy twist.

“No one has every surpassed Jimmie Rodgers in terms of the emotion that he packed into his yodels,” Rumble said. “And that could be light-hearted, it could be nostalgic, it could even be world-weary.”

Jimmie Rodgers died in 1933, and in the years since no one has equaled his commercial success with the yodel. But while it may no longer enthrall American audiences, the yodel does still pop up from time to time in popular culture.

Jimmy Fallon and Brad Pitt exchanged yodels across the New York skyline on a recent edition of the Late Night Show. A Slim Whitman yodel saved the planet in the science fiction movie, Mars Attacks, by making the alien’s brains explode.

Country artist Eli Barsi said the yodel is still popular with audiences out west in both the U.S. and Canada. She’s noted she’s even seeing some interest from younger artists.

“At the western festival and the cowboy festivals we go to there’s a lot of the younger artists that are interested,” she said. “So, you know, all of us yodelers try to help them along the best we can, because they’re the next generation of yodelers coming up.”

Barsi notes that examples of yodeling can be heard in genres of music beyond country. She says she’s heard broken voice singing in pop, jazz, reggae, and even classical music.