Thursday, March 3, 2011

a lost art

The Whistling Boy, Frank Duveneck, 1872
Cincinnati Art Museum
Apparently, we have become too self-conscious to whistle in public. It used to be quite common to hear total strangers, out and about, happily whistling. I wish I could. If I pucker at just the right angle, I produce one note, a weak high D. That's it. I couldn't whistle an entire song, if my life depended on it.

WT, on the other hand, is a natural-born whistler. He can whistle anything, embellished with trills, even key changes. I don't know about you, but whistling triggers my serotonin levels, evoking a sense of the warm woollies. When I wake up to perky whistling, I know it's going to be a good day. Would I be stretching it to say my DNA is tingling? Maybe not. That deep DNA just might be doing its thing.

My uncles tell me a lady in our little rural Indiana church was known to whistle solo hymns for the congregation, complete with a lace hanky strategically clasped in her hands. My aunt loves to tell the story of how she won first place in a whistling competition in the 1950s. To this day, we tease her about opening up a prestigious School of Whistling, before it becomes a lost art.

Speaking of, what happened to all the great whistling in movie music?  Has Hollywood become too sophisticated to whistle? You know, like the iconic A Fistful of Dollars theme, the "Colonel Bogey March" in The Bridge on the River Kwai or even the Andy Griffith Show theme?

There are a lot of interesting superstitions connected with whistling. In Russian and other Slavic cultures, whistling indoors is believed to bring poverty, "whistling money away", whereas whistling outdoors is considered normal.  In Serbia, it is said whistling indoors will attract mice, while in Korea, Japan, parts of South East Asia, and South India, whistling at night is thought to bring snakes. In Scotland, some people say whistling makes Our Lady, Mary cry; this is told to small children to keep them quiet. On board a sailing ship, whistling is thought to encourage the wind strength to increase. Among, many theater superstitions, whistling on a stage is thought to bring bad luck or at least a bad performance.

I thought it might be fun to write a poem about whistling.  When I finished the first draft, I realized this piece seems to portray more than one kind of bodily noise.  I laughed so hard I could hardly breathe, much less whistle. I started revising the parts in question, but since they "permeate" the entire poem, I decided to leave it as is, in its first "draft", for your comedic pleasure. "Toot Dixie" might be a more appropriate title. It took me three reads to make it all the way through without laughing.

Whistle Dixie

Seems we have grown
too self-conscious
to pucker-up-and-blow,
in the street or at the grocery store.

No more Hoosier Sundays,
church lady trumpeting
the walls of Jericho, clutching
a badly bound hymn book,
out-tooting a tea kettle.

My natural-born whistler
throws caution to the wind
and whets his with abandon,
serenading my mornings,
like the scent of all the lilacs in Ohio.

I smile and come to breakfast
like a well-trained pet.

Tess Kincaid
March 2011

pictures courtesy of Google images


  1. I did just fine, Tess until this line:

    "like the scent of all the lilacs in Ohio"

    then I totally lost it.

    You get the Laugh of the Day Award for this one!

  2. Love it. Great fun. I guess you're a fan of Jiminy Cricket too.

  3. Give a little whistle! Yes, Suki, good ol' Jiminy. I should have mentioned him!

  4. Out-tooting a tea kettle, love this line, my husband will actually try to whistle the exact pitch that a kettle or vacuum cleaner for that matter toots out. These days its the other toots that goes on in our house.

  5. tooting is just so funny !
    But maybe the wrong word I think..we don't think of kettles as tooting
    would you consider the word shaming

    You have such a talent for the ordinary observation
    lasering in on it
    a delightful poem,truly

  6. Jo, when I was trying to record it, I fell apart on "the scent of lilacs" every time!

    I'm at a loss as to why it didn't occur to me when I was in the process of writing it.

  7. tess - i love to whistle - not all the time anywhere anytime but when it's there, well there it is!!! learn to whistle tess and test out all the ideas you've drawn together here. steven

  8. Steven, I wish I could. I would love to be able to do one of those outrageously loud finger whistles. Nothing. Just slobbery fingers.

  9. I was sitting here wanting to write something for my blog but I am so over tired today. My mind is not working. I was feeling a little envious that you can make the most simple topics so darn interesting and then add a poem like that. Even the tired brain can appreciate the humor. Tess you are amazing.

