When I met Wally about five years ago at an assisted living center, we quickly established common ground: He told me about his son, a local piano teacher; I mentioned a few of the songs I planned to play. After our brief chat, I slid onto the piano bench and got started. Wally launched into a skillful whistled accompaniment. I was impressed. And envious—as usual—because I can’t whistle.
At about age four my daughter, Jessa, saw the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The “Whistle While You Work” scene fascinated her. Around the same time, she had a very competitive friendship with a neighbor girl, whose father was teaching his daughter to whistle “Zippity Doo Da” from Disney’s Song of the South. That did it—Jessa decided she had to learn how to whistle. I couldn’t help her, so she taught herself. I felt a bit inadequate, unable to offer how-to advice as she worked and worked, shaping her little lips just so, finally turning a stream of air into a musical note. I admired her perseverance. Now, 20-odd years later, she can even manage an inhale whistle, which sounds like a gently snoring cartoon character. Z-z-z-z-z… But Jessa can’t figure out the two-finger whistle. Maybe you need to be the mother of boys, she muses. Or at least have a brother.
My dad has always whistled for amusement and to keep himself company. I suspect many men (and probably women) of his generation do the same. So I’m surprised that I seldom come across a whistler in my work as a volunteer pianist. Wally is a brilliant exception, with remarkable talent. He even won whistling competitions in his youth, although he isn’t one to brag—I found out from his friends.
Wally’s favorite whistling tune is the vintage waltz “Cruising Down the River on a Sunday Afternoon.” Every music reference source I consulted reveals only that Eily Beadell and Nell Tollerton, “two middle-aged women,” composed the piece for a 1945 British amateur songwriting contest. They won. By 1949, “Cruising Down the River” was the top song on the American Hit Parade.
There’s no whistling on any recording I’ve heard of “Cruising Down the River,” but there’s spectacular whistling to be found in other golden oldies. Bing Crosby liked to add whistling and bird-like trills to his songs, including “White Christmas.” Elmo Tanner toured with the Ted Weems Orchestra and is best-known for his whistling on “Heartaches,” recorded in 1933. In 1956, we had Don Robertson’s “The Happy Whistler.” No words, just an instrumental with some pretty amazing whistling. In the late 60s, whistler extraordinaire Roger Whittaker wrote and recorded a fast-paced and complex piece titled “The Mexican Whistler.” It’s easy to find on YouTube. Bobby McFerrin’s 1989 smash hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” brought artistic whistling to the attention of a younger generation.
Each time I see Wally, he looks a little frailer as he plods toward his lunch table. He’s glassy-eyed and seems to live mostly in his head, seldom engaging in conversation. But he still whistles. And wherever his mind goes when I play “Cruising Down the River,” I’ll bet it’s a happy place.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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