THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

13 October 2010

The decline of whistling

In Dennis Potter's drama series Pennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins played a hard-up sheet music seller. While on his rounds he tries to enthuse a sceptical music shop owner:

It’s a great tune, everyone’s gonna be whistling it!

When you did last hear anyone whistle a tune? Out of around 900 recordings on the UK SoundMap so far, whistling is heard on just one or two. As Lauren Bacall said, all you have to do is put your lips together and blow. Yet tuneful whistling appears to be on the way out.

Once, workplace whistling was common enough for high-class establishments to put up signs forbidding tradesmen and staff from whistling. One can still be seen round the back of the Savoy hotel. The only people allowed or expected to whistle were the doormen, who had the knack of putting two fingers in their mouths and blowing a very loud whistle to hail taxis.

Despite the disapproval of hotels and their guests, whistling had a popular image, symbolising cheerfulness and, sometimes, calculated nonchalance. The English singer-songwriter Roger Whittaker launched his career with songs such as Mexican Whistler, Irish Whistler, and Whistling Swagman.

The entertainer and bird impersonator Percy Edwards, who died in 1996, could imitate by whistling the songs of hundreds of different bird species. His example spawned imitators. Sounds from Smithfield meat market were recorded in 1993 and added to the British Library's Archival Sound Recordings collections. The recordist noted that it was "initially spoilt by silly whistling from a porter". But on listening, it's clear that the porter was an accomplished whistler in the Percy Edwards mould, evoking the spirit of at least a 'dickybird', if not any particular species.

Whistling and birdsong have much older associations, and perhaps whistling first arose in deliberate imitation of birdsong while hunting wildfowl. The discovery of another rich historical link was described by the retired Thames lighterman Dick Fagan, in his book of memoirs Men of the Tideway. The lighterman's job was to steer cargo-laden barges or 'lighters' to their destinations using only the current and huge wooden paddles. After Fagan completed his apprenticeship, he was given charge of his own lighter:

One of the things I learnt to do, this may surprise you, was how to whistle. I ought to explain that every lighterage firm had its own kind of whistle – the sound, I mean, because all the whistling was done with the mouth and not with any instrument. Whistling was a way of identifying yourself across distances, especially at night, with other men working for the same company. Very useful. Getting it right was a work of art though.

On a day-trip to the countryside with his girlfriend, Fagan learns the origins of the firms' various whistles:

Finally we were sitting on a fallen tree trunk just dreaming. Then it happened. A loud shrill whistle, very close. My firm’s whistle [. . .] It had just come to me that the whistle I’d been using for many years was part of a bird’s song.

After a bit I spotted the bird as large as life up on a nearby tree with its beak open and the familiar notes pouring out of it as though it had been a lighternan all its life. In Bermondsey we only had sparrows. Who’s ever heard of a whistling sparrow? Then another bird started up with a different tune, after that another, and another.

I listened to them in amazement because I could connect each one’s song with the lighterage firm that had converted it into its own whistle. Soft green grass, graceful trees, peace, love – yet because of the birds’ song it was all connected with the hustle and struggle of river and dock life.

The whistles of watermen must have been invented long, long ago, when London’s river was still close to open country, when all these birds were singing in Shoreditch and Wapping, in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, when the largest ship wasn’t much bigger than the barges I now rowed every day.

The modern decline of whistling is probably because most pop songs no longer have whistlable melodies. There's also a general trend away from public voices relying on unaided mouths, vocal cords and lungs, towards loudspeakers, recorded announcements, and voice synthesisers.

Teabreak teaser: How many pop songs can you think of which have whistling in them? Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay is too easy, and Ennio Morricone film scores don’t count.

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

Comments

I would have thought that the apparent decline in whistling has more to do with social acceptability than how whistlable modern pop songs are. Whistling is often seen as an anti-social habit, marginally more acceptable than playing music on a phone at the back of the bus. The idea that "new fangled music isn't as tuneful as in my day" goes back a long way, much like the idea that "the youth of today have no respect for their elders" - people have been saying that as long as there have been young people.

Some old tunes are very tricky to whistle - my favourite example being Nola by Felix Arndt, which can be heard whistled in a fabulously quirky old film called Multiple Sidosis (it's on Youtube).

As for pop whistling, there are classic whistling tunes such as I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman, and Winchester Cathedral, and nowadays the ubiquitous Young Folks by Peter, Bjorn and John, which is on just about every advert on radio and TV and which most people would recognise even if they don't know the name of the song.

Colonel Bogey March. - Don't worry, be happy. - Always look on the bright side. - er zzzzzz


Hi Ian and fellow web folk,

While there aren't many books about whistling (primary only "how to" books and pamphlets), there are some other fine resources for whistling related information.

The most important resource for whistling enthusiasts is the Annual International Whistlers Convention. The 35th Convention was hosted by The Japan Whistlers' Federation and the 37th annual convention was held in Qingdao China. Next year's event - The 38th Annual International Whistlers Convention, will be back home in its birthplace - Louisburg, Virginia USA on April 7,8,9+10, 2011. Information about the upcoming convention will be posted at http://www.whistlingiwc.com/.

Another wonderful resource for anyone interested in whistling is the OraWhistle Listserv - A Global Whistlers Forum. "The Orawhistle Whistling forum has an archive with over 14,000 message posts. We currently have over 900 members from more than 40 nations, 35 American states, and 8 Canadian provinces." Orawhistle can be found at: http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/Orawhistle/.

There are two movies about whistling available on the internet. One, "Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling" is a 78 minute documentary filmed at and around the 31st Annual International Whistlers Convention. The film can be purchased through most online bookstores and viewed via through Blockbuster, Netflix, etc. The Wacky World of Whistling is a quirky 3 minute video that runs through some of whistling's history, its uses, some myths and beliefs, etc. It can be viewed on TVGuide.com and CurrentTV.com. A slightly more informative (7 minute) version of the documentary can be found at: https://audience.withoutabox.com/films/whistler -.

Thank you for discussing whistling on the Sound Recordings Blog.

Jim

P.s. if anyone feels like cheating on the TeaBreak Teaser - just let me know and I'll send you a pretty good list of pop songs featuring whistling.

:-)

Hi Tom,

I didn't claim music had become less tuneful over time, just that popular music has tended to become less easily whistled. As a general trend over the last 60 years rhythm has moved to the fore and melody has moved back. Who would now launch a publication with the title 'Melody Maker'?

There probably is some element of social acceptability at work, but it will be a generational effect with whistling seen as a something uncool to do, strictly for granddads. Otherwise I doubt people are whistling less because they fear the disapproval of society at large.

There is one exception: the wolf whistle aimed at women. Not only do many people now regard it as a crass thing to do, but some building firms also ban that behaviour. Wimpey imposed a ban in 2008 on the grounds that it put off house-buyers.

Yes, the coolness factor is undoubtedly a reason for the decline of whistling.

I forgot to mention one of my all-time whistling favourites, The Whistling Monologue, by the great comic Norfolk folk pastiche act, the Kipper Family. It's a very funny wordless (and tuneless) parody of the kinds of novelty monologues which used to be a part of music hall and 78rpm culture.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.