I still remember the moment of the great breakthrough. My son, perhaps five years old, raced into the living room wearing a grin so wide it could have spanned two –and-a-half time zones.
“I can do it!” He announced triumphantly. “I can whistle! Listen, Dad.” He puckered up and let it blow. Sure enough, a distinct whistling noise—not unlike a factory-second teapot—was coming out of his mouth. Euphonious. Sonorous. Symphonious. And other words that sound like an illness.
It had all begun several weeks earlier when he had heard me idly whistling while I was changing the brake pads on my car. OK, that is not true. I do not know how to change brake pads. I’m not even sure what a brake pad is. Let me rewrite that:
It had all begun several weeks earlier when he had d heard me idly whistling while I was
performing brain surgery. That’s when my son became determined to learn how to whistle too. I showed him some moves—but whistling is not something you can pick up casually. It takes practice. Like brain surgery.
I saw an article recently lamenting how old-fashioned and obsolete whistling has become. In fact, practically no one these days—according to the report—whistles anymore. Except for referees. And they tend to do it out of anger, not joy—and only with the help of portable devices hanging around their necks.
But is it true? Is whistling becoming the Dodo bird of body noises?
Well, not entirely. My brother still whistles frequently. At night, after he’s fallen asleep—and mostly through his nose.
When I was a kid, I was constantly digging out my parents’ old collection of music records—and noticed that lots of old songs showcased whistling. It was the hip-hop of the times.
Guys like Bing Crosby seemed to do a lot of it—in between crooning of course. Crosby was the music idol of his time, and so girls swooned mostly over his singing. The whistling thing was sort of an ‘add-on’—like getting a free oil change with the purchase of a Kia.
I remember having several records featuring someone named “Whistling Jack” Smith—who did nothing but that. Even with his limited range, “Whistling Jack” had some hits. You can find him on You Tube.
(Another artist of the time—“Scratching” Larry Muldoon”—had a skin condition and never sold a single disc.)
I also remember a novelty artist of the 1960’s—an older woman named “Mrs. Miller”—who sang covers of popular songs in a spectacularly horrible soprano voice. Yet, in the middle of the song, she switched to a high-pitched whistling solo that was surprisingly solid. The odd—and very strident—performances brought her a measure of fame. Although she was not popular with dogs.
But whistling is not so big in popular music anymore. The only whistling Justin Beiber does is on his way to the bank.
I remember a handyman who used to do work at our house when I was a youngster.
His name was ‘Windy.’ No one ever had to explain how he got his nickname, for the fellow rarely stopped talking. Except to whistle.
He’d replace a drippy water faucet—while whistling a merry tune. Then, he’d rewire a faulty light switch—and still be whistling. Next, he’d turn his attention to a plugged toilet—and keep on whistling. It all seemed to suggest that ‘Windy’ was a man who was very happy with his life. Or slightly off his rocker.
Speaking of that, I remember a movie from long ago called “M.” It starred Peter Lorre as a creepy child murderer—who whistled. He was definitely way off his rocker. After seeing that scary film, it seemed reasonable to be suspicious of anyone who whistled.
Even Whistler’s Mother looks a little off-kilter.
And yet, there were those cute dwarves in “Snow White” who whistled while they worked. Even ‘Grumpy’ went along with the program.
Whether everyday whistling will ever come back into vogue is unknown. (Whether the word ‘vogue’ will ever come back into vogue is another unknown.)
Maybe people are so deeply into i-pods, i-phones and karaoke these days they can find no time or interest in the solitary joys of expelling air through pursed lips anymore.
Still, there is hope.
Every year there is an international whistling competition—a showcase for people who can blow artfully from their lips, tongues and teeth. Like other athletic competitions, there is great drama in watching a brash newcomer—a sort of whistling whirling dervish—come out of nowhere to take the crown.
Perhaps the Babe Ruth of whistlers is a genial fellow named Christopher Ullman. He’s a four-time national and international champ.
Wouldn’t a presidential candidate who did nothing but whistle be refreshing right about now?
Words are not always to be believed. But you can always trust a whistle.