Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 25, 2022

"Just put your lips together ..."

From our car's comfy passenger seat, I heard whistling. We had stopped at a convenience store so husband Art could top off the tank for our trip to Wisconsin. When he got back inside, I asked if he was the one whistling.

"The Train They Call the City of New Orleans," he said grinning.

It reminded me of a couple of years ago when we stopped in Ankeny, Iowa on another such trip. The fellow on the pump opposite began whistling and Art waited a minute to see if it was just for a few notes or a tune. When the man continued, Art peeked around the pump and said to him, "Nobody whistles much any more," adding that he enjoyed it. The man smiled and agreed.

Neither of my parents whistled, but I remember Uncle Bud doing so. Cousin Linda said her dad whistled all the time, usually a cowboy tune. She did recall his being partial to the theme song from TV�s "The Andy Griffith Show."

Art said his dad whistled, although it was a sing-song affair - just a series of notes with no particular tune. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason when he'd do it ... with one exception. If his dad had left for work after some sort of disagreement with Art�s mom, Donna noticed when he returned he would unconsciously whistle while walking up the driveway to their home as a sort of sign everything was OK.

I've never been good at whistling, but Art can do it with either pursed lips or using the gap in his front teeth. When he's happy, he tends to do the former with a distinct tune, but when he's irritated, it's more likely to be the latter with random notes.

Art mentioned Bing Crosby frequently whistled in recordings and that made me think of his doing so during the second chorus of "White Christmas." Recalling other songs that featured whistling. "Whistle While You Work" from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" came to mind immediately. There was the "Lassie" theme, "Whistle a Happy Tune," "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."

Art recalled "The Big Noise from Winnetka" - a jazz song first performed in 1938. Art's a great fan of jazz and big bands, the result of his mother's love for those genres from the 1920s through the 1950s. It was considered the golden age of musical whistling too. Many bands had an artist who would whistle.

It was so popular that a number of popular idioms arose.

* "Whistling past the graveyard" or "whistling in the dark" means putting up a brave front even though you're frightened.
* "Whistling in the wind" is trying to change something that can't be changed.
* "Wet your whistle" refers to having a drink.
* "Whistle stop" is a town or place so small the train stopped, but briefly.
* "Whistling Dixie" has a couple of meanings. One is to engage in unrealistic, hopeful fantasizing, such as me hoping the trip to our Wisconsin destination would only take 10 hours instead of 12. But if someone "ain't just whistling Dixie," it means they're not kidding around.

In many cultures, whistling in the morning is thought to attract good luck, good things, or good spirits. In Russian and other Slavic cultures, whistling indoors is believed to bring poverty - "whistling money away" - whereas whistling outdoors is considered normal.

But one of the things all these examples have in common is they are all from some time back. Perhaps the most famous movie reference is from the film "To Have and have Not" starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in which she says to him:

You don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. ... You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.

That film hit the movie screens in 1944 - 78 years ago!

But today the Masters of Musical Whistling is showcasing the best whistlers in the world. It is an international festival, competition, and concert created to celebrate, promote, and revive whistling.

Others are doing their part to keep whistling alive, but not in relation to music. On La Gomera, one of Spain's Canary Islands, there exists a traditional whistled language called Silbo Gomero. It allowed people to communicate over long distances when other communication means weren't available. At least nine separate whistling sounds are used to produce four vowels and five consonants, allowing this language to convey unlimited words. The language is now taught in school and, in 2009, it was declared by UNESCO a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Whistling languages are also found among the indigenous peoples living in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. In 2014, linguist Mark Sicoli produced an Emmy-award-winning documentary, "Whistles in the Mist." Sicoli said the language predates the arrival of the Spaniards by centuries. When men tended fields on the mountainsides, they developed whistled speech to communicate their locations, what they were doing and to make plans with others.

We too sometimes employ whistling for nonmusical purposes, such as when we whistle to call animals, to indicate we find another person attractive, and to signal approval or disapproval at sporting events.

Reflecting, I probably should have delved into this whistling thing last month. After all, it's famous for being the month of the groundhog ... also known as the whistlepig!

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from this year may be found at: Current year Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home