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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Why yodeling still matters: The art form is alive and well in Wisconsin, for the time being
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Credit:Catherine Lazure

It begins simply, just a man singing. He bounds from word to word in an unfamiliar language. The cadence, however, is familiar. Suddenly his voice swells, and each syllable breaks into a flurry of harmonious notes. Parts of Swiss words roll and bounce into each other. The man is yodeling, but there's nary a "yodel-e-i-o." And there's a lot more to it than alpenhorns and Ricola commercials.

The vocal break that marks what most of us think of as "yodeling" has a hypnotic quality. Though this practice of singing without words is rooted in a particular time and place, it's not stuck in time. It emerges in traditional Swiss tunes, Hmong love songs and the cowboy vocals of early Western music.

That's the thesis of Bart Plantenga's second yodeling compendium, Yodel in Hi-Fi, which the University of Wisconsin Press published earlier this year. The author and DJ considers yodeling a performance art that provides "links between beauty and utility." He demonstrates this in online radio dispatches from Amsterdam, mashing up Bob Marley, Tarzan, Pygmy yodelers and recordings of other performances from across the globe. He's trying to show that yodels, or "voice-break vocals," are a sung punctuation mark throughout musical history.

Plantenga marvels at yodeling's wide range of applications, from "total fluff and weirdness" to "soulful and deep" compositions.

"Weird Al Yankovic puts a yodel in a novelty song to make it even weirder," he says.

Plantenga sees yodeling everywhere. Beck. R. Kelly. The Gorillaz. He also sees it in Wisconsin, especially in Monroe and New Glarus, where it's more than simple entertainment. Yodeling connects many residents to their Swiss forebears. It's done so for generations.

"It's one of the things that distinguish them from their neighbors," Plantenga says.

Mountain airs

So how did wordless vowel sounds become a cultural touchstone in Wisconsin? Jim Leary, a professor of folklore and Scandinavian studies and co-director of the UW's Center for Upper Midwestern Cultures, explains that in the early 19th century, yodeling made its way from Swiss mountains to popular culture.

"You have tourism, you have urbanization, you have migration and industrialization. Older song forms that might be more regional and isolated, but functional, these had to do with communication in the mountains and bringing home the cattle," he says. "Suddenly they become a means by which talented performers can make a living and build an audience."

This also led to yodel clubs, choirs where Swiss men and women would perform traditional yodels and patriotic songs. As Swiss immigrants moved to Wisconsin throughout the mid-1800s, these clubs conjured memories of childhood in their native country.

"They would incorporate songs of the homeland.... The songs were part of the immigrant experience as people clustered together out of cultural solidarity," Leary says. "There are more [yodel clubs] in the U.S. today than you might think."

But yodeling isn't all fun and feathered hats. Martha Bernet, a Swiss native who moved to Monroe 65 years ago, emphasizes that maintaining a tradition is hard work. She says Swiss-American yodel clubs had to enact strict rules to maintain the form. Singers were ejected for using improper syllables in their vocal breaks. Belting out an improvisational "yodel-e-i-o" was a faux pas that could get you booted.

That strict adherence to form threatens to make yodel clubs less relevant to future generations. Bernet seems keenly aware of this issue.

"Swiss yodel songs still tell a story, and [people] could understand it before. Most people today do not understand it," she says. "But I always thought it was fun to entertain for the people, even if they didn't understand."

That said, yodeling is still alive and well in Wisconsin for the time being. As in the past, it figures into cultural activities year round, particularly community festivals throughout Green County. Monroe's Turner Hall serves as a hub for events that celebrate Swiss traditions. Entertainment is often provided by local yodel clubs and ensembles like the Monroe Swiss Singers, Männerchor New Glarus and Jodlerklub New Glarus. You can catch local yodeling juggernauts like Tony Zgraggen and Ernie and Theresa Jaggi at the New Glarus Music Fest in June, Swiss Volksfest and the Wilhelm Tell Festival in August, and Green County Cheese Days every other September.

To hear Zgraggen, a mustachioed member of the 85-year-old Jodlerklub New Glarus, all you have to do is stop by the Alp and Dell Cheese Store in Monroe.

"Occasionally someone comes in and says, 'Hey, I heard down at the cheesemaking center that if we came up here, Tony would yodel for us. Would you do it?' And I do," says Zgraggen. "There are days that I yodel five times for people I've never seen and never will see again."

Zgraggen will eagerly drop his daily routine to yodel on cue. The satisfaction it brings him - and those he sings for - seems more valuable than any yodel-derived fame.

"This is my culture. It's within me; I enjoy that," he says. "When I can give joy, it gives joy to me. That's why I do it."

The Batman yodel

Swiss pride made yodeling popular in southwestern Wisconsin to begin with. But several generations have passed since then, and the cultural landscape of Green County has changed.

"What was being done 50 years ago is being done today; it hasn't changed a lot," says Toni Seitz, a New Glarus resident and accomplished yodeler. "The only thing that's really changed has been the interest level."

She notes that despite her nostalgia for the form, more and more Wisconsin residents have trouble relating to its old-fashioned aspects.

"I wish there was a way to better expose people to it, though there certainly are attempts," Seitz says. "The yodel clubs go to the World Dairy Expo, and yodelers like Ernie Jaggi talk about yodeling on TV shows, promoting the area. But if other communities still don't know about what we're doing, then it's hard for us to get the word out."

In other words, getting yodeling into the earbuds of a generation who tend to discover music through Spotify and YouTube rather than shared cultural experiences is a challenge steeper than the Swiss Alps. Plantenga is doing his part for Wisconsin yodelers. Writing two books on yodeling is only the beginning. He has grand plans for concerts featuring Wisconsin yodelers and maintains one of the most extensive and eclectic yodel-themed YouTube channels on the Internet. Wisconsin is touted as the origin point of a yodel about Batman.

The hope is to inspire others to see the power and potential of yodeling as an art form, so it might inspire remixes and subgenres of its own. Plantenga also hopes to inspire a healthy appreciation of the culture that birthed this style of singing.

"You have whole new generations of people who can use those techniques to expand their vocal palette a bit," he says.

'How are they doing that?'

The Swiss yodelers could learn a thing or two from Karen Gogolick and Rick Roltgen, also known as KG & the Ranger. In addition to performing Western music, they're evangelists for the "cowboy yodel."

KG & the Ranger are based in Madison, but they're a bit less rooted in a particular place than the Green County yodelers. They tour the country, sharing a sound that's more akin to Gene Autry's vocals than centuries-old mountain singing. But like the Swiss yodelers, they get to witness the wonder that comes from hearing a good yodel for the first time.

"It has such a unique sound. The first time people hear it, they can't help but ask, 'How are they doing that?'" Gogolick says. "It almost has a magical quality to it, which is why I think audiences like it so much."

Like Plantenga, Gogolick and Roltgen note that many of the best aspects of yodeling have been pulled into newer musical genres. Singer-songwriters borrow many vocal techniques from classic Western songs, including cowboy yodeling. Performing old-fashioned Western music helps audiences see how yodeling has evolved, and how it has helped other styles of music develop. This is one reason KG & the Ranger continue to perform.

Gogolick relates an experience from the Logjam Festival in Mosinee.

"A 15-year-old came up and asked, 'What is this music? What do you call it?' He just loved it," she says. "If we can get the music to a few ears like that, then we feel like we've done our part in keeping it alive."

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