There seems to be an idea that yodeling as heard on old records or seen on the silver screen had little if any prior history in cowboy tradition. (In fact, Will Rogers was known to deny that a yodeling cowboy was a real cowboy at all.)
A Long Tradition
However, this sentiment does not line up with the observations of the celebrated collector of cowboy songs, John Lomax. His versions of old standard cowboy songs of long ago were noted for their yodeled refrain. According to several newspapers of his time, the professor was also known to give yodeling demonstrations as part of his lectures:
Although he is not a singer, Mr. Lomax sang one characteristic song of the saddle.
The “yodel” of the cowboy made the most lasting impression upon the audience of all the demonstrations the entertainer gave. It was a call so quaint and plaintive that not a great stretch of imagination was needed to see the Texas cowboy….“Lomax Entertainment: ‘Roll On, Little Dogies’ and the Cowboy ‘Yodel’ Still Heard on Campus,” Orange and Black (Stillwater, Oklahoma), February 12, 1920, Newspapers.com
Lomax himself recalled that he was no more than four years old when he first heard a cowboy yodel in Texas:
…My heart leapt even then to the cries of the cowboy trying to quiet, in the deep darkness and sifting rain, a trail herd of restless cattle:
Whoo-oo-oo-ee-oo-oo, Whoo-oo Whoo-whoo-oo….
Again came the crooning yodel, most like the wail of the coyote; only restful and not wild.John A. Lomax, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947), 19–20, Internet Archive
This is strikingly similar to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s recollections of the cowboy singing she heard in Kansas:
Their songs were not like lullabies. They were high, lonely, wailing songs, almost like the howling of wolves.Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (New York: HarperTrophy, 1971), 165
And although this final excerpt is from a purely fictional work, its early date and very specific reference to yodeling are quite intriguing:
Finally he tried the ringing “yodel” that had just been caught up as a call by the cowboys of the plains, and which he had heard the evening before, as a party of them, wild and noisy, rode into the mining village.
“Yeo le-o-le, yeo le-o-le,
Yeo le-o-le, yeo le-o,
Yeo le-o-le, yeo le-o-le,
Yeo le-u-le-o-o!”Fanny M. Johnson, “The Yodler’s Call,” The Rock Island Argus, November 26, 1889, Newspapers.com
Part of the controversy appears to stem from the fact that different people may have different ideas of yodeling. Of course, it would appear from Lomax’s work that this yodeling was very rudimentary in contrast with the vocal acrobatics heard in later history. (Some would prefer to call it “hollering.”) The particular style of yodeling heard today traces back to Gene Autry, who adapted it from Jimmie Rodgers. But cowboy yodeling nevertheless goes further back to the 1800s cattle drives.
The Origin of Cowboy Yodeling
First off, it would appear that yodeling is some sort of primal instinct. Many peoples around the world have historically yodeled, particularly those in mountainous areas. Obviously the herdsmen of the Alps yodel, as we all know, but yodeling also figures globally in everything from traditional hunting songs to Persian classical music.
As for the specific origin of the cowboy yodel, some have suggested that it was an extension of the cattle calls used to move livestock all around the world. “Whoo” and “gee up” syllables are common sorts of noises to hear in such a situation, as are various other natural whoops and hollers as expressions of braggadocio or high spirits. Therefore, it is quite conceivable that a more singsong version was developed over time.
Did Alpine yodeling have any influence on cowboy yodeling? It is certainly possible, but it would be by an indirect route. In the 1830s and early 1840s, Tyrolese yodeling families became all the rage in America. It was not long before entertainers of all sorts in America were expected to yodel as part of their act. It is quite possible that yodeling thus became embedded in the folk tradition that was eventually carried West and adapted to a new way of life.
Why Cowboys Yodeled
Yodeling appears to be a method of long-distance communication with both people and livestock in most parts of the world. Based on Lomax’s work, it would seem that cowboy yodeling also served the dual purpose of soothing a restless herd and creating a simple, easy-to-learn refrain for longer ballads.
Yodeling could very well meet some deep-seated instinct to make a noise, as well. In all European cultures that practice yodeling, the sound appears to be inextricably linked to the outdoors and to a simpler way of life. Some experts have suggested that the vibrations of the yodel link us to deeper concepts of space and time. In Switzerland, yodeling had religious connotations. People these days may simply yodel because it’s fun, goofy, and lighthearted, while others do it to carry on a tradition.