Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

07 July 2009

The decline of whistling

IN DENNIS POTTER’S drama series Pennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins plays a hard-up sheet music seller. While on his rounds, he tries to enthuse a sceptical music shop owner:

It’s a great tune, everyone’s gonna be whistling it!

When you did last hear anyone whistle a tune? Despite urgings from the Seven Dwarfs, tuneful whistling is on the way out.

Once, workplace whistling was common enough for some high-class establishments in London to put up signs forbidding tradesmen and staff from whistling. One can still be seen round the back of the Savoy hotel. The only people allowed or, in fact, expected to whistle were the doormen, who had the knack of putting two fingers in their mouths and blowing a very loud whistle to hail taxis.

Despite the disapproval of hotels and their guests, whistling had a popular image. It stood for cheerfulness and harmless self-amusement. Comedies and cartoons often had someone up to no good start whistling and looking innocent if they were about to be discovered. Before his 1975 hit The Last Farewell, the English singer-songwriter Roger Whittaker showed off his skills in songs like Irish Whistler and Mexican Whistler.

The entertainer and famous bird impersonator Percy Edwards, who died in 1996, was able to imitate the songs of hundreds of different bird species, mainly through whistling, and his example had many imitators. One old recording I came across recently is of the sounds of Smithfield meat market in 1993. The recordist noted that it was ‘initially spoilt by silly whistling from a porter’. That said, the porter does a pretty good take on Percy Edwards, even if he was meaning to conjure the spirit of a ‘dickybird’ rather than any particular species.

The decline of whistling is probably because most pop songs no longer have whistlable melodies and, perhaps, is also part of the general trend of public vocalisation shifting from lips and lungs and vocal cords working in real time, towards loudspeakers, recorded sound and voice synthesisers.

Teabreak teaser: How many pop songs can you think of which have whistling in them? Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay is too easy, and Ennio Morricone film scores don’t count (sorry).