  10. Tess -- Couldn't help finding this song on a YouTube to add to your discussion on whistling -- it from Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.

    -- barbara

  11. I found myself whistling yesterday as I strolled through the house, I surprised myself, it had been awhile;)

  12. Uh-oh, Barbara, now don't get me started on Heigh-Ho.

  13. A gay friend of mine assures me that only dykes can whistle loudly (like for a taxi).

  14. oh might be an improvement upon....

  15. I'm not sure I would have even noticed if you hadn't pointed it out but now that you have it's hilarious! Especially scents of lilacs :)
    Our house is exactly like yours, my husband is a fabulous whistler and I can barely get one little sound out.

  16. I LOVE the poem!

    My southern grandmother felt like whistling was "not for ladies."

    I am partial to it, but it has to be GOOD whistling -- otherwise, it gets on my nerves. Just last Sunday, I took my sons to see The Harlem Globetrotters and loved hearing that iconic whistling song that introduces them. I do love a lazy, soft whistle -- very sexy.

  17. Elizabeth, funny, we were just talking about the Harlem Globetrotters and the time we went to see them in Kansas City in the 70s. I had forgotten about their iconic whistled theme song. Maybe that's what subliminally inspired me?

  18. I was prowling a pawn shop
    recently when an older man
    checking out the barrel of
    fishing rods began to whistle
    with abandon. Several people
    were in the place, but everyone
    seemed to take no notice.
    I did no recognize the tune,
    something by Edvard Grieg
    possibly, or Arlo Guthrie.
    At one point he glanced right
    at me and I smiled at him.
    He ignored me and kept on
    whistling while he searched.
    Tickled me that he felt he
    did not need my smile to
    enrich en his mirth.

  19. I really enjoyed your reading. It did
    my heart good to hear you changing
    a few words as you read, the giggle
    still coloring your voice. Now that
    you have me making an audio file
    of my poems, I find myself adding
    or leaving off words when I play
    it back; kind of charming perhaps.

  20. Great words and a beautiful poem!
    I'm a whistler! People at my work used to say they knew I was coming because they could hear me whistling!

  21. my ma is a lovely whistler...i can attain but a single note.

    i have pet mice (and monty's herd) so i guess no need to whistle indoors - ha ha.

    fun post

  22. When I was a kid, we had a record of some Whistler... I can't remember his name...The Blind Whistler... I don't know... his whistling was incredible though.

    Being the mimic I am... I learned a few of his tricks. Not much of a party favorite.

    Good write.
    Cute poem.

  23. My dad used to mortify me when I was a teenager by whistling in public wherever we were. Especially the mall - I was always going, "Dadddeeee..." And then I'd slink to the other side of the mall :)

    My mom & I were big fans of Roger Whittaker - now THERE's a great whistler for you!

  24. Wonderful poem Tess.. and isn't that the truth. I cannot remember when I heard whistler last. I am no whistler myself. I whistle best sucking in but very pathetic. I enjoyed your post> Thank you!

  25. Yes, I'm a whistling fool. Sometimes I have to watch myself at work, that I don't drive everyone nuts. Great post. I shall have to blog about being a siffleuse some day. :)

  26. My Dad had the most wonderful whistle. He could trill and thrill like the best of them. This is a special poem for me.

  27. Glenn, leave it to you to notice! I changed the wording after I posted the recording, ever so slightly, and didn't feel like recording the whole thing again. Well, I might, tomorrow, if I can get through it without laughing!

  28. Bug, I haven't thought of Roger Whittaker in ages! He started out as a whistler, didn't he? I used to have his Christmas album, years ago.

  29. That really is hilarious, Tess. I really am laughing at your choice of words: priceless.

  30. ps
    I'm smiling so much I forgot to mention how much I love Duveneck's painting of that young man! Beautiful!

  31. BPG, siffleuse sounds so much more charming and even elegant. So VERY French!

  32. Thanks for the giggle tonight!

  33. Oh you did make me laugh. I am no whistler, I wish I could ...and I will leave the tooting to others!
    I was interested in your reference to deep DNA so went back and read your post about this. I like the thought of deep DNA, of listening to the voices of my DNA. Sometimes I feels or sense things about the past, I like the thought that I carry my ancestors thoughts and feelings in me. Oh to know what my American ancestry is... other researchers say it is Native American, now that does make me tingle.

