TWANG 2: YODEL
NOW BACK to that Flatlanders' cover of Waiting For A Train. And an element of traditional American music that is equal parts alien and integral, misunderstood and cherished: the yodel.
Jimmie Rodgers, variously known as the 'singing brakeman' and 'father of country music', is rightly credited with popularising the undulating Swiss vocal style within roots music, therefore establishing what to this correspondent is another core strand in the wider weave.
The Mississippi-born star of the 1920s and early 1930s recorded between 12 and 18 (depending on who you ask, and how you count them) of what he described as Blue Yodels. The majority are known by their sequential number but have become more widely accepted under popularised titles including T For Texas (the first, in 1927), Mule Skinner Blues, Standing On The Corner (a jazzy take featuring Louis Armstrong on trumpet), Barefoot Blues and The Women Make A Fool Out Of Me. A number of others are variations on one of the existing songs; a sub-yodel, perhaps. Waiting For A Train is not, to be clear, considered a Blue Yodel.
The songs were drawn from the hobo lifestyle and largely African-American railworker culture that Rodgers variously called home during his formative years; it was the music played informally in boxcars and work cabins, around firepits and on porches. According to John Greenway, writing in the Journal of American Folklore in 1957, the songs follow a relatively set formula: bragging about sexual prowess, threatening a potential rival, mapping the ready alternatives (ie other women), and usually an episode of violence or promiscuity before the introduction of the yodel itself.
And while there is no denying Rodgers' role as commander-in-chief of the yodel brigade, and despite his claims that he was inspired to yodel by a travelling show of Alpine practitioners performing at a local church rather than a rival hillbilly musician, he was not the first to inject the practice into the country music lexicon.
That accolade, as far as can be determined and subject to contradictory evidence showing up in a dusty record bin or session archive, belongs to Riley Puckett. Along with fiddler Gid Tanner, one of his band mates from the Skillet Lickers, the blind Georgian guitar player and vocalist travelled to New York in March 1924 and blessed Columbia Records with a number of tracks including Rock All Our Babies To Sleep (107-D), complete with a yodel.
Why? That is subject to some debate. Exposure to the medium would not have been an issue; troupes of what were usually called Tyrolean yodelers had been criss-crossing the US since the 1840s to perform their ancient art, and of course immigrants from European mountain cultures would have introduced the more practical vocal elements of herd management and remote communication into wider American culture throughout the 19th century.
Research by academic Timothy Wise at the University of Salford in England shows the yodel had been included in Germanic-flavoured elements of the US popular songbook since the late 1800s, led by contributions from composer JK Emmet which were subsequently popularised by singers including George P Watson, whose versions of The Cuckoo Song and Sleep, Baby, Sleep are perhaps the best known. Wise's research further points to sheet music from the generation before Rodgers that shows a mix of yodeling and the blues, while the ragtime era of the early 1920s featured songs including Yodeling Blues by Clarence Williams.
Puckett was undoubtedly inspired by the existing body of work, and even recorded his own version of the yodel-laden Sleep, Baby, Sleep in October of 1924. Exactly how the Emmet/Watson canon influenced the Rock All Our Babies To Sleep sessions of six months earlier is unclear, and perhaps unknowable. And while the link to its forebears should obviously be acknowledged there still remains a genre-crossing moment – a cross-species jump – whose importance should not be underestimated.
The yodel, like the saw, offered another element of rural, folksy shorthand. The Tyrolean import anchored any adherent within traditional music to a core audience seeking that feeling of 'twang' they had grown up with, and perhaps left behind, as they moved into a world dominated by the self-labelled sophisticates of the city.
There is – it can be argued – something carefree and honest about the sound, something both sad and celebratory; there is a smile and a tear hidden between the amalgam of notes, which if nothing else can be seen as one of the defining qualities of the best from country, Americana or roots of any age.
That the Alpine undulation has essentially fallen out of favour says more about the changing demographics of the modern mainstream country audience than it does about the merits of the art form itself; an unprejudiced airing of Waiting For A Train or the Blue Yodels, by Jimmie Rodgers or any of the myriad artists such as The Flatlanders who have covered the songs, will convince you of that.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.