“You do know how to whistle, don’t you?” Lauren Bacall says in the movie “To Have and Have Not.” “You just put your lips together… and blow.”
If only it were that simple.
I know from personal experience that it is vastly more complicated. From April 17-21, I competed in the 40th annual International Whistling Convention in Louisburg, N.C. There are all kinds of whistling – pucker whistling (the style that most at the convention favored), palate whistling, even finger-whistling, listed in reverse order of how easily you can hail a cab with them. (Steve Herbst, the 2002 International Whistling Champion and MC of the three-day competition at the convention, quipped during the festivities that because he is a well-known whistler, people always ask him how he hails cabs. He raised a hand: ‘Taxi! Taxi!’ )
Whistling is an ancient art, as I learned from Linda Hamilton, the Northern Nightingale (a 2013 inductee into the Whistling Hall of Fame) at the International School of Whistling. There are references to whistling in the Bible – although the Hebrew word for “whistle” is apparently the same as the word for “hiss,” so when God is described as whistling to summon his people, it is possible that he is just making hissing noises in their general direction, as one might summon geese.
Another early reference to whistling is a Chinese tale involving a general who found his troops surrounded by enemy horsemen. He climbed up to a high place and whistled the songs of the horsemen’s homeland –- and the next day, the enemy troops had vanished. The story has it that the whistling had left them overcome by longing for their homeland. At least, this is the story. It could also have been a frantic desire to get away from the sound of whistling. Whistling can be very beautiful, but it is also an acquired taste.
After that, there’s reference to whistling in Chaucer, with a young squire — “Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,” – with “floytynge” likely to be whistling, not playing a flute.
Whistling began to go mainstream with vaudeville performers such as George W. Johnson and became very popular at the beginning of the 20th century. It waned somewhat over the following decades (periodically resurfacing in such unusual spots as the Flo Rida single “Whistle”), but there are still whistling stars such as England’s Ronnie Ronalde. And age has neither withered nor staled the infinite variety of whistlers you run into when walking down the street — from the tuneful to the catcallers. (After spending days listening to the world’s elite whistlers, I now have a much more discerning attitude towards catcalls. “My God!” I exclaim. “You call THAT a palate-whistle?”)
Scratch almost any hobby, and you find a subculture. There are people who knit, and then there are knitters. There are ladies with cats, and then there are cat ladies. There are people who whistle, and there are whistlers.
Hobbies, like cats, can reach the point where they start to rampage over your life. One cat can be regarded as an indulgence. Get 16 or more and start wearing sweaters with cats on them and embroidering pillows to read, “I’m not a Cat Owner — My Cats Are People Owners” — and it is no longer a hobby. It has mutated into something else. All hobbies constantly threaten this. Which one you put in charge of your life is a profound choice.
At the International Whistling Convention, whistling is that hobby of choice. If whistling is your guiding passion, there is whistling trivia to know. There are whistling celebrities to follow and whistling conventions to attend. There are techniques to master and opinions to swap. And among the attendees, you can feel the same sense of relief palpable at any gathering of people whose hobby or pastime is not generally welcomed by those with whom they spend the majorities of their days. For a few blissful days, there is whistling everywhere. Louisburg is given over entirely to whistling. There is an official proclamation from the Franklin County Board of County Commissioners wishing a “Happy Whistlers Week” (“Whereas, the ancient art of whistling is being preserved with public displays of talent and artifacts in the nation’s only museum of its kind; and, Whereas, the art of whistling is both a performing art and a healthy expression of happiness for the community….”)
There’s something about whistling. It’s an expression of joy. Unlike other ways of making music, there’s little bar to entry; you need no lessons to get started, just a certain attitude and a willingness to practice. Whistlers are trained opera singers and talented pianists — and people who couldn’t otherwise hold a tune. There’s room for anyone with a song in his or her heart and the ability to pucker. Certain types of whistling sound eerie and beautiful, like a human theremin. Other types (mine, for instance) sound at best like a seasick bird with a limited ear for tone.
Some people allow this sort of performance to jaundice their perspective on the whole art. “Whistling is not an art form or a music genre, it’s an annoyance. You know the only person who enjoys whistling? The Whistler,” Joan Rivers wrote.
But this is one weekend where it’s not true.
Like most things, whistling is an art if done well and painful if done badly. And if you want to hear it done well, look no further than the International Whistling Convention.
Here are some of the most exciting things you will see all year, if your definition of exciting is anything like my definition of exciting.
The male champion whistles:
Charun Thattai, a finalist, whistles “Skyfall.”
Speaking of James Bond, here is Todd Dickerson’s Allied Arts performance, combining whistling with other abilities
Another contestant (the ultimate second-place winner) palate-whistles the “Danse Boheme” from “Carmen.”
Yudai Takenaka (the male teen grand champion) performs at the Allied Arts Competition.
And this is just incredible:
And if you enjoyed it, there’s plenty more where it came from — and be sure to mark the International Whistling Convention on your calendar for next year.