On the cold and snowy afternoon on Fri., Nov. 13, I found myself sitting in the Early Music Room at Grinnell College surrounded by 15-20 like-minded individuals. Over the next 45 minutes or so, I would be learning how to yodel.
This wasn’t just any yodeling workshop. This was “Yodeling Your Way to Prosperity” with the Double D Wranglers, a cowboy band whose visit to campus was sponsored by the Center for Prairie Studies, the Department of Music, and the Grinnell Area Arts Council. The group specializes in cowboy yodeling, and singer and bassist Chris Gudgel was going to show us how it’s done.
The workshop began with a history lesson. The Bavarian-style yodeling many people are familiar with was developed in the Alps as a means of communication over long distances, but yodeling is also used in Georgian folk music and by Pygmies in Central Africa. The exact origins of “cowboy” yodeling are unclear, but Gudgel said it seemed to emerge in the early 20th century and was popularized in Western movies. Movie stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers incorporated it into their songs, and ever since, yodeling has been an integral part of cowboy music.
The history was easy. Actually learning how to yodel? THAT was hard.
“It’s a lot easier to demonstrate than it is to explain it,” Gudgel said, and he was right. Successful yodeling depends on finding the break in one’s voice between the normal singing (“chest”) voice and the falsetto (“head” voice). Rapidly change pitch between the two registers, add some syllables (for example, “yodel-a-eee-ooo”), and voila! You’re yodeling!
After a quick lecture on yodeling theory, it came time to put it into practice. The room was soon filled with yodels and, in my case, attempted yodels.
“You can’t do this quietly,” Gudgel called out. “There is absolutely no part of yodeling that can be done quietly.”
The braver among us tried out our yodels for the group, and then the Double D Wranglers gave us a demonstration. Gudgel, fiddler Charity Gudgel, and guitarist Paul Siebert have been traveling all over the country spreading their love of cowboy yodeling, and the group stuck around for a performance that night at the Voertman Theater.
I decided to try out my newly acquired yodeling skills alone in my car, and I can truthfully say I wasn’t that great. While I have limited vocal ability and my yodeling probably sounded more like a dying cat than Gene Autry, I had an absolute blast.