Blackbird singing. Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Maybe the medium is indeed the message. If so, the times call for us all to give a little whistle.

Like a lot of Americans, I grew up to the tune of some catchy theme-songs and pop hits in which someone whistled a portion — or all — of the melody. There was something simultaneously casual and virtuosic about these performances. Hearing one made the listener want to try it out — it sounded so effortless and possible, unlike singing, which wasn’t a matter of just hitting the notes, but involved the timbre and resonance and expressiveness of the voice, a multifaceted phenomenon. Whistling could be more or less clear, more or less on pitch, but that was about it. The real challenge was in shaping the mouth to make it happen and controlling it. What it would take was practice.

If you’re at least my age or older, or maybe a tad younger, and especially if you grew up in the southeastern U.S., you’ll likely think instantly of two songs that consist entirely of someone whistling against instrumental music: “The Fishin’ Hole,” the theme-song to the Andy Griffith Show, and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” as recorded by Brother Bones in 1949, the theme-song adopted by the Harlem Globetrotters. Being able to whistle either of those would’ve been a mark of accomplishment. But other riffs were nearly as iconic. Who wouldn’t recognize the outro of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” (1967), even entirely on its own, whistled by someone in passing? That little, melancholy melody stands for the whole song.

There are “bird” songs, of course — like “Rockin’ Robin” (1958) or the Beatles’ “Blackbird” (1968), in which the whistling evokes the titular bird (even as, in the case of “Blackbird,” the bird has symbolic meaning). And there are songs in which the performers seem to want to make melodic sounds however they can, as in J. Geils’ Band’s “Centerfold” (1981), which hands the melody to a stream of “na-na” vocalizations before turning it over to a whistle, and in Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (1988), which adds whistling to McFerrin’s a capella orchestra-in-one-body.

Maybe the ubiquitous-in-childhood “Whistle While You Work,” from Disney’s Snow White (1937), has helped to solidify the association of whistling with a sort of jaunty, “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade” attitude. Supporting that, there’s also “Give a Little Whistle,” from the soundtrack of Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), and “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I (1951). Although it doesn’t seem impossible to imagine a sad, sorrowful whistle, even Redding’s plaintive dock-of-the-bay riff still manages to sound bravely cheery. There’s something almost childlike and uncomplicatedly hopeful about the sound of a whistled tune, despite the fact that it’s tough, as an actual child, to learn how to whistle very well.

Not that it’s impossible. If you wanted to practice — and the people around you didn’t mind too much — you could surely pick up whistling well enough, just as you might learn some pleasing tunes on a piano or guitar. But you’d have to want to do it.

Braided into my own thoughts about whistling is the memory of my mother, whistling around the house

(I suspect she still does, as such habits are hard to break). I can’t remember a time when my mother didn’t whistle while she worked. Maybe she wasn’t a virtuosic whistler by some standard or other, but she was as good as anyone I’ve ever heard in person. She had plenty of range, and as best my novice ears could tell, she stayed on pitch. She had her own jaunty style, with flourishes and embellishments that I’m sure she just improvised as the mood struck her. She wasn’t one of those tuneless whistlers — there were a couple of those on the hall of the school where I taught for over a decade, and as much as I tried to ignore them, they drove me a little crazy with their formless, meandering soundmaking. I don’t know why tuneless whistling disturbs me, except that, like a squeaking shoe or an alarm beeping unendingly in Costco while I walk around, it’s just noise, part of the cluttered soundscape it’s hard to ever get away from these days, and in the case of tuneless whistlers, added to the noise is the obliviousness, my sense that they could stop it if they realized they might be intruding on other people’s quiet.

My mother, however, did not, to my recollection, whistle without purpose and structure. She was a cover-artist, tweedling the old Disney songs and other familiar melodies from her childhood — those were the backbone of her repertoire. But her ability was versatile, too: she readily added contemporary music to the set-list, whatever had been playing on the radio in the car or on the stereo in our house. She was, you might say, a one-woman Muzak service.

I write this with warranted admiration for a talent my mother would probably shrug off.

And maybe you’re wondering — if I grew up with such an artist in the house, am I also an accomplished whistler? The answer, friends, is no. I can barely get a sound to reliably pass my pursed lips. My note-range is less than an octave, and that uncertainly. I guess I could take up the practice now, if I thought about it. But it doesn’t even occur to me to want to whistle. I’m much more likely to hum.

I remember being whistled to in the morning, when I’d tried to ignore the alarm waking me for school and had dug my face deeper into the pillow. My mother would sweep in, singing or whistling with pointed bouyancy, and throw open the curtains. She brought a cascade of sprightly song into my haven of drowze and grump, flooding the room with pep and animation. Never a “morning person,” I grew less and less receptive to crack-of-dawn effervescence as I burrowed deeper into my teens. For that matter, ebullience at any time of day offended my often self-serious — or downright maudlin — sense of proper behavior, at least from adults. Fine if my friends and I wanted to try to make each other spew lunch, laughing over who-knows-what, or if we thought that running up the down-escalator at the mall was the most hilarious stunt ever — but heaven forbid if an adult, a parent, should express good cheer in my presence. That was not dignified. Their “funny” wasn’t funny, and their good moods — well, they were just annoying.

Also annoying was my little brother, of course. He had always contributed to the clamor and activity in our house, but when he got to be a teenager, too, and started learning the guitar, he discovered heavy metal. The music issuing from our stereo was no longer just The Beatles, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, the Beach Boys. When he got the chance, he’d crank Iron Maiden up to deafening levels, the throbbing of “Aces High” (1984) or the bizarre, incongrous setting of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1984) resounding and sticking in my head for all time (it would seem, thirty-some years later). Yngvie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Randy Rhoads — Ozzy Ozbourne’s 1987 Tribute album. “Crazy Train” (1980/1).

“You hear that?” my brother said.
“Mom. You hear what she’s whistling?” He grinned.

Sure enough: from the kitchen, where she was doing something or other, cooking or baking or cleaning, the melody of “Crazy Train” issued, unmistakable. My mother was whistling “Crazy Train.” It would not be the last time we heard the strains of heavy metal transmogrified.

If a whistled tune can’t help but be a little bit exuberant, or at least light-hearted, then what happens to heavy metal when you whistle it? Take all the grinding, pounding anguish and anger and despair and destruction, the (melo)drama and tragedy and menace, the scary and wild-looking (mostly) men with their monstrous-virtuosic voices, and render it down into a melody blown casually through the lips, like a kiss. By your mother. Heavy metal as a mother’s kiss, a whistle-while-you-work anthem that takes the melody away from the lyrics and says, “isn’t this catchy?”

Maybe it’s an essential life-skill,

the ability to take the pulse of rage and animus, to distill the monster-voices down to the music at their heart and take away only that, leaving the thunder behind. Maybe — I see it better now — whistling back at a world that so often makes terrible, dissonant noise is a lifeline, a brave beauty drawn by the breath out of the discord. As a kid, I refused to learn it. But maybe it’s time I did.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.