Dear Mr. Alice:
Why do country singers yodel? What could have been the connection that brought yodeling from the Swiss Alps to Nashville, or did yodeling crop up independently as a form of expression among country-western singers? Or did the Swiss really start yodeling only after seeing their first Gene Autry film? I gotta know!
-- Bob H., Mira Mesa
Well, gee-howdy. Speaking of marrying your cousin... Country music doesn't have much to do with Dolly Parton, and cowboys don't have anything to do with yodeling. Country-western went show-biz sometime in the 1920s, and that's when things got so confused. English-Scottish-Irish music from Appalachia, combined with the blues, forms the basis of Western folk music before the invention of the cowboy, around 1850 or so. Once the sodbusters established ranches, cowboys became the subject of folk songs. Yeah, cowboys probably sang, but when your audience is cattle, you don't get much national exposure. Cowboys also whistled and yipped and ti-yi'ed and made noises to keep the dogies movin', but that's about all. Meanwhile, the Swiss, Austrians, some African tribes, and Chinese and Australian natives had been yodeling up a storm for centuries as a means of long-distance communication and entertainment. With the advent of radio and recordings, this Western-flavored country music captured the American ear, and promoters started promoting. One of the biggest early country stars was Jimmie Rogers, the first nationally known country singer to yodel at us. He may have heard European yodelers who performed on the U.S. vaudeville circuit in the early part of the century. Anyway, Nashville created its own reality. Cowboys don't yodel. The people who sing about cowboys yodel.