Richard Oliff: What’s happened to the art of whistling?

Top whistler ''Bryan Ferry
Top whistler ''Bryan Ferry

There used to be a time when the quality of a song or a tune’s success might be measured by its whistleablity.

This is often described these days as an “ear-worm” – the kind of tune that sticks in the brain, causing the victim to begin singing out loud for no apparent reason.

This week I was reminded of a time when one might hear people, men especially, whistling a tune, everywhere and in varying quality.

Some whistles were quite simple; others would go to extremes, adding an unnecessary and quite irritating “warble” to the end of every phrase. In the Sixties a tune made it into the UK record charts seemingly yet suspiciously and specifically designed (if that’s a correct way to describe a musical composition) to capitalise on this apparent repetitive unconscious form of marketing: Whistling Jack Smith - I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman.

Success was assured.

Men on buses, in factories, building sites, painters and decorators, it seemed that every man had been born with an innate ability to whistle. One chap, Roger Whitaker, had a relatively successful career based purely on his ability to whistle, and Bryan Ferry followed John Lennon, whistling their way through Jealous Guy.

Today it’s as if the birds have abandoned the forest: I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone whistling a recognisable tune, if at all.

I therefore posed the question on my show this week: “why don’t we hear anyone whistling?” Is it the lack of a memorable tune?

Let’s be honest, it’s virtually impossible to whistle an Eminem song: and even if one could, I wonder how many others would recognise any semblance of a tune.

Perhaps its just a “thing” that’s had its day, though I can still hear my dad whistling Yellow Bird to himself in his shed as he worked on another piece of wood with some old chisel or two.

Perhaps it’s time to rekindle the lost art of the whistle.