yodel

Yodeling is associated with Alps, so it’s no surprise that the English word is borrowed from German. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb to yodel as “to sing or call using a distinctive style of vocalization characterized by repeated rapid alternations of pitch between the low chest voice and the high falsetto or head voice.” The German verb jodeln dates to at least the eighteenth century, and the older Middle High German jolen meant to sing loudly and wildly.

The verb makes its way into English by 1838 in reference to Alpine yodeling. There is this from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1839 novel Hyperion:

Far above, in the clear, cloudless heaven, the white forehead of the Jungfrau blushed at the last kiss of the departing sun. It was a glorious Transfiguration of Nature! And when the village bells began to ring, and a single voice at a great distance was heard yodling forth a ballad, it rather broke than increased the enchantment of a scene, where silence was more musical than sound.

(The OED classifies this citation under the sense for musical yodeling, undoubtedly due to Longfellow’s use of ballad, but the context is distinctly that of an Alpine shout, not a song.)

And by 1847, the verb was being used in other contexts, especially music, referring to any shout or song that fluctuated in pitch like Alpine yodeling. The noun appears in English by 1841.

Yodeling is often a feature of American country music. This tradition was introduced by Jimmie Rodgers who from 1927–33 recorded a series of songs titled Blue Yodel. As a result, the term blue yodel is sometimes used to differentiate this American musical tradition from the Alpine one, as in this example from the Journal of American Folklore in 1972:

Here, backed by Washboard Doc and Benny Wade Jefferson (Blind Lemon’s nephew), he displays his retention of the “down home” sound. “My Baby Left Me” has definite “blue yodel” implications in the guitar backing.


Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, September 2016, s. v. yodel, v. and yodel, n.

Wilgus, D. K. “From the Record Review Editor: Afro-American Tradition.” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 85, No. 335, Jan–Mar 1972, pp. 99–107 at 105.

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