  34. Marilyn, has a wealth of records online. Have you tried researching your American lineage?

  35. "Whistling girls and crowing hens
    Always come to the worst of ends."

  36. Vicki, I love that! And I thought I knew all the ditties that were to be known. Where did it come from?

  37. I'm laughing too, especially about the scent.
    Seriously though, I still know a few people that whistle. One is my sister, and the other is a co-worker who doesn't even realize she's doing it most of the time.
    I love it.

  38. A wonderful read. I used to whistle as a teen, mostly one song over and over again, until I drove the family crazy. The song was “Last Kiss”. Yes, the one where his baby goes to heaven, so he has to be good.

  39. Loved this, Tess! Maybe you could record your whistler some day and post it for us to hear!


  40. Great! :-)

    I went to the circus yesterday and they had a whistler perform whole opera arias: Whistle scene from Cirque du Soleil's Corteo.

    A wonderful weekend to you!

  41. I love to whistle, to sing, to play flute, harmonica, kazoo, and ukulele. If you can't whistle, stop by your local music store and buy yourself a kazoo. Play it. The world will be a better place for it.

  42. In the UK (and here in France) it's illegal NOT to whistle when washing the car! Honest!

  43. Thought you might enjoy this then,quirky!

  44. I think you came up trumps there, Tess :)
    I'm visiting the doctor's surgery today and while I'm in the waiting room I will have a whistle and think of you. Hopefully the sound will be acceptable.

  45. What a hoot...or should that be, toot?

    Loved this, Tess. I've just listened to you reading it, listening for any signs of cracking up. I admire your composure.

  46. This was so funny and easily led me astray. I used to whistle too but now it is bad. Can you stick one finger from each hand in your mouth and make that extreme whistle lots of guys used to whistle at girls with and vice-versa? I can still do that one with both hands or just one hand. I can also cup one hand and put the other one over it and blow gently and how comes a sound not unlike the some native people make tootin on a sea shell. I learned how to do that one in a study hall much to the surprise of about 40 students and a dozing teacher.

  47. My mother was a whistler and so was I. But not for a while until you started me off again.

  48. I think I have the whistling abilities of WT. Everyone else tells me that my whistling abilities are even worse than you say yours are. I'd like to blame it on the deafness but the GLW tells me it has always been so.
    And another fine poem.

  49. Yup it's definitely the WT connection that makes this a naughty poem. Very clever and memorable so I shall think of you and giggle my way through today...
    I'm with you on the single weak note whistle. And it sounds as though historically it isn't such a great idea to pucker up and blow. Or snakes and storms arrive!
    Remember Kate in the titanic hacking spitballs?
    Now there's another art form waiting for the Lady Manor Makeover :)

  50. Shaista, I think my favorite movie whistle quote is Lauren Bacall as Slim: "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."

  51. Merisi, thanks for that great link. I'm thinking maybe WT should join Cirque du Soleil!

  52. My Dad is a wonderful warbler, I was so fascinated as a child, my brother, however, is the tooter, been know to clear a room in under 5...thanks for the reminder...he's 83 today, think I'll remind him of it today!

  53. Dan, I think I might just be a natural-born kazoo player. I've got to find one today!

  54. I'm a fairly decent whistler, and my cat, Feather, is amazed by it. She's convinced that there is a bird, or some exotic insect, hiding in my mouth and making those intriguing sounds. Feather leaps up into my lap and sticks her nose right up to my lips, trying to detect whatever it is that's hiding in there.

  55. Well I'm grinning! You certainly know how to write a good poem Tess. Come to think of it I havn't heard anyone whistling in the street for ages.

  56. My father in law whistles all the time and I love to hear it. He might be down at the stables or up in the pasture, but you can hear him off in the distance and his cheerful whistling make me feel warm and happy.
    the wanna be country girl - Caroline

  57. I love all of this. The details are wonderful, the questions immense! My father whistled incessantly, and wouldn't you know, I married a whistler. I think when he's not talking, he's whistling!

