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Guest column | Jerry Blizin

Who's that whistling? Hardly anyone

It was a fun art form that quietly passed away in the late, unlamented 20th century.

Musical whistling, that is, the kind that Lauren Bacall huskily whispered about to Humphrey Bogart: "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together and BLOW!"

And people did it — to amuse themselves while walking the dog, chopping firewood or just out of plain contentment. My Dad loved to whistle My Blue Heaven when he was happy.

As a college freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1944, I was astonished one day to be suddenly embraced by famed conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos, director of the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), all because I was whistling Ode to Joy, the Schiller poem that Beethoven put to music in his Symphony No. 9.

I was passing through an echoing tunnel under the student union building to keep out of the cold. Mitropoulos, also passing through, impulsively grabbed me because, he said, kids should prefer Beethoven over Three Little Fishies.

Back in the 1930s, professional whistlers were often heard on the radio and on records. Fred Lowery, a blind whistler, was popular, and the Ted Weems orchestra featured whistler Elmo Tanner and his blockbuster tune, Heartaches. There were even radio shows sponsored by the birdseed company Hartz Mountain, which featured nonstop canary twittering.

Bing Crosby whistled and crooned. Later the schmaltzy African-born British pop singer Roger Whittaker regularly included whistling in his concert repertoire. Even jazz musicians like the Belgian Toots Thielemans and fellow guitarist Les Paul whistled in swing tempo.

But around the 1950s, technology began to drive out the do-it-yourself whistler. First it was tiny transistor radios held up to the ear; then the Sony Walkman. By the time the 21st century rolled in, iPods, various MP3 players and other digital devices had long replaced the simple art form of whistling. Why do it yourself when you can tune in hundreds of melodies?

At least one good thing came out of all this. No longer would one have to suffer the heedless trills of an off-key whistler in some closed space, like an elevator. The music was all in the head of the individual auditor.

There is one form of whistling that survives — the brassy wolf whistle — mostly restricted to construction workers on high-rise projects or assorted louts at rock concerts and ballparks. But music, it's not.

I'd whistle today if it wasn't for one problem: my partial plate.

Jerry Blizin is a retired whistling journalist who lives in Tarpon Springs.

Who's that whistling? Hardly anyone 09/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 11:09am]

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