Birdlike and Wingless - New Words and Sounds on the History of Whistling

Whistling is the air right now.

I just picked up a copy of Jacob Smith’s new book, Eco-Sonic Media, and was excited to find an entire chapter devoted to bird imitation whistling. I think bird imitation whistling is critical to understanding how environmental recording practices developed in the 20th century, and I’m excited to read Jake’s take on it.

Meanwhile, here’s my take. I hear bird imitation whistling as a subset of other whistling and musical practices popular around the turn of the century, all of which were marked by issues of race, class, and gender. The emergence and popularity of white, highbrow bird imitation whistling is actually a kind of domestication of the “wildness” of whistling, which had historically been associated with a variety of “others,” including African-Americans, homosexuals, the working poor, and, of course, actual animals. But don’t let me spoil it for you—here’s the whole thing:

“A Birdlike Act”: Sound Recording, Nature Imitation, and Performance Whistling

And while you’re reading, you should absolutely be listening to the latest archival collection from Canary Records: Ecstatic and Wingless: Bird​-​Imitation on Four Continents, ca. 1910​-​40. As usual, Ian Nagoski has picked some of the best and deepest cuts of the whistling era, including some performed by whistlers whose careers I discuss in my article: Charles Kellogg, Charles Crawford Gorst, and Margaret McKee.

If you have any feedback or comments on the essay, feel free to give a little whistle. Had to.

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