Friday, April 18, 2008

Whistle While You Read

Whistle [OE. hwistle] An act of whistling; a clear shrill sound produced by forcing the breath through the narrow opening made by contracting the lips; esp. as a call or signal to a person or animal; also as an expression of surprise or astonishment; rarely, the action of whistling a tune. [OED]

TCM's screening a few months ago of several films in Columbia's Whistler series (eight films 1944-48, seven of them starring Richard Dix) prompted me to think about how whistling is used in movies and in music, the way it is employed and what it signifies when it is used. I've always very much enjoyed the Whistler series--several installments of which, incidentally, were directed by William Castle. The Whistler began as a CBS radio series in 1942 and ran until 1955 (during which time, additionally, were made the eight films mentioned above). Each episode began with the haunting opening theme--whistled, of course--while the slightly sinister narrator introduced himself, saying to the listener, "I am the Whistler and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak."

The god-like omniscience of the Whistler has always vaguely suggested to me the mechanism of Fate or Destiny itself, since He (the voice was male) knows the secret desires (what is "hidden in the hearts") of men and women, what obsessive, overwhelming desire drives them and has distorted or deformed them--and hence will destroy them ("character is fate"). Although I haven't researched this topic in depth, the figure of the Whistler is most likely distantly related to the figure of the Pied Piper (a pipe is form of whistle), the mysterious musician dressed in many colors whose piping hypnotically lures the children of Hameln off to their doom (the Grimm Brothers' version). It is this association we have with whistling that Peter Gabriel, for instance, invokes in "Intruder" (Peter Gabriel, 1980).

In movies whistling is often associated with surprise (just about every World War II movie) but also a signal of attraction, a culturally symbolic gesture made by an American male to proclaim (without the use of speech) his approval, erotically speaking, of a particular dame. In music, whistling can also signify contentment or happiness ("Don't Worry, Be Happy"), solitary, melancholy contemplation ("(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay"), self-absorbed autoeroticism ("Centerfold"), pleasant, relaxing idleness ("I Love to Whistle"; also, the theme from The Andy Griffith Show), or even merely a way to pass the time, to avoid monotony when speech is either impossible or forbidden ("Colonel Bogey March"; "Whistle While You Work" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), but it is always is associated with a solitary individual alone with his thoughts, even if that individual is within a crowd. A popular "crooner" such as Bing Crosby frequently whistled in his songs, an act often signifying self-contentment but also an unrestrained joie de vivre.

Ten Representative Recordings Featuring Whistling:

“Colonel Bogey March”—A song popularized by British soldiers during World War I. In the game of golf, a “bogey” is, of course, a designation for being one stroke over par. Legend has it that the tune was inspired by two golfers, known to the song’s composer, who preferred to whistle two descending notes rather than shouting “Fore!” Although written in 1914, “Colonel Bogey March” later became, famously, the theme song to the highly successful World War II movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Widely known as an avid golfer, Bing Crosby may have been inspired to adopt his frequent practice of whistling because of this song (long before the 1957 film, of course).
The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian”
Bobby Bloom, “Montego Bay”
Bing Crosby, “Moonlight Becomes You”
Peter Gabriel, “Intruder”
Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers”
J. Geils Band, “Centerfold”
Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, “I Love to Whistle” (Sully Mason, vocal)
Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
Otis Redding, "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay"

Virtually all of these songs were huge hits, incidentally. Is the fact that they all contain whistling simply coincidental, or do most people enjoy songs with whistling as much as I do?

1 comment:

Tim Lucas said...

Some of the most beautiful whistling on record can be heard in Gene Pitney's "Only Love Can Break a Heart."