“After 20 years as a free form radio DJ,” writes this album’s compiler, Bart Plantega, who broadcasts Wreck This Mess on WFMU, “I realize that DJs have few kicks: first, the segue, that magical convergence of strange musics at first intercourse; and second, obscurity which involves discarded gems, neglected musicians or disparaged musics. Yodelling supplies the above in abundance.”
Plantega notes that “society has tainted our senses toward the view that yodelling is something marginal.” He insists that this is wrong. “I hope that this album will go some way toward exploding any remaining clichés that my book, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oo, left standing.” Does it? No it doesn’t. Not quite. Instead, The Rough Guide to Yodel is likely to leave you with the impression that the neglect and disparagement that drew him to yodelling are the very things that keep him tied to it, and that if one day it achieved mainstream popularity he would lose interest and wander off to search for his discarded gems somewhere else. He likes the dub-mix of Alpendub vs. The Man Cable’s “Jaga Ode [Dubtronic]”, but his inclinations draw him irrisistably towards the dagginess of Christine Lauterberg’s deadpan background cow (she yodels prettily; it gives a loud moo) and the gee-gosh boy-howdy lyrics of Janet McBride. He cites Kid Rock but his compilation sings like Kishore Kumar.
When he tells us that yodelling is “vital, hip or cool” and then gives us Cameroon’s Francis Bebey pretending to be a pygmy who scolds his wife in pidgin English, then he’s sabotaging his own spin. “I be sorry that I marry you, because you make me cry and feel sad,” says Bebey. “All the time. Why you make me feel sad like dat?” Then he yodels, ee-aa-ee-oo, and continues. “When I marry you, you be small-small. Slim-slim. And light. Like a leaf … I kill monkey, I kill elephant in the forest to feed you.” Yodel, yodel. We learn that the pygmy woman means to go back to her parents, but who will restore to her husband the dowry of elephant tusks he gave her father when they married? “Give me the name of the man who go pay me my elephant tusk!” More mournful yodelling. This is hip and cool only in the most outsiderish of ways. It’s hip in the same way that a copy of Songs In The Key of Z is hip. Bebey might as well have borrowed his cheap keyboard beat from Wesley Willis. Frankly, I love it, and I’d buy Bebey’s album in an instant if I could find a copy. But cool? No.
“Society,” Plantega writes, has made us think that most yodellers are “Wagnerian extras in too-tight lederhosen and dirndls,” and so to make this cliché explode he presents us with an alternative idea: that most yodellers are country singers from America. We have McBride singing about the cowboy she wants to marry in “A Yodeling Addiction”, we have Kenny Roberts with “Just a Yodel for Me”, we have Mike Johnson from the Washington area telling us, “Yeah, I’m a Cowboy”, we have Cathy Fink teaching a class of American schoolchildren how to hee-haw in her “Yodeling Lesson”, we have Carolina Cotton smiling at us through a piece of Hollywood-style swing yodel from 1950, we have The Ho’opi’i Brothers yodelling sweetly in masculine falsetto tandem during “Hawaiian Cowboy”, and we have Gillian Welch in “My Morphine” drawing out a yodel to such languid lengths that she’s almost spelling it rather than singing it. “Dee-dle. Odle. Ay-dle. Lay. Tea,” she remarks, laying every syllable on the table in turn.
Other areas of the world get to peek in the window. The Hindi filmi industry flirts with yodel in Kumar’s “Main Hoon Jhoom Jhoom Jhumroo”. Kumar being Kumar, it also gets to flirt with wild shrieks of “A-ha!” and a wordless exclamation that sounds something like, “Tingy tingy tingy tingy meep!” The Swiss Jodel Duo of Rösy and Paul Hirschi brings a traditional herder’s yodel into the chorus of “Schäferleid”, and their countrywoman Lauterburg mixes Alpine soprano yodelling with farming noises in “Erika’s Alpentrum”. (For another example of innovative European new-folk herding music, try “Kulning” from Gjallarhorn’s Grimborg. Jenny Wilhems’ shriek will go through you like a saw.) Sainkho Namchylak’s “Inuit Wedding” is a steppe-dweller’s yodel mantra coupled with grunts that might be Inuit throat-singing.
But by the end we’re left in no doubt that Plantega sees American yodelling as the most significant yodelling on the planet, and while this is going to leave people from other parts of the world feeling ignored, at least it means that we get to hear a good selection of cowboy songs. Perhaps he’s right. In the booklet he mentions the presence of yodellers in Australia, Vietnam, the Solomon Islands, Iran, and other countries, but there’s no sign of them on the album. We’re left to conclude that these foreign singers are not in the same class as Laura Love and Carolina Cotton. Well, he’s been a fan of yodelling since the late ’80s, so by now he should know the good from the bad.
The Rough Guide to Yodel is a happy album, but it’s not likely to convince you that yodelling is cool, or that it’s really vital to any part of the world except the mountainous areas of Western Europe, the music halls of the US, and (thanks to Bebey, and Baka Beyond who chime in with “Call of the Forest”) the jungles of Cameroon. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. We can’t all be hip. We shouldn’t all be hip. It would be so boring. Sometimes it’s better to be Ed Sanders singing folkily about “a yodelling robot, in love / with Dolly Parton.” Viva the discarded gems.