“Western Way” is the journal of the International Western Music Association (IWMA) and IWMA is the organization that develops and preserves yodel as part of their traditional cowboy culture.
Gloriously, the Yodel Letter, an annual event that has been taking place around the world since 2013, has been featured in the Western Way.
The protagonist of the letter is Bjorn Tomren, Norwegian yodeler.
The Yodel Story, which he sent to the world through the Yodel Letter last year, is now available online, a year later.
On a trail in Tirol, bound for St. Anton, Autria, I’m trying to recall my first encounter with yodeling. It must have been “The Silly Song,’ a fantastic musical piece from the 1937 Walt Disney movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For some reason they air this small clip on the Norwegian state-run television before every Christmas Eve, and it’s a truly impressive symbiosis of cartoons and music. The seven dwarfs are putting on a great show for Snow White. They’re dancing, yodeling and playing different kinds of instruments with great virtuosity, while she is dancing around, laughing, clapping and sometimes joining in with her beautiful soprano voice. For a kid growing up in Norway in the 1980s, no Christmas holiday was complete without it.
Skipping ahead ten years or so, my main interest in life had gotten to be music and, in particular, Anglo-American music ranging from rock, grunge, blues, soul, folk, jazz, country, punk and so on. I had even picked up a guitar and learned a couple of tunes by the likes of Neil Young, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. My friends and I were constantly trying to dig deeper into the history of American music and soon we were familiar with artists such as Woody Guthrie, Rambling Jack Elliott, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. I was especially captivated by the voices of Rodgers and Williams and their soulful longing blues yodels. Jimmie Rodgers, by many regarded as the father of American country music, even had Louis Armstrong with him on some of the tracks and exclaimed that he’s learned both the blues and the yodel from the African-American population. There’s a lot of warmth and humanity in Rodgers’ songs, and his tales of hardship combined by his haunting sad train whistle yodels move me to this day.
“Long Gone Lonesome Blues” by Hank Williams was the first yodel song I ever learned. It’s a story about a guy who’s down on his luck and when his girl leaves him, he decides to drown himself, but when he gets to the river, the river is dry. Hank slides neatly in and out of falsetto while singing: “She’s long gone, and now I’m lonesome blue.” My parents were less than impressed by my attempts but slowly and gradually I started to improve. Now, 20 years later, I must have performed it thousands of times in front of audiences, and I’m still not tired of it. I grew up by a small fjord, a village on the west coast of Norway called Tomrefjord. It’s a branch of the ninth longest fjord in Norway named Romsdalsfjord. A picturesque and alpine valley, Romsdal, at the innermost part of the fjord, lends its name to the whole region. One day on a ferry crossing Romsdalsfjord, a song came on the radio that immediately made me laugh. It was a boy yodeling his heart out and singing “Je ger fra Romsdalen Norges Tirol” (I’m from Romsdal, the Tirol of Norway). Apart from being quite amused, I was surprised that there existed a Norwe-gian yodeling song. In Europe, as in most other places, we associate this technique with the countries connected to the Alps, but here was a yodel straight from my back yard, so to speak. I felt an urge to investigate this strange affair and soon discovered that yodeling was quite popular in Norway and in the whole of Scandinavia throughout the 1930s and 40s. Not only that, the kid on the record, Odd Pedersen, had recorded several yodeling songs in 1942 and had lived just 10 kilometers away from my home in Tomrefjord. I decided I should try to get in touch with him and enquire about his yodeling heydays. He could still be making music for all that I knew, but there was also a chance he had passed away. This was in the early 2000s and if he was still alive and kicking, I reckoned he’d be in his 70s.
Odd Pedersen is a fairly common name in Norway, and it took me some time two track him down. He is now residing in the same town as I was studying in, Bergen, the second largest city in Norway. I called him up and we talked for quite a while. His innocent childhood alto voice I had gotten to know from old recordings had now turned hoarse and croaky. With a raspy drone, he told me that he and his family had escaped from Bergen up to Romsdal during the Second World War. It was there in Vestnes, my neighboring village, he learned to yodel. In 1942 he got the chance to perform in front of Norway’s answer to Bing Crosby, Jens Book Jensen, who got so impressed with the boy that he brought him to Oslo for a recording session. Odd Pedersen enjoyed some years of fame in Norway before his voice changed due to puberty. When the peace came in 1945, he and his family moved back to Bergen. In his teens, Pedersen went to sea and remained a sailor for most of his working life.
