‘… You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.’
Spoken by Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in the 1944 film classic, ‘To Have and Have Not’ these words were delivered with an alluring yet cool erotic charge in Bacall’s wonderfully husky and earthy vocal tones. There isn’t a man alive hearing those words who didn’t immediately start practicing that whistle!
Just blow. What could be simpler? After all what is a whistle but a clear high pitched sound created by forcing your breath through a small opening between your partly closed lips and/or your teeth?
Yet, the humble whistle which must surely have been the earliest form of musical communication practiced by mankind along with the handclap can like all forms of human language be freighted and graced with multiple meanings.
There’s, as above, the whistle of erotic appreciation and invitation. There’s the whistle of almost subconscious reassurance when you summon that favourite tune (in my case Buddy Holly’s Everyday) as you are about to start or contemplate an especially difficult challenge or task. A whistle can also be an urgent signal – look out! Look out! As heard in a thousand war films as an opposing soldier looms into sight of the brave resistance band.
In sport the whistle is generally heard as the shrill admonishing marker of foul play – stop that now! Again, the whistle can be your charm against the creeping dread we feel when confronted by our mortality – we whistle past the graveyard to keep our spirits up and those of the clutching underworld away.
When you’re absolutely sure that no one can find any fault with the work you’ve completed you can say with studied calm, ‘Take a look – you’ll see its all clean as a whistle!’ Of course, if you find as an honest person that corruption is all around you have a duty to become a Whistle Blower to bring the forces of justice and retribution hurrying down to halt and clean up that corruption. If you don’t do that and just mutter about your outrage to yourself what are you doing but whistling in the wind!
Oh yes, the modest yet heartfelt whistle can communicate remarkably complex and subtle messages depending on the situations and characters of the whistler and the whistled to. Ruminating on the subject has for a music fanatic like me inevitably called to mind the use of whistling in numerous songs across many genres of popular music. So many indeed that I have painfully limited myself to only four examples from the score or so that immediately came to mind.
Let’s start with the use of the whistle from a man, John Lennon, who had no difficulty with finding words but who did have problems with acknowledging and dealing with the powerful, sometimes deliberately buried emotions swirling around his deep dramatic heart and soul. I can’t help hearing the whistle here in, ‘Jealous Guy’ as the sound of a man who has experienced too much and made too many mistakes reaching beyond words for the blessing and balm of forgiveness as much by himself as the lover he has wronged. We may feel, sometimes, that we have the world at our feet yet we know that there will always be a part of us, shivering inside, that needs comfort and care. Roll on John.
Next a record, ‘Handy Man’ by Jimmy Jones, that the teenage John Lennon would almost certainly have heard as he and Paul McCartney began to fashion songs and dreams of their own in Liverpool before setting out to conquer Hamburg and the known world.
Jimmy Jones, who possessed a fine high tenor voice, really only had two hits (the other being the charming and witty, ‘Good Timing’) but they were songs that still have an emotional heft beyond their undoubted power as vessels of nostalgia for the neon lit diner days of the 1950s. The whistling here is provided by a genuine giant of popular music, Otis Blackwell, who composed jukeboxfulls of fine songs including classics like, ‘Fever’, ‘Don’t be Cruel’ and, ‘Great Balls of Fire’.
In 1966 John Sebastian the leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful was at the top of his very considerable game. He had talent oozing from his fingertips and a sunny disposition that promised that the world was a wonderful playground where adventures a plenty were just waiting to be discovered. He manged to be both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and a songwriter of considerable range and sophistication moving from the euphoric attack of, ‘Do you Believe in Magic’ to the tenderest romantic lullaby of, ‘Darling Be Home Soon’.
Sebastian provides the lovely, easy, hammock swinging whistle here in the drowsily beautiful, ‘Daydream’. May you have such a day soon!
Finally, and poignantly, I have to conclude with one of the signature songs of the 1960s from a voice for the ages. Otis Redding with the first record released after his untimely death, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’. The tide rolled away for Otis as it will for you and me but while we have breath this song will be his testament and our consolation. God Bless You Otis!