The first whistler I ever heard on record was probably, considering how much country music my parents listened to, the wonderful singer Roger Whittaker. He did quite a few whistling songs, as I recall, but I hadn't remembered him until a friend recently reminded me. The first whistler that I actually remember, and who inspired my own whistling, was the big band whistler and singer Elmo Tanner. When I got the 78 RPM disc of the Ted Weems orchestra doing their huge hit, Heartaches, Tanner's solo blew my mind. He was so melodious and stylishly ornate; it was like a bird had learned to sing jazz!
As usual, the internet has made it possible to procure recordings of this kind like never before. Cylinder and 78 RPM collectors are graciously making these things available. That's how I discovered the virtuoso Margaret McKee; I accidentally stumbled on her while link-surfing on Youtube...I almost passed out, she's so completely amazing. It was like doorway opened into an alternate universe.
Though there was an artistic whistling movement at the turn of the 20th century on the Lyceum circuit, the vast majority of these people were in Vaudeville; it thrills me to imagine that you could go to a theatre reasonably regularly and see someone whistling with an orchestra! As you will see in the images below, whistling artists advertised themselves as such; they toured, they advertised in industry periodicals, and they recorded fairly prolifically...there is a surprisingly large number of whistling solos in the Edison cylinder catalogue. There was even a dedicated school of whistling in Los Angeles, headed by Whistling virtuosa Agnes Woodward! (read more about her HERE) Whistlers traveled across America, treating audiences to daintily warbled versions of "La Boheme" and "Old Black Joe".
Of course, whistling, in spite of the occasional classical melody and fancily dressed puckerer, was still not completely accepted by the long-hairs as a high entertainment, though whistlers (especially whistling ladies), did whistle for presidents and kings). Here's a charming whistler's anecdote pulled from the March 1907 issue of the entertainment magazine, "The Clipper", that proves that point:
Victor V. Vass, the vaudeville performer of whistling specialties, proudly declares that he is the only variety man who has ever had the honor to dress in the same room with the late Henry Irving [ See: www.henryirving.co.uk ]. Vass was on tbe bill at the Broadway Theatre, In 1890, at a benefit performance for the Actors' Fund. Arriving late, be found no room assigned to him, so knocked on the door of the nearest dressing room. A gruff voice bade him "enter," and on opening the door Vass discovered the occupant to be tbe eminent Englishman. Turning hastily, intending to leave, he apologized for intruding, explaining, at the same time, that he had no place to dress.
"I'd be pleased to share my room with you, and especially so on this grand occasion," said Mr. Irving. Somewhat embarrassed, Vass accepted the Invitation, and began to get ready for his turn. Unfortunately, he bad forgotten his grease paint, and Mr. Irving offered some of his own special preparation. Vass carefully saved as much of this as possible, and wrapped it safely In his dressing case. While dressing, the most prominent actor in the land chatted genially on equal terms with the variety man, making kind inquiries about his work in the vaudeville field. Later, after Vass' turn, be ran into the thespian in the wings, and was warmly complimented on his work, and at the same time the actor expressed the hope that his fifteen minute sketch, "Waterloo," would please tbe audience as well as Vass' whistling act.
A week later the whistler was putting on his paint for his turn at one of the "continuous" houses. To his two companions in the dressing room be, in an off-hand sort of way, remarked: "It is not everybody that can use Henry Irving's specially prepared grease paint, as I'm doing."
"Listen to the whistler!" exclaimed one of the performers, "I wonder what brand he's smoking!"
A rare and wonderful story, wot?
The history of popular whistling at the turn of the last century is tragically forgotten by most people these days, most of which would either consider it a corny blotch on human culture, or at best, a kitschy novelty, one of those (from their perspective) zany and surreal oddities that make the present time oh-so-vastly improved. I see it as yet another thing that made previous generations great; a time when people made entertainment for themselves, and nothing was off the table. If you could make a melody with it, or dance on it, or spin it, or make it disappear, people would watch you do it. It's not like that today, or at least not in the mainstream. There are some amazing whistlers in the last half century that have taken it to the high level that those earlier generations did, and even beyond, in a technical sense, but very few that have made careers from it. I have yet to see a poster advertising a whistling concert.
Fortunately, the internet does provide a little solace...you can find recordings of master whistler Ron McCrobey, Swedish expert Leo Eide, also the 60's Hungarian songbird Hacki Tamás (HERE), and if you haven't heard Geert Chatrou, the current world whistling champion, or K. Sivaprasad, the South Indian classical whistler, you're in for a treat.
Just don't look for their recordings in any store near you, or expect anyone you know to have heard of them:
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