For Pedersen, yodeling was a thing of the past; therefore, my interest in him and his music took him by surprise. Truth be told, a story of an unusual life far exceeds my interest in yodeling. In fact, I’m probably not the biggest yodeling fan you’ll ever meet, but the genre has by strange twists and turns made a lasting impact on my life. Let me explain.
My childhood friend Hallvar Djupvik and I were quite into comedy acts and stand-up in our student days. In particular, there was an American comic called Andy Kaufman superbly portrayed by Jim Carey in the movie Man on the Moon. Kaufman had a knack for the absurd and had a gift for making the audience question what was real and what was not, what was an attempt at comedy and what was dead serious. Hallvar and I discovered that we got the same feeling when watching some of the Bavarian volksmusik (folk music) acts we found on YouTube: Wildecker Herzbuben, Franzl Lang, Florian Zilbereisen and so on. Were they joking or were they sincere? With this in mind, and after a couple of drinks, we figured we should start our own polka and yodeling band and try our best to make people believe we were deeply passionate about the music. One could say it was an attempt at making a deluding comical avant-garde trickster our project. In 2007, we hooked up with the accordionist Heine Bugge and went to a yodeling festival in Switzerland. It was not what we had expected. Instead of funny and silly looking yodelers, we found yodel choirs that captivated us with their genuine, beautiful and meditative songs. (I later learned that yodeling, the switch between chest voice and falsetto, can be found all over the world. In Norway, we have old traditional cattle calls using this technique, but we also have something called Laling which can sound very similar to the Alpine yodeling and functioned as a form of communication between the shepherdess and shepherds in the older days.)
We abandoned the art project, drank up our money and turned street musicians to get home. Heine played the accordion, Hallvar sang opera, while I made some attempts at yodeling “Mein Vater ist ein Appenzeller.” Back in Norway, someone had heard about our little odyssey and to our surprise wanted to book us for a concert. I was even more baffled when I realized we would get money for it. We rehearsed a couple of yodel hits, called ourselves Polkabjørn & Kleine Heine, and did the job. Not long after that we got booked to another job and then another. It escalated quickly. Soon we were the opening act for A-ha’s farewell tour in Norway. We even had a concert in honor of Odd Pedersen in Bergen who attended with his daughter. In 2009, we got a manager and all of a sudden we started performing on TV and having concerts all over the world. Now, 10 years later, and I’m on a train in Austria with Heine, bound for another gig.
It has been a fun, strange and, at times, absurd journey and I’ve come to realize that yodeling has this life affirming quality: it makes people smile. And to quote Gershwin “Who could ask for anything more?”
With that, I salute all of you yodelers around the world and especially Peter Lim and World Yodel Day for keeping the spirit alive. Skål!
All the best and with kind regards,
Bjørn Tomren is a Norwegian musician, singer, composer and adventurer, known for his great vocal range and his vide variety of vocal techniques such as yodelling, overtone singing, throat singing and Norwegian folk singing (kveding). For the past decade he has worked as a musician, performing around the globe either by himself or as one half of the Andy Kaufmane-sqe comical duo, Polkabjørn & Kleine Heine. The duo rose to fame in their home country through the documentary The Art of Yodelling (2012), which moved them from being A-ha’s opening act back in 2010, to them traveling and performing around the world, exploring the phenomena of yodelling. The last couple of years Tomren has turned his attention to song writing and his debut album, along with girlfriend Åse Britt Reme Jakobsen, is due to be released in September 2019 on Propeller Records.
To learn more about World Yodel Day, check out their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/yodelday) or visit with Peter Lim who is scheduled to attend IWMA2019 and participate in the IWMA Yodeling Contest.
P.S : In addition, in 2020, a new yodeler story is being sent. If you are interested, please contact email@example.com.