BOULDER — Just as the tones of her yodeling voice jumped from high falsetto to low bass, so did Liz Masterson’s mood move from silly entertainer to serious cowgirl singer Monday night at a yodeling event on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder.
“You’re all wanting to yodel, aren’t you?” she sarcastically asked the crowd of nearly 100 in the Ramaley Biology building auditorium. Soon after her fans’ chuckles subsided, she and her performance partner, Sean Blackburn, had audience members swaying their heads to the deep tones of the duo’s voices and mastery of the rare art of yodeling.
The event, sponsored by CU’s Center for the American West and community radio KGNU, was an educational and entertaining look into a type of music that most would consider lost. The message of the evening — driven home by yodeling expert and author Bart Plantenga, who lectured before Masterson and Blackburn’s performance — was that yodeling is alive and well in contemporary music and culture.
“It’s not just crazy Bavarian, beer-drinking, lederhosen wearing whatnot,” Plantenga, the author of Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, said. “It’s just that the power and beauty of yodeling have never been fully acknowledged until now.”
Yodeling, as Plantenga defined it, is distinguished by the “jolt of air” that occurs when a singer jumps their voice from low bass, said to be the “chest voice,” to a high voice, called the “head voice.”
Plantenga took the audience through an abbreviated history of yodeling, from its beginnings in Switzerland as a kind of Morse Code for alpine herders, to its modern manifestations in country, and even hip hop music today.
Jewel and Leanne Rhymes were excellent yodelers, he argued, until they “spice girled themselves up,” in order to fit into more mainstream types of music.
Plantenga also presented the most controversial points of his research on yodeling, that contrary to the belief of many historians, yodeling was born in North America as early as the 1620s with Native American music or through slave songs. He played examples of Native American music with yodel-like voice modulations as well as slave ballads that bore the early signs of what would later become yodeling.
After the educational portion of the event, Masterson and Blackburn took over, serving as an example of how beautiful, powerful and playful yodeling has been and still can be. The duo, from Denver, each toted a guitar and wore old-timey wide-brimmed cowboy hats to compliment their classic western shirts and boots.
“You can’t yodel shyly,” Masterson, who teaches local yodeling lessons, told the audience. “You can’t be polite or reserved. You just have to go for it.”
And the audience appeared to have a great time.
“It was fascinating,” said Pauline Goetz of Littleton. “It’s such a fascinating art, I hope it doesn’t die out.”
“It has the novelty reputation but there’s so much more to it,” said Sam Fuqua, the news and public affairs director for KGNU who was principally responsible for organizing the event. “I kind of like the freak aspect to it, but it’s also very musical.”
Though the evening’s crowd was mostly adults, there were a few CU students in attendance as well.
“It was interesting. I probably wouldn’t go buy the CD but I’d sit in on a concert or something,” said senior graduate student Josh Young. “I’d never heard yodeling before in my life.”
To their enthusiastic fans, yodelers Masterson and Blackburn closed with a pro-yodeling last song: “All ya gotta do, is when you’re feeling blue, is yo-del-ee-oooo.”