    And I know about the scent of lilacs too.

    I'm glad you enjoyed David Lean's "Hobson's Choice"! It's just brilliant, and such gorgeous cinematography. I don't know who I love more, Charles Laughton or John Mills.

  58. Now...that was fun! I, too, wish I could whistle up a storm.

  59. "Where so e'er you be, let your wind go free!"

  60. I can't whistle either. You know what else no one does anymore? Skips.

  61. Your unintended meaning was better than the original. This was great! Gives a new meaning to "Whistle while you work"

  62. My seven-year-old can whistle and hum at the same time. It's impressive, in a kind of weird way.

  63. A toot er hoot. Redolent as a tarte farte. Breaks like the wind. Oh never mind. Eyes crossed, cheeks puffed, lips pursed, letter 'er rip .... (Hey, that reminds me of a great "Far Side" cartoon. Picture said whistler pushing a wheelbarrow in Hell. One devil says to the other, "Ya know, I don't think we're getting through to that one ..." -- Thanks for corker, Brendan

  64. well trained pet indeed.
    that's a hoot of a toot

  65. Well done! Never could whistle, makes me cherish it all the more! Wish I could, no matter how hard I try, .....nothing, just a blowing sound, certainly not music...maybe some folks aren't made to whistle?

    I whistle a lot. Often. Nearly all the time, except when I'm humming. Hmmmmmmmm!

    In the mall I see people looking at me and smiling--and wonder why. THEN I realize I'm whistling something from the Sound of Music, or..... anything.

    That "D" you (finally) whistle makes me think of the ending of something. Each note is attributed a special musical meaning in my head.

  67. Oh BTW...I really like your heading picture/photo. A VERY pretty girl, her charms are NOT hidden by the makeup, feathers, etc...

  68. This is a cute one, my dear! Imogene Sutton made the church windows shake while us boys sat there shaking the bench with giggles. Sweet memories for sure! :)
    xx Unks

  69. you are endlessly fascinating.

    and I don't like whistling, or hearing it.
    not sure why?

    but your story and poem are fabulous.

  70. ha! this reminds me of a sweet compliant husband who is a husband all the same, if you get my drift.

  71. I've never been able to whistle!
    Only in my heart.

  72. i only have one whistle....
    it is the loudest 2 finger whistle ever!
    i perfected in nyc.

    i always got the cab.


  73. I'm sure another commenter must have said this, but I'm not about to read 73 comments to find out:

    It has, for time immemorial, been considered bad luck for a woman to whistle.

    I don't care. I whistle when I damn well feel like it.

  74. I have been told that in a prison riot, the whistlers get it first. Also, you are not supposed to whistle when you pass a graveyard because it will attract the ghosts. The singer Roger Whittaker is a wonderful whistler. I practice.

  75. I taught a grand-daughter to whistle when she was about four, or five years old. She loved it; still does. Some years later I taught another grand-daughter to whistle at about the same age and she was brilliant at it. Problem was that when they went to School, five or six years apart, they were both told, 'please don't do it. It is not seemly for a young lady to whistle'. Both went to the same School, both still whistle when they feel like it and the School has persuaded both of them to learn to play the flute!!

    I have always whistled - but very few people do nowadays, at least not in public. One tends to receive strange 'looks' when one whistles - and I'm a bloke.

    Love the illustration on your blog header.

  76. Oh, I was just thinking about this a few days ago. How often ordinary people used to sing, together, sitting around the table after supper, or alone, as well as how they used to whistle while walking down the street. Like we talk on cell phones as we walk now.

    I remember lying in my bed every early morning and listening to a neighborhood man whistling elaborately as he walked to work at the butcher shop. Then 15 minutes or so later, Mrs. Slayton's high heels clicking down the street as she went to open her dress shop.

  77. And is it my imagination, or did not only men used to whistle and don't now, but women used to hum as they did housework and don't now?

  78. Lynn, it's your imagination--grin! I whistle EVERYWHERE! Ask the Peeps who know me; during conversations, at the market, while riding my scooter, while playing my violin (only at home!), at church (but softly--grin!)..Everywhere!

    And nary a complaint. Hmmmmmmm! Well, almost nary!!! LOL


Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.
― O. Henry (and me)