In Dennis Potter's drama series Pennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins played a hard-up sheet music seller. While on his rounds he tries to enthuse a sceptical music shop owner:
It’s a great tune, everyone’s gonna be whistling it!
When you did last hear anyone whistle a tune? Out of around 900 recordings on the UK SoundMap so far, whistling is heard on just one or two. As Lauren Bacall said, all you have to do is put your lips together and blow. Yet tuneful whistling appears to be on the way out.
Once, workplace whistling was common enough for high-class establishments to put up signs forbidding tradesmen and staff from whistling. One can still be seen round the back of the Savoy hotel. The only people allowed or expected to whistle were the doormen, who had the knack of putting two fingers in their mouths and blowing a very loud whistle to hail taxis.
Despite the disapproval of hotels and their guests, whistling had a popular image, symbolising cheerfulness and, sometimes, calculated nonchalance. The English singer-songwriter Roger Whittaker launched his career with songs such as Mexican Whistler, Irish Whistler, and Whistling Swagman.
The entertainer and bird impersonator Percy Edwards, who died in 1996, could imitate by whistling the songs of hundreds of different bird species. His example spawned imitators. Sounds from Smithfield meat market were recorded in 1993 and added to the British Library's Archival Sound Recordings collections. The recordist noted that it was "initially spoilt by silly whistling from a porter". But on listening, it's clear that the porter was an accomplished whistler in the Percy Edwards mould, evoking the spirit of at least a 'dickybird', if not any particular species.
Whistling and birdsong have much older associations, and perhaps whistling first arose in deliberate imitation of birdsong while hunting wildfowl. The discovery of another rich historical link was described by the retired Thames lighterman Dick Fagan, in his book of memoirs Men of the Tideway. The lighterman's job was to steer cargo-laden barges or 'lighters' to their destinations using only the current and huge wooden paddles. After Fagan completed his apprenticeship, he was given charge of his own lighter:
One of the things I learnt to do, this may surprise you, was how to whistle. I ought to explain that every lighterage firm had its own kind of whistle – the sound, I mean, because all the whistling was done with the mouth and not with any instrument. Whistling was a way of identifying yourself across distances, especially at night, with other men working for the same company. Very useful. Getting it right was a work of art though.
On a day-trip to the countryside with his girlfriend, Fagan learns the origins of the firms' various whistles:
Finally we were sitting on a fallen tree trunk just dreaming. Then it happened. A loud shrill whistle, very close. My firm’s whistle [. . .] It had just come to me that the whistle I’d been using for many years was part of a bird’s song.
After a bit I spotted the bird as large as life up on a nearby tree with its beak open and the familiar notes pouring out of it as though it had been a lighternan all its life. In Bermondsey we only had sparrows. Who’s ever heard of a whistling sparrow? Then another bird started up with a different tune, after that another, and another.
I listened to them in amazement because I could connect each one’s song with the lighterage firm that had converted it into its own whistle. Soft green grass, graceful trees, peace, love – yet because of the birds’ song it was all connected with the hustle and struggle of river and dock life.
The whistles of watermen must have been invented long, long ago, when London’s river was still close to open country, when all these birds were singing in Shoreditch and Wapping, in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, when the largest ship wasn’t much bigger than the barges I now rowed every day.
The modern decline of whistling is probably because most pop songs no longer have whistlable melodies. There's also a general trend away from public voices relying on unaided mouths, vocal cords and lungs, towards loudspeakers, recorded announcements, and voice synthesisers.
Teabreak teaser: How many pop songs can you think of which have whistling in them? Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay is too easy, and Ennio Morricone film scores don’t count.
Editor, UK SoundMap