In a conversation today a co-worker used the phrase “not just whistling Dixie.” It made me stop and think for a minute, and I wondered: why is the ability to whistle Dixie treated so dismissively? Is whistling Dixie considered pathetically easy? I then tried whistling Dixie, and I realized that I couldn’t possibly do it — the notes just come too quick for my clumsy mouth to successfully deal with them.
The sad fact is that my whistling ability, well, blows. I really can only whistle part of one tune. It’s a passage from The Dance of the Little Swans in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, and even then I can only whistle it at super-slow speed. If Russia’s greatest composer heard my dismal rendition of one of his most beautiful compositions, he would hurl himself in front of the Czar’s carriage. And because I can only whistle one part of one song, when I’m in a whistling mood I repeat it over and over. I recognize this is ridiculously annoying, but I can’t help myself. So I try to reserve my whistling for those times when I’m by myself.
In reality, UJ is the whistling prodigy in our family. He not only has a broad repertoire of standard tunes from Happy Birthday to the theme song of Gilligan’s Island, he also has the ability to whistle “by ear” and can faithfully recreate just about any song. I haven’t tested him by asking him, for example, to whistle Jimmy Page’s guitar solo in Whole Lotta Love, but I bet he could do it. And he also has the lung power and whistling technique that allows him to really project his whistling, too. You can hear the whistling UJ approaching from blocks away, sounding like a kind of high-pitched pipe organ.
When it comes to this crucial musical talent, I’m afraid I’m not even a patch off my older brother. And I’m not just whistling Dixie, either.
When was the last time you hear someone whistle a tune? Doesn’t it seem like whistling has become much less common than it used to be?
I’m a whistler. When I walk the halls at work, I often unconsciously whistle an off-key rendition of a snippet from Swan Lake. It’s something I’ve done for years, and I’m not sure why. The whistling is rare enough, apparently, that people at work comment on it. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone else — a co-worker, or a kid in the neighborhood — whistle something.
Why does whistling seem to have one foot in the grave? Is it because you have to practice to become a halfway decent whistler? Or is it because there is no point in learning to whistle a tune when you can walk around all day listening to an iPod?
The heyday of whistling probably was the ’50s and ’60s. In those days, there were popular TV shows where the theme song was whistled, like the jaunty intro to The Andy Griffith Show or the lonesome-sounding intro to Lassie. And why was the intro to Lassie so sad-sounding, anyway? You’d think a show about a kid and his dog would be more upbeat. Of course, the fact that Lassie was constantly saving Timmy from an abandoned well or catching some escaped convict lurking in the neighborhood may have affected the theme-whistler’s mood. Perhaps another reason people have stopped whistling is that it brings back disturbing memories of June Lockhart trying to interpret the precise meaning of Lassie’s barks so that she could promptly solve the latest crisis.