Why I Mourn the Decline of Whistling

On the one hand it was a declaration of liberty, on the other it was a kind of mating call.

One night during World War II, on leave in London, I penetrated the blackout to see a show at the London Hippodrome called “The Lisbon Story.” I forget what it was about, I forget who was in it, but I still have at the back of my mind its theme tune, which was called “Pedro the Fisherman.”

This is because I have always been fond of whistling, and “Pedro the Fisherman” is the quintessential whistling song—jaunty, catchy, with a touch of the sentimental and an un-obliteratable melody. I like to think that it also expresses the generic character of people who like to whistle, and although I know it can sometimes be intolerable to have a habitual siffleur in the family, forever performing “Pedro the Fisherman,” I still mourn the decline of the whistlers.

For they are almost a vanished breed these days, and with them has gone a manner of public thought and conduct. Something cocky has left society. The whistling errand boy, the whistling postman, the whistling housewife in her flowered apron, Pedro himself, all were expressing in their often discordant music something at once communal and defiant.

On the one hand it was a declaration of liberty, on the other it was a kind of mating call, inviting anybody of like mind to share in its attitudes. By and large whistlers didn’t give a damn, and if whistling was a cock of the snook at respectability, decorum, and frequently musical good taste, it was also fundamentally honest. You might be maddened by the sound of it, but at least you knew you could trust a whistler.

I don’t know when whistling started, primevally I imagine, but all down the generations the practice has helped to ease the passage of the nations. Think of the marching armies, whistling their way to war; the illicit lovers, whistling home the morning after; the errant schoolboys, whistling up their bravado as they make for the headmaster’s study.

Whistling not only cheers up the whistler, it invites the world at large to cheer up too. One of the great whistling songs of all times, employed by multitudes during World War I, had the lyric “Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile!” In our own troubled times the tune is worth whistling again.

Sometimes the practice of whistling is indeed resuscitated. For a few months after the release of “Bridge Over the River Kwai” in 1957, half the world was whistling the British Army’s “Colonel Bogey” song (minus its merrily obscene lyrics), and in 2006 the Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John did the same with their “Young Folks” melody, which brought whistling high into the charts.

But it was not the same. It was whistling, so to speak, to order. It did not spring from the public heart. It contained neither the fine careless rapture, nor the spirit of independence, that comes from random whistlings in the street, like roosters’ bold calls in the morning.

Perhaps it takes either joyous success or optimism in adversity, to set the nations whistling again. Our world today is in limbo-time, injury-time maybe. Popular music has mostly abandoned the melodic line, and when I myself need a shot of the old exhilaration I often return to the end of Pedro’s song (music by Harry Parr Davies, lyrics by Harold Purcell), which has the fisherman merrily whistling his way to sea with his love in his arms.

The tune goes like this—but no, dear friends, even in the present state of technology you must imagine my lyrical whistle for yourselves.

Ms. Morris is a writer in Wales.


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