The origins of yodeling
by Diana Oehrli
No, yodeling did not begin as some websites claim, with a man yelling “andyouroldladytoo,” as he’s being thrown off a mountain as punishment for kissing a Swiss man’s daughter. The history of yodeling is thankfully more positive than that. But hold on. One cannot write about the origins of yodeling without mentioning the alphorn, Switzerland’s national musical instrument. Both yodeling and the alphorn were ancient methods of alpine communication.
Some say that the alphorn evolved out of a single blade of grass or a leaf held between two thumbs, the sounds of which ranged over two octaves. Then one day, a herdsman had the idea to hollow out a small pine tree and to blow it as a horn, hence the birth of the alphorn. Yodeling, on the other had, is a form of singing, developed as a form of long distance communication, cow calls from mountaintop to mountaintop, if you will. It involves the holding of a note that changes pitch rapidly and repeatedly, fluctuating between the singer’s chest voice and head voice. A long time tradition in Poland, Caucasia and Scandinavia, yodeling is said to have begun in the early Stone Age in the Alps. There is evidence that yodeling existed in West Virginia (US) by the 1600’s. Related techniques can also be heard in African countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, DR/Congo, Angola, Burundi and Gabon, as well as in Asian countries. There are two types of Swiss yodel: the ‘natural yodel’ and the ‘yodel song.’ The natural yodel has no words, is usually improvised and can have one to five separate voices. The yodel song combines traditional songs with yodel refrains. These are sung either solo or in choirs. Oskar Friedrich Schmalz (1881-1960), is credited with recreating the yodel song by combining traditional one-voice songs with yodel refrains and the accordion. There exist more than 2,000 compositions of Swiss yodel songs. They are mainly in Swiss German dialect, but also in French. The themes in yodeling are of love, nature and one’s region.
The main organization for all yodeling, alphorn and flag tossing activities in Switzerland, is the Swiss Yodeling Association (Eidgenössischer Jodlerverband). Founded in 1910 in Bern, the association organizes national competitions. The first official national Yodeling Festival was held in Basel in 1924 with 31 groups participating. 72 years later at the 23rd Swiss Yodeling Festival in Thun, the event grew to 549 participants, including 269 alphorn players, 169 flag tossers.
The next national yodeling festival will take place in Interlaken in 2011 and is expected to draw 200,000 visitors. The association is made up of 5 sub-associations including the Bernese Cantonal Yodel Association, which was founded in 1917. It is this organization that held its 45th cantonal festival in Gstaad earlier this month, which drew more than 4,000 competitors and over 40,000 spectators.