Hear Their Lips: Dedicated Whistlers Still Give a Hoot : Music: The catchy tunes of yesteryear are no longer heard. Today's rap and heavy metal are more difficult.


"You do know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

That was Lauren Bacall's husky parting shot to Humphrey Bogart in the classic film "To Have and Have Not." It seems hardly anybody knows that anymore.

Oh, sure, people do whistle. You hear those ear-splitting shrieks at football games, the shrill blasts that summon home wandering pets, the descending note of surprise, the wolf whistle.

In many parts of the country it's rare to hear somebody whistling a tune in public. Rarer still to hear it done well.

"It's almost a lost art," said Bill Taylor of Musician Magazine in Boston.

Earlier in this century, street-corner whistling mirrored popular music. Top entertainers--Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny and folk singer Pete Seeger, to name a few--whistled in their acts, and amateurs picked up the tunes.

Fred Taylor, a Boston jazz promoter, said some artists occasionally incorporate whistling into their acts, and a few avant-garde performers whistle exclusively. "It's in the novelty category," he said. "It's a cult."

Among the faithful is Brad Terry, who discovered his talent about 25 years ago in a Manhattan parking garage.

Terry, a jazz clarinetist from Brunswick, Me., had just finished a jam session. While waiting for his car, he started whistling.

"It was extraordinary," Terry recalled. "It had tremendous reverberation. There were 25 or 30 people standing on a platform behind me, and they all started applauding."

Not long after that, he tried whistling on stage. "It's been part of the act ever since," he said.

Terry has since recorded three whistling albums, and is one of the few professional practitioners of what appears to be a vanishing art.

Downbeat Magazine has called Terry "the finest jazz whistler in the world." Another practitioner is Ron McCroby of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. An advertising executive by trade, McCroby has recorded jazz and classical albums and performed on the "Tonight" show.

Meanwhile, a group of spare-time whistlers has been trying for more than a decade to revive the dying art.

"Each of us had noticed that you don't hear whistling anymore," said Mimi Drummond of Horsham, Pa., who publishes a newsletter for the International Whistlers' Assn. "So we formed the association to promote whistling, especially among children."

The group evolved from a whistling contest sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in Carson City, Nev., in 1977.

About 30 people showed up for the "Whistle-Off." Some whistled a cappella; others were accompanied by piano, guitar, banjo, washboards, taped music and even live back-up singers. Since then, the association has grown to about 200 members.

Hard-core whistlers want to elevate whistling to a serious musical form. "We don't do the bird-whistle competition," said Drummond, a national champion.

At the same time, whistlers want to preserve the light-hearted spirit that prompts them to whistle, so they have a novelty category. One year a contestant performed while standing on her head.

Whistlers say their art is a form of self-expression more socially acceptable than bursting into song in public.

"It's nice to walk down the street and see people smiling at you," Drummond said. "If you walked down the street singing 'How Great Thou Art,' you'd get carted away in a wagon."

Whistlers' techniques differ. Most make music by blowing air out; a few by drawing it in. Most pucker. Some smile widely as they whistle through their teeth. Some produce a reedy sound deep in their throats. Some whistle through their fingers or fists.

Whistling, so it is said, began as signaling. The earliest known whistlers were shepherds and sailors, who wanted sounds to carry great distances.

In the United States, whistling was a popular form of music-hall entertainment in the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the Oxford Companion to Music, Alice Shaw, an entertainer known as "La Belle Siffleuse" (The Beautiful Whistler), performed throughout the country and abroad.

Early in this century, aspiring whistlers could study at Agnes Woodward's California School of Artistic Whistling in Los Angeles. It's gone, but there remain textbooks, such as "How To Whistle Like a Pro (Without Driving Anyone Else Crazy)" by David Harp.

Musician Fred Lowrey performed with big bands, recorded a dozen albums and wrote his autobiography, "Whistling in the Dark." Contemporary whistlers still perform his version of "Indian Love Call."

Why has whistling faded to a mere echo of its former glory?

For one thing, Drummond said, much currently popular music--rap, heavy metal rock, synthesized pop--doesn't have simple melodies easily whistled. "Even the Beatles are hard to whistle," she said.

Whistlers acknowledge, reluctantly, that some people find whistling as annoying a habit as knuckle-cracking or pen-tapping.

Whistling also has some negative connotations. Tattletales are whistle-blowers; a whistle-stop speech is one of little substance. Some people "whistle past the graveyard" to cover their fears; cartoon characters whistle when trying to cover up something.

Women have had to overcome additional anti-whistling prejudices. Victorian etiquette books declared the practice vulgar. In Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," ladylike Meg exhorts sister Jo to stop whistling because "it's so boyish."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World