You don’t really hear many people whistling these days, it seems to have fallen out of fashion, a lost art form, gone with the generations I so often associate with it … the era of my parents, and my grandparents, and their parents.  I’m going to stick my neck on the line and at the risk of getting a plethora of contrary messages, I’d say that this is generally a thing you hear gents doing on the whole.

My Dad is a whistler, always, when making a brew, doing the garden or jobs around the house, or walking to and from the shops, he’ll always be whistling.  He could never creep up on you, you know when he arrives as you can hear him coming down the street ages before you actually see him. I’m dedicating this article to my Dad, it’s his birthday today, and if I had to name one person I associate with whistling, he really is the only prolific whistler I know.

It’s rather nice. Whistling always seems so cheery, and what is so wonderful about it is that the whistler is generally blissfully unaware that they are indeed whistling. Hearing someone whistling tunes puts a smile on my face, and is probably doing the whistler lots of good too.  Whistling, like humming, singing and laughing makes you feel good, but is also good for both mental and physical wellbeing.  Deep diaphragmatic breathing brings more oxygen into the body and is therefore good for the heart and lungs as well as being a mood lifter.

Whistling is a skill which is learned, and those who master it generally have good musicality, pitch, rhythm and phrasing, and are often good at singing too.  To whistle you need to create a small opening in your mouth and blow through the space.  The air is controlled by lips, tongue, teeth or fingers which creates turbulence, and a good whistler has a range of three octaves.  There are those who are highly skilled at whistling and those music hall professionals were known as siffleurs.

I thought everyone could whistle … I can.  I can do the whistling of tunes where you have to pucker up your mouth and blow.  What I’ve never been able to do, and I rather wish I could, is that command whistle, where you put two fingers in your mouth.  My grandad could do this, and I remember trying to attempt this as a child, practising over and over, but never managing to achieve that piercing sound, only lots of breathy blows and fingers covered in saliva!

The two fingered whistle used to give instructions to the sheepdog to bring in the sheep would be so useful I thought on so many occasions, when shouting the kids to come off the play equipment at the park, or them wandering too far on the beach, or getting them out of the garden to come for their tea.  Rather than shouting and screaming for them to hear me, sounding like a banshee, how much better would it be with a whistle to round them up.

Some use a finger from each hand, others use a thumb and finger from the same hand, some seem to be able to roll and curl their lips and do this whistle with no fingers at all!  I’m fascinated by it, and used to love watching the sheepdog trials on the television on many an occasion.  One Man and His Dog was wonderful TV; bring it back I say.  Gentle, mesmerising, fascinating to watch the wonderful working relationship that sheep farmer had with his dog … the dog knowing exactly what had to be done, but listening for some guidance, and in some instances more forceful commands if the dog decided to give a sneaky nip to the back legs of the sheep to get them moving.  It was incredible to see these dogs working and doing exactly what they were bred to do.  “Cum bye” and “Away” telling the dog to move either clockwise or anticlockwise around the sheep, “walk up” and “That’ll do” are the others I remember.  Some of the competitors in the trials of course couldn’t whistle and had to rely on the plastic whistle, but what a wonderful sight it was.   The commentary was easy on the ear, and the stories of the farmer, and the farm, and the dog were wonderful to hear, getting to know them more as they went through to the following rounds.  What a treat it was, and I’m hearing that melodic theme tune in my head now as I write.

William and Oliver are both whistlers, Oliver whistles whenever he’s engrossed in something like model building, or LEGO, or colouring.  William doesn’t whistle so much these days, but I do remember him being pulled up at school, when he’d just moved up to juniors, for whistling in class.  Not everyone can whistle, and it is supposed to be a learned skill rather than genetic, but maybe an aptitude for it can be passed down to us through the generations, that trait following through from the ancestors we never knew … I and the boys definitely get this from my Dad though.

Dad doesn’t use the two fingered whistle, but he does do the round up command whistle just by blowing normally i.e. no fingers used.   I have to say though that I do sometimes take umbrage at being called to heel by him whistling rather than calling me by name, but I know that it’s generally to attract my attention and is done in good spirit and wouldn’t even cross his mind that it might cause offence.

Captain Von Trapp was keen to whistle his children, each of the seven children having a code whistle to avoid shouting in a large house and garden, and although rather shocking that he would resort to this, even Maria (Julie Andrews) having to put her foot down at its use, I can see where he was coming from practically.

My Dad has always whistled tunes.  He does sing sometimes, but doesn’t really know all the words, just a few lines.  But it’s the same with the music too, as he seems to forget how the tunes go after the first few lines.  Hence the songs and tunes he whistles are a medley of songs.  I know the order they appear in too.  I’m not sure I could tell you the order now from memory, but as the tune is whistled I can tell you what comes next, I know the flow of it all.  There are popular tunes which he’s heard of more recent times and liked, there are tunes from a long time ago.  There are tunes which he’s remembered from when he played a bugle in the Boys Brigade band, so we might get reveille, last post, or taps.

There’s lots of whistling done in many songs which I can think of just off the top of my head.  Roger Whittaker’s Mexican Whistler (my dad had one of his albums on cassette tape, which I heard played on many a car journey). Snow White’s dwarves sang “Whistle while you work”; Jiminy Cricket sang “Give a little Whistle” to Pinocchio; even Deborah Kerr sang “Whistle a Happy Tune” in the King and I; and let’s not forget all the songs with whistling interludes: “Don’t worry, be happy”; “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay”; and “Walk like an Egyptian”.

As well as whistling being used for entertainment, it is used by farmers, lifeguards, referees, and teachers to name a few, whistles attract attention, enforce authority, and signal alert.  It is loved by some and hated by others, and in some cultures even regarded as unlucky or superstitious.  Actors believe that whistling backstage can ruin a performance, and sailors believe that whistling attracts the wind.

The wolf whistle is another whistle not heard so much these days, at one time used so often by builders and workmen throwing this whistle as a bit of fun, but probably not as much now, the gesture more likely met with offence rather than good spirit.  Maybe it does still happen; maybe I’m just over the hill and past my best!

In South Carolina you could be fined $500 for disturbing the peace if caught whistling, or even singing or humming in public.  The Aztecs had death whistles, which may have been used by warriors to intimidate the enemy? Or may have been used in their human sacrifice practices when they placed these whistles with the skeleton in front of the wind god to help take the spirit through the underworld.

There are parts of the world where there is a traditional whistled language.  Silbo Gomero is the language of La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands.  There are different whistles for vowels and consonants, and is actually incredibly practical for communication over long distances.

Let there be more whistling, with its own unique sound and tone, as different and unique as the whistlers themselves.  Let us keep this skill and art form, and indeed all those songs and tunes, old and new, alive and present for this generation and passed on for generations to come.

by Elizabeth Dee

www.elizabethdee.me