Backstory: Reviving the lost art of whistling

Chris Ullman (stage name 'The Happy Whistler') has performed for President Bush. He thinks it's time for America to pucker up.

The first thing Chris Ullman did when he entered the Oval Office was ask the man he met there what kind of music he liked. "Country/Western," replied George W. Bush, who then leaned back, put the presidential feet up on the presidential desk, and waited. Mr. Bush had heard of Mr. Ullman's unconventional talent, and summoned him from the Eisenhower Building next door, where he worked for the Office of Management and Budget. It was a command performance: June 20, 2001.

Mr. Ullman considered "The Yellow Rose of Texas" for the Texan president. But perhaps not wanting to be obvious, he whistled "The William Tell Overture" instead. He followed with Duke Ellington, some Beethoven, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

"He enjoyed it," says Ullman, who favors bright bow ties and owlish glasses. In 2000, Ullman won the International Male Whistling Championship at the competition held every April (except this year) in Louisburg, N.C., a place which, every year, draws the attention of whistlers like bears to honeytrees.

Ullman wants to win again. He wants to be inducted into the whistlers' Hall of Fame, a pantheon whose existence is not widely known but is revered by those for whom whistling is an artful "singing without words," as one aficionado put it.

Recalling his White House experience, "The Happy Whistler" (Ullman's stage name) says he felt the president was "auditioning me for a State dinner." But five years on, Mr. Bush has yet to invite him back, dispelling any expectations Ullman might have entertained that whistling was about to arise and transfix the masses.

Still, his was a historic experience. The art of whistling, its acceptance as genuine musical expression, probably had not been sanctioned at such an elevated station since American vaudevillian Alice Shaw - one of the 33 enshrined in the whistlers' Hall of Fame - serenaded the czar of Russia, in Moscow, in January, 1891.

Since then whistling, among the commoner of human impulses, though maybe the least understood, has drifted in and out of popular favor many times. Its so-called "Golden Age" unfolded in the '40s and '50s. Big bands often had a whistler in the troupe, like Elmo Tanner with the Ted Weems orchestra. Singers whistled: Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Al Jolson, to name a few. Musicians, too: Harpo Marx never talked, but he sure did whistle, especially when plucking his harp. Whistling was often on radio and TV in those years. Some presidents whistled unashamedly, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt among them.

And President Bush? Ullman forgot to ask.

"Today whistling is a lost art," he says, "a subculture and the likelihood it will break out of that is nil, mainly because of the lack of music written for whistlers."

Not to mention disdain for it among many musicians, and indifference by the public for it as entertainment, or art. Those who do think about it tend to recall songs that are about whistling, or contain snatches of it, such as "Whistle a Happy Tune," from "The King and I," and that other chestnut, "Whistle While You Work," by those seven miniature chaperones to Snow White.

Everybody's aware of whistling; most people can do it, but few are familiar with its lore.

"There's little research," says Jim Voltz, an informal historian of whistling. "It's unknown in academia, though there's research on the whistling of dolphins and birds."

Mr. Voltz, an amiable, bearish fellow who does legal analysis for Blue Cross Blue Shield, whistles, but not publicly. He's shy. He favors choral or harmonic whistling, such as "Colonel Bogey's March," from "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

"I think it's beautiful, though there's not much around. The University of Chicago once had a whistling chorus," he recalls, adding wistfully, "but they all graduated."

Voltz is eager to share what he's learned of whistling over 40 years.

Whistling was an element in every major civilization from Greeks to Mayans, he notes. And though it's commonly used to express music, whistling has emerged as languages in Brazil, Spain, Turkey, and many other places.

Most people agree whistling usually suggests happiness, but it has a dark side, Voltz says. Much superstition surrounds it, with taboos on whistling in theaters, in mines, under circus tents, on ships, and in trains. Whistling signaled the approach of the child murderer in the 1931 Peter Lorre movie, "M." Nazi doctor Josef Mengele whistled Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as he selected victims for his cruel experiments.

While neither Voltz nor Ullman anticipates a renaissance, they do detect renewed interest. Whistling is increasingly heard in TV commercials and it's mentioned frequently in obituaries.

Voltz has inquired among advertising people as to why they use it so much. "They say they don't know," he says, then shrugs: "Maybe to make people happy."

He keeps a list of products and services whistling is helping to sell - Citibank, Wal-Mart, Honda, and Dunkin' Donuts to name several perhaps not yet synonymous with the sound of rushing air but certainly banking on it.

In obituaries, Voltz notes, "some loved one is always being remembered for whistling, a father or grandfather." He also has a collection of such obituaries.

But the best news for whistling aficionados comes from Louisburg, where the International Whistling Convention was not held this year, as it has been for the past 34, under the auspices of the Franklin County Arts Council. Allen de Hart, who founded and manages the event, explained this year's hiatus as a necessary breathing spell before next year's competition. Which is not to say they've been idle. This month the council bestowed three Entertainer of the Year awards, and enshrined a new member in the Hall of Fame, the holy of holies to the whistling community: Madeleine Drummond, of Horsham, Pa., who is a medical technologist.

The decision to forgo this year's competition was a response to the surging popularity of the Louisburg event. "It's proof of our success," boasts Mr. de Hart. Last year over 2,000 people arrived, more than this town of 3,500 souls could handle, lacking hotels, restaurants and other accommodations.

"It was madness," recalls de Hart. "A hundred competitors showed up, whistlers we didn't know were coming. We had people from 39 states, 12 foreign countries. We had contestants who didn't speak English. We had Chinese! We couldn't find anybody to translate for them, not even in our three Chinese restaurants. They all spoke Spanish."

Stunned by this, but determined to recover, de Hart is recruiting volunteers and translators; searching out more venues for performances and lodging. He expects a bigger crowd in 2007. Why? Because a Dutchman named Geert Chatrou went home in 2005 with the International Grand Championship for the second year in a row. He is a cultural superhero; he has awakened a continental interest in the art of whistling.

"All of Europe thinks he's great," says de Hart. "They're all planning to